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Pradip Baijal, TRAI

February 15, 2005
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TRAI House, as it grandly calls itself, is located in the heart of an exclusive South Delhi neighbourhood, Safdarjung Enclave. An innocuous looking building, more residential than official, it houses the office of one of the most powerful entities in the telecom industry –­ the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

Inside, the ambience is typical, typical government. No fuss, no frills, unlively, and definitely not plush. The chairman's office is a different matter, however. A large wall-towall window provides a vantage view of the bustling Bhikaji Cama Place below. The big glass-topped desk is busy, but not cluttered. On it, a plain pinewood nameplate introduces the man behind the desk: Pradip Baijal.

Personality-wise, Baijal is every inch the watchdog he is meant to be. Plainspeaking, brusque, almost forbidding, his only concession to the interview on hand is the rich red-andgold tie that lies unruffled on his crisp, buttoned-down shirt. Occasionally, though, a smile creeps out as he talks, reluctantly but fondly, about his wife, his children and his personal preoccupations...

He begins businesslike. "I was appointed chairman of TRAI in 2003." Those were momentous times, when several important policy decisions were taken, market forces came into play, and TRAI played a key role in catalysing telecom growth.

He goes on to expatiate on TRAI's many achievements. Mobile growth is a key area. "In March 2003, eight years after the introduction of mobile phones, there were only 13 million mobile subscribers," notes Baijal. "And in the one and a half years thereafter, 31.5 million subscribers were added."

He gives credit for much of this to the regulatory authority. A "reformist" with years of similar experience in the power sector, Baijal believes that success in reforms can be achieved only if there is a regulatory framework in place. "There has been incremental growth in telecom because we now have a regulatory structure in place that responds to reforms."

This explains the growth in teledensity, he notes. In the 50 years between 1948 and 1998, the country achieved a nondescript teledensity of 2 per cent. The regulator stepped in, in 1997. And in the following seven years, the teledensity rose sharply to over 8 per cent.

The key to growth is competition, Baijal firmly believes. It is a trend he has observed across industries. He picks on the automobile industry. "There has been tremendous growth in this sector because international majors were allowed to come in and set up shop here." This is happening in telecom too. "We made sure the forces of competition came in very aggressively. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Today, they are all here, the most aggressive corporates: Tata, Reliance, Hutchison, Bharti. The PSUs have also become very aggressive. And outside investors are coming and setting up here."

The next stop is rural connectivity. In this area, he points to the success of a homegrown company like Lakhani, a household name in footware in middleclass India and across villages. "Do you know why Lakhani chappals did so well?" he asks, then adding, without pausing for a response, "because the company understood the strength of the rural market.

We have to create a telecom market out there, not a ration shop where people have to queue up for a telephone. Only then will there be tremendous growth in rural telephony."

A lot of Baijal's wisdom stems from a keen observation of the market and industry. A lot of it also comes from long years of experience with the government. A graduate in mechanical engineering from IIT, Roorkee, Baijal joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1966 in the Madhya Pradesh cadre. He served the state government in various capacities –­ as collector, Bastar; secretary, finance; secretary, industry; secretary, taxation; etc. He has been chairman of at least 20 state committees as well as chairman of Optel, the first telecom system manufacturing company in the country.

But it was his career at the centre that catapulted him into prominence. Baijal served in the ministries of fertiliser, steel, consumer affairs and power. It was while he was in the Ministry of Power that he was closely associated with reforms and privatisation. He assisted the union government in formulating a regulatory structure for the power sector and in setting up the central and state electricity regulatory commissions. He also supervised the privatisation of power distribution in Orissa and Delhi.

It was coincidental that he had done some work in privatisation of power in the UK, when he was doing a fellowship in Oxford University. But he isn't entirely satisfied with the results here. "Privatisation of power was very successful in the UK.But we failed in India, because we did it in generation first, then distribution."

In 1999, he was appointed secretary, Ministry of Disinvestment. He virtually started the ministry, laid down the rules and regulations for privatisation, standardised procedures, share-purchase agreements, etc. A number of companies were privatised during his tenure.

But of all these assignments, the one that interested him most was his stint as collector of Bastar in his early career. "It was a fascinating and very challenging assignment. Bastar is a large district, the size of a state. The area is full of Naxalites. The population is mainly tribal. So, there are hundreds of problems and numerous development issues. At the same time, it is very fascinating –­ where else do you get to see this kind of different culture."

Today the challenges are different, perhaps more complex. Asked to describe his current job as telecom regulator, Baijal says it all in one telling word: "Terrible. It is too much responsibility.You have to do a tightrope walk. Ensure growth. Often displease everyone in order to protect consumer interests. We have been criticised severely. But then, the results are there for all to see."

So, how does he cope with these pressures? In answer, Baijal points silently to the book on his desk, his Bible it appears.The title –­ Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done –­ speaks for itself.

Discipline has clearly been part and parcel of Baijal's life from his early childhood, a subject he has to be coaxed into talking about.

Baijal was raised in Agra. He studied at St John's School and then St John's College. It was a difficult period. His father, an IPS officer, died in a car accident. The children were then just eight, six and three, he being the oldest. Putting her grief behind her, his mother decided to do her MBBS and went on to become a leading doctor in Agra. Not surprisingly, she remains a major influence and source of inspiration for him. "Those were tough times," says Baijal quietly. "But we came out of it."

To begin with, he joined the Railway Service of Engineers, but then opted for the IAS. "The scales were better, so I joined it," he says simply.

Today, his children work in leading multinational companies. His son, 28, a product of IIM, Ahmedabad, works with McKinsey India. His daughter, 23, is an investment banker with Deutsche Bank in London, following a fellowship in Oxford University. And his wife, Meenu, used to teach at Sardar Patel school in Delhi, but is now a full-time homemaker.

Outside of work, Baijal has a few specific interests. He describes them in one line. "I read a lot; I write a lot; and play a lot of golf." Basically, he adds, "I am very aggressive in whatever I do. Perhaps, that is why I get into trouble."

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