India’s tech policy landscape is in the middle of a turf war

“Some of Trai’s recommendations are classic signs of regulatory creep. Its recommendations on privacy, for example, show that it also wants to regulate content, going beyond regulating the pipe (telecom sector),” said Vinay Kesari, a Bengaluru-based independent tech lawyer.

The question of overreach brings to mind another institution—Niti Aayog. It pops up whenever there is a meaty potential for policy-making, even in some areas where the think tank is, shall we say, out of its depth.

Jack-in-the-box

Supposed to be an upgrade from the top-heavy and slow-moving Planning Commission, Niti Aayog is driven by the larger-than-life personality of its chief executive, Amitabh Kant. Its ambition was to take India into the next orbit of development by promoting federal cooperation. So almost four years into its first term, what the think tank has achieved and what drives its agenda is unclear.

Take for instance its recent paper on artificial intelligence (AI). It has sparked off a debate about jurisdiction and expertise. “AI is one thing in a bouquet of digital services being created for India. Yet AI has been singled out for special attention because orders come right from the top,” said a Niti Aayog official, requesting anonymity. At the direction of the PMO, an AI policy was put together within six months, even though Niti Aayog had neither the jurisdiction nor the expertise to start work on AI. “MeitY should be the nodal agency on this,” added the official.

In fact, not just MeitY, but DIPP and the Department of Science and Technology (which falls under the Ministry of Science and Technology) have all initiated plans on AI. The official mentioned above calls it the “schoolboy” effect: each one wants to show up the other in front of the top bosses.

While AI may be out of its comfort zone, what is in Niti Aayog’s (and Kant’s) forte is big companies. The ones that generate jobs, the ones that bring in foreign direct investment and the ones that make India look like a Mecca for doing business. But there is a growing disenchantment with that stance.

Policy as schadenfreude

Within Delhi’s corridors of power is a strong rumour that there is a growing rift between Kant and other more supposedly nationalistic (read, protectionist) members of the establishment and that has spelt trouble for this institution. “Members of the ruling establishment want to pull in a more protectionist direction,” said a Delhi-based policy expert.

This could be why Kant, and by extension Niti Aayog, were left out of the draft e-commerce policy group set up by the Ministry of Commerce. “Kant was furious. He demanded that the draft be sent to him,” said an official at Niti Aayog who watched these developments closely.

Niti Aayog fired off a set of serious objections to at least four issues in the draft e-commerce policy, namely limits on discounting, data localisation, opening up source code and charging customs duties on all transactions, mounting a strong pro-business defence.

“Kant’s insistence that the government shouldn’t bother itself with micro issues like localisation has not gone down well with pro-RSS economic think tanks. That’s why a more ‘nationalistic’ set of people, namely Dr Rajiv Kumar and Bibek Debroy, have been brought in to change Niti Aayog’s thinking,” said the policy expert cited above.

Debroy, now a member at Niti Aayog, is the prime minister’s top economic adviser, raising issues of conflict of interest. Kumar, also an economist, was appointed the second vice-chairman of Niti Aayog after Arvind Panagariya. He has previously held top posts in almost every Delhi policy think tank and industry lobby group worth its salt. One can find him lambasting the likes of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan for being fly-by-night “foreign economists”.

But protectionism too is under pressure from the intense lobbying against the draft e-commerce policy, which could altogether be dropped, according to a CNBC-TV18 report. As The Ken pointed out earlier, the draft e-commerce policy, which was leaked on 31 July, was seen as the return of licence raj; coming after RBI’s data localisation mandate, together these turned tech multinationals in the country pale.

 

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