Saturday, April 18, 2015

Refer net neutrality to Competition Commission

Responses to violation of net-neutrality will highlight our values on non-restrictive practices and free markets.

In just 10 days net-neutrality has become a household word. Neutrality is not a technology idea, it is an ethical idea. It emphasises that access is not unfair, unjust, restricted or monopolised. Protecting neutrality shows the values of a society and the character of business. Neutrality is a non-negotiable to deliver justice and fairness. It is a principle for minimum government.
Almost everyone recognises the absurdity of altering the access, speed or tariff based on the website, service, content or media you consume on internet. It is not only unfair but also unjust, restrictive or monopolistic to do so. Almost everyone would recognise this is just as absurd as your cab wanting to charge you differently to go to work or home, for entertainment or shopping. Almost everyone would be angry if their milkman demanded a different pricing for milk used for tea, for making ice-cream or for milkshake. Would you think it is fair if your bank were to charge you a different fee to pay your phone bills, book air-tickets or to pay for your holiday? Would you think it fair and unrestrictive if your newspaper were to give you zero plans for paid-news? Neutrality is not restricted to a domain, it cuts across domains.
The responses to violation of net-neutrality will highlight our values on fair play, justice, non-restrictive practices and free markets. It will highlight the character of our governments and businesses in not only the digital world but also the physical world.
Sadly, the reputation of TSPs (telecommunications service providers) after moving from 2G spectrum scam to zero-scam, has taken a huge beating. With it the reputation of the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) also took a beating.
Citizens responded to the zero-scam with a huge outcry of over 300,000 emails to TRAI and by some reports possibly more than 800,000. The hashtags #netneutrality and #savetheinternet spread virally on social media. Print media wrote many column centimetres and launched campaigns in support of net neutrality. TRPs of news channels shot up as they launched campaigns supporting net neutrality. Clearly, internet users were not pleased with TRAI's failure to protect public interest.
Rahul Khullar, chairman of TRAI, is a 1975 batch Union Territory cadre IAS, who was the private secretary to then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh between 1991 and 1993, before taking up an economist's post in the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. During the NDA regime, he took up various assignments in the Delhi government, and then in May 2004, joined the Union Commerce Ministry as a joint secretary. Khullar is a batch-mate of R. Chandrashekhar, A. Raja's Telecom Secretary during the 2G scam and currently the industry representative as NASSCOM's president. Khullar has reportedly described the citizens' response as a big corporate war between a media house and a telecom operator.
The present telecom minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad (@rsprasad), has already been accused by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of having a conflict of interest with telecom companies. AAP has produced receipts of the minister allegedly receiving retainer fees from Reliance group company Fine Tech Corp Pvt Ltd, between April 2013 and March 2014, when he was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Telecom. It is surprising that the minister did not recuse himself from the charge of this ministry given his leanings to telecom that are already public knowledge.
Furthermore, instead of referring the matter to the Competition Commission (@CCI_India), the minister took to maximum government by announcing a six-member committee to submit a report on net neutrality by mid May. The minister neither divulged the composition of the committee, the Terms of Reference for the committee, nor offer any immediate response on the part of the government.
Mark Zuckerberg, whose was among the earliest to violate net neutrality, defended the violation by arguing that net neutrality prevents access of the internet to the most disadvantaged in society. He has avoided pointing out that offers 38 websites of his choice, not the internet or websites that the disadvantaged would choose themselves to gain advantage from.
Clearly, the government and TSP responses are inadequate and not even the right thing to do. They leave a lot to be desired.
The most common reaction is to ask for new laws. Do we really need yet another legislation to deal with neutrality?
The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (CPA) restricts telecom companies from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices. It prevents falsely representing the 38 websites as the internet or zero plans as free access. It prevents representation that the internet plans have sponsorship of the World Wide Web Foundation or are as per the standards of internet defined by the WWW Foundation. It prevents misleading representations concerning the need for, or the usefulness of, the internet for the disadvantaged. It prevents materially misleading the public concerning the price at which internet is ordinarily sold. It prevents providing false or misleading facts about apps or web services.
CPA also prohibits restrictive trade practice. It prohibits raising the cost for some websites to reach out to the world causing unreasonable costs to consumers to access these sites. It further prohibits plans that would require a consumer to buy, hire or avail of any services as condition precedent to accusing the entire internet. CPA also prohibits manipulation of prices, or conditions of delivery or supply of the internet in such manner as to impose unjustified costs or restrictions on the consumers of internet.
Consumers can file complaints with the consumer court against violating TSPs and ISPs (internet service providers) as they can against anyone violating neutrality in a different space already.
The Competition (Amendment) Act, 2007 prohibits any agreement to produce, supply, distribute, store, acquire or control services, which cause or are likely to cause adverse effect on competition within India. It also prohibits any agreement to produce, supply, distribute, store, sell or price, or trade with a tie-in arrangement, exclusive supply agreement, exclusive distribution agreement, restrict to whom services are sold or from whom services are bought, resale price maintenance if such agreement is likely to cause adverse effect on competition in India. It also prohibits unfair or discrimi ry price or condition in purchase of the internet and its services. It prohibits TSPs and ISPs from using their dominant position as TSPs and ISPs to enter into, or protect, other markets like e-commerce, e-banking or other internet based services.
Instead of forming committees, the government should refer the matter to the Competition Commission to investigate the TSPs and ISPs, if the Commission has not taken suo motu cognisance already.
Under the Prevention of Corruption Act the exercise of influence to favour private interest constitutes an offence. The government should call for investigation by the CAG and CBI of the gross violation of public interest by those who are required to protect it.
When net-neutrality was threatened in the United States, President Barack Obama himself took a stand and did all he could to ensure net-neutrality was not compromised.
Violation of net-neutrality is looting India of its entrepreneurship, innovation and digital future. It is excluding India from the internet.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (@narendramodi and @pmoindia) needs to assert the character of his government by stepping in and referring the matter to the Competition Commission, CAG and CBI. He needs to assert that his government stands for fairness and justice.
The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's failing was his silence on matters where his voice mattered the most. If UPA has become synonymous with scams it was because of Dr Singh's silence as the nation watched the loot of the country by private interests.
PM Modi has to show that the NDA is different and not only speaks but acts in public interest. He should immediately reconstitute the TRAI and the Ministry of Telecom and IT to incorporate those who are not burdened with private interests, better still with those who represent and promote public interests. The PM needs to assert that Digital India cannot be a collection of initiatives driving private interests. Digital India has to ensure minimum government and serve the public good. He has risen to many challenges, will he use this to assert fairness and justice?

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Net Neutrality: Will Modi act to save the internet in India?

The heart of Net Neutrality debate is simple. It is not the pipe, but that which moves through the pipe, that creates value. Will the 'digitally empowered' Modi government apply its mind to the issue?

In a country where the Prime Minister is using every social media platform to reach out to his people and crying out aloud about his intention to empower every Indian through digital initiatives, his government is working very hard to do everything to kill digital India. Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s Ministry of Telecom and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has put aside public interest and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for “minimum government” in how people access the internet on the issue of “Net Neutrality”. 
The internet is a network of networks linking billions of devices, including all your computers and mobile phones to those of others across the world. However, the TRAI in an amazingly creative initiative, in a consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services released on 27 March 2014, is redefining the internet as over-the-top (OTT) communications, OTT media, e-commerce, internet cloud services, social media and web content. The TRAI, left to itself, plans to slice up these into individual parcels and license and  regulate the internet. This means TRAI and the telecom industry want to favour one kind of content or media over the other on the internet.
The internet industry has grown because it has remained agnostic to the media and content consumed by its customers across the network. This unique property of the internet was first described by Prof Tim Wu as net-neutrality. Net-neutrality enabled a symbiotic relationship between those who produced content and media with those who merely transmitted it. Had the internet chosen to be parasitic to content and media creators by censoring, throttling or restricting the media or content transmitted through it, it would not have grown to the extent it has today. 
To consider content and media creators as customers is confusing the Business Model. Content and media creators cannot be customers of internet service providers (ISPs) and telecommunications service providers (TSPs). Rather, they ought to be partners who help them grow the internet.
The Business Models
Telecommunications service providers or TSPs and internet service providers- ISPs offer access to internet to those who pay them subscriptions. At different costs, subscribers can gain faster access to any media or content on the internet. Suscription plans provide you choice to access “unlimited” content or media or restricted by a volume per month. However, your choice of speed already restricts the maximum volume you may consume per day.
For those of us who have low budgets, there is a plan of slower speeds and restricted volume. For those who needed the speed or larger volumes, there are pricier plans. For many of us, internet has become a way of life, and we have different plans from different service providers to match the needs to access internet across our multiple devices from laptops to mobile phones. For many, who barely use internet, affordable access at cybercafes or on mobile phones is all that is needed.
The internet access has penetrated across India slowly but steadily as it brought value to those of us who consume it. The value has come from the content and media that various devices connected to networks on the internet have to offer. This value has been the nectar that attracted us to the internet. It is not the pipe but that which moves through the pipe that creates value. Just as access to anyone you wish to speak to being at the other end of the phone and not the phone line that creates value. 
Just as your use of Gmail brings business to Google, or your posting videos brings revenues to YouTube or your profiles on social media sites earns them revenues, the content and media on internet created by developers of various websites creates revenues for the TSPs and ISPs. Those who created this value have therefore, caused the internet to grow. If the number of websites on the internet is caused to shrink to a few dozen or even a few thousand, the internet will lose almost all of its value. 
The business model of ISPs and TSPs offers the value of internet to us by creating and delivering net-neutral access to the internet. To ensure revenues beyond the costs, they can either offer internet access to the few, who pay huge subscription costs or offer the value proposition to the many, who pay small or nominal costs. Those creative and entrepreneurial ISPs and TSPs, who want to build the internet and increase the market pie, might even consider offering free hosting of content or media much the same way as Gmail offers free email. Those subscribing to access the internet would more than adequately compensate their costs for this.

What happens when ISP’s and TSP’s fail to recognise their customer, what value they offer them, or what is their business model itself? What happens when the ISPs and TSPs fail to recognise the content and media creators as their partners to grow the internet?  Such ISPs and TSPs, who either are misadvised or have become greedy, will kill the goose that lays golden eggs, by providing access to a few websites rather than to the internet as a whole. The offering of or Airtel Zero in India is exactly like this. They promise free access to sites of their choosing under the guise of digital inclusion. 

What they are doing is killing the internet, site by site and ensuring the digital exclusion of India from the internet. They are ensuring that the websites they exclude will no longer be able to reach out to their audiences in India or in fact anywhere across the world.  They are ensuring that the goose that laid golden eggs for them as well as the rest of the economy is destroyed in one stroke.

The Law and Public Interest

It is strange that Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, a distinguished lawyer himself, has missed to see the ISP’s and TSPs violating the provisions of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969 (MRTP) and the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (CPA).
Restrictive trade practice under Section 2(1)(nn) of the MRTP means any trade practice, which requires a consumer to buy, hire or avail of any services as a condition precedent for buying, hiring or availing of other goods or services. Any requirement to make any payment to any TSP, ISP or any other intermediary in order to allow your website to become accessible to all on the internet on equal terms constitutes restrictive trade practice. Any requirement to make any payment to any TSP, ISP or any other intermediary in order to view any website of your choice on equal terms is also restrictive trade practice.
Unfair trade practice as defined in 36A of the MRTP and 2(r) of THE CPA. Unfair trade practices include: 
false representations that the services are of a particular standard, quality or grade; 
representations that services have performance, characteristics, uses or benefits which such services do not have; 
representations that the seller or the supplier has a sponsorship or approval or affiliation which such seller or supplier does not have; 
false or misleading representations concerning the need for, or the usefulness of, any goods or services; 
materially misleading the public concerning the price at which services, have been or are, ordinarily sold or provided, permitting the sale or supply of goods intended to be used while knowing or having reason to believe that the goods do not comply with the standards prescribed by competent authority relating to performance, composition, contents, design, constructions, finishing or packaging as are necessary to prevent or reduce the risk of injury to the person using the goods; 
refusing to sell the goods or to make them available for sale or to provide any service, if such refusal is intended to raise, the cost of those or other similar goods or services. 
Making representations of “free” or “zero” internet plans when providing a boutique of websites are unfair trade practice. So is providing a few websites while creating misleading representations of providing internet access or about the utility of the free plans is also unfair trade practice. Display of “internet” in the domain name (, for example) when the organisation neither owns nor administers the internet is unfair trade practice. Offering websites knowing they are not the internet or slicing up the internet based on content or media, knowing that such does not comply with the standards placed by the World Wide Web (WWW) Foundation or the founder of the WWW, Tim Berners Lee, is also unfair trade practice. Refusing to sell the full internet knowing well that such refusal will raise the cost of internet packages is unfair trade practice.

Section 2(1)(g) of the CPA provides that, “deficiency” means any fault, imperfection, shortcoming or inadequacy in the quality, nature and manner of performance, which is required to be maintained by or under any law for the time being in force or has been under taken to be performed by a person in pursuance of a contract or otherwise in relation to any service.

Promising the internet and delivering a few sites is deficiency. Claiming net-neutrality and providing differential pricing, speed or access to different websites is deficiency.

Telecom service providers in India and now the TRAI with them are in violation of fair trade practices. 
Public interest would be protected, as per the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969, if the ability of the public as purchasers, consumers or users of the internet is protected. Public interest would be protected when no unfair terms of supply or schemes that prevent or restrict competition are allowed. Public interest is protected when it is impossible for private interests, either alone or in combination with any other such persons, to control any part of the market for internet based goods or services.
What should be done?
The government should be slapping the MRTP and Consumers Act on both TRAI and those TSPs and ISPs indulging in monopolistic or unfair trade practices. It should be reconstituting the TRAI and the Ministry of Telecom to incorporate those who are not burdened with private interests, better still with those who promote public interests. It should initiate an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and an inquiry by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the serious compromise of public interests by the regulator who should have upheld the public interest. 
As consumers of the internet, you should file a consumer complaint with the District Consumer Forums in your district. State in your complaint what service you consume from your service provider. Use the description above to identify and specify the unfair trade practice, a restrictive trade practice and the deficiency in service provided by your TSP/ISP. If you would like to ensure fair practice of being able to access any website on the internet on equal terms or to be able to make your website be visible to anyone in the world without any restriction, it is time for you to stand up to the unfair trade practices of the TSPs and ISPs.
When net-neutrality was threatened in the US, President Obama himself took a stand and did all he could to ensure net-neutrality was not compromised. 
You can reach Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on twitter @rsprasad and by email at If you are moved to report to the Prime Minister, his twitter handle is @narendramodi and @pmoindia. Help the Prime Minister to protect his dream of digital India.

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Maximum government, death of digital if TRAI has its way

Just as the internet spread across the world at its own developmental rate, it is important to allow it to spread across India at its own developmental rate.

The internet is a network of networks linking billions of devices, including all your computers and mobile phones to those of others across the world. Tim Berners Lee, the man who invented the worldwide web believes that the value of the internet is in the ability of anyone to communicate with anyone using any media and any content.
To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the internet is over-the-top (OTT) communications, OTT media, e-commerce, internet cloud services, social media and web content. To the TRAI, you can slice up these into individual parcels and licence and regulate them, while still having an alive, vibrant and valuable internet. According to TRAI, doing so would be in the public interest, and an example of "minimum government". If they were to have their way they will slice up the internet by content and look at ways they can licence and regulate it. In a consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services released on 27 March 2014, the TRAI, a body responsible to uphold public interest, argues that overwhelming content is burdening the private telecom service providers (TSP), who provide you access to the internet on your mobile phone. TRAI also argues that OTT applications and services are not subject to the same licensing that the TSPs are subject to.
This strange love for the TSPs makes one wonder who the TRAI serves. No TSP provides access to the internet out of charity. If the recent spectrum auctions are any indication, TSPs continue to see huge value in remaining in the business as TSPs. No TSP provides internet access without having subscribers pay for plans that are carefully tailored to make money for the TSP. In fact, if the revenue graphs are any indication, TSP revenues through the internet have been rapidly growing over the last several quarters.
Comparing OTT applications and services with TSP licensing is much the same as saying teachers and colleges should have the same business mode. Or theatres and actors or even movie producers should have the same business model and licensing. 
The internet has become the nervous system of the global economy. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through your body, it will malfunction, be diseased and die. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through the internet, it will cause malfunction, disease and death of the global economy. 
The burdens and costs of each business model are different as are the rewards. To impose the same licensing and regulatory requirements and costs across different business models is absurd, if not foolish. You do not feed humans with fertilizer and spray pesticides on them. You do not license plants to photosynthesise and grow, or regulate their plantations. You cannot impose the same restrictions on actors or musicians that you do on theatres.
The growth of each of these businesses and the industries they are a part of has been driven by their business models. It has also been enhanced or restricted by the ability or failure to forge symbiotic relationships between different business models that do not impose censorship, throttle or restrict each other.
The internet industry has grown precisely because it has remained agnostic to the media and content transported across the network. This unique property of the internet was first described by Prof Tim Wu as "net neutrality". This enabled a symbiotic relationship between those who produced content and media with those who merely transmitted it. Had the internet chosen to censor, throttle or restrict the media or content transmitted through it, it would not have grown to the reach it has today. Had the content and media providers restricted their content or media transmissions through only a chosen few TSPs or ISPs, the internet would not have grown to what it is today. It would not have impacted the global economy in the phenomenal ways it has.
The internet has become the nervous system of the global economy. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through your body, it will malfunction, be diseased and die. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through the internet, it will cause malfunction, disease and death of the global economy.
Spreading the benefits of the internet to rural India is often used to justify providing a collection of websites "free". Proponents of this approach forget that they are not providing the internet. They are providing a few websites of their choosing and interests. If you recognise that the internet is a nervous system, this is a defective nervous system, one that is censored, throttled and restricted, and therefore will cause malfunction, disease and death of the economy it claims to enable.
Just as the internet spread across the world at its own developmental rate, it is important to allow it to spread across the country at its own developmental rate. The infrastructure is of no use with the value stripped away. It is important to provide and protect the value, not the infrastructure without the value. It is important for the TRAI and the government to ensure public interest, not private interests.
Instead of asking what public interest needs to be protected and how, the TRAI consultation paper asks how to regulate that which should be left alone.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised minimum government and digital access to all. The TRAI paper foretells a picture of maximum government and the death of the digital. It fails in protecting public interest as also the interests of the telecom industry while attempting to protect the interests of the TSPs by slicing the internet into parts and attempting to regulate and license it. Perhaps Prime Minister Modi will himself step in to ensure the vision he promised to the country is not destroyed by TRAI.
The consultation paper asks for your comments to be emailed to TRAI by 24 April and counter comments by 8 May to I wonder why they never ask what public interest needs to be protected. Do ask them that, if you care about the internet as your nervous system in a global economy.

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Saturday, March 14, 2015 will finish internet the way we know it, hurt India’s growth potential

You will have to pay to access Google, Gmail, Yahoo; MSN; banks like SBI, HDFC or ICICI; Flipkart and Amazon; Skype and Twitter, or any apps requiring internet access.

Free Internet
Facebook and Reliance Communications Ltd have tied up to bring to India in an initiative described by Mark Zuckerberg as one to "bring connectivity for everyone". What this means on-ground is that Reliance customers in Mumbai, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Kerala will have "free access" to 38 websites with zero data charge across both the 2G and 3G platforms. Any access to any other website will incur charges.
Among the 38 websites and services users will access are Facebook and Facebook Messenger, search (via Bing) or Sports (ESPN Cricinfo), Olx, Cleartrip, BBC, Reuters, ESPN, India Today, Hungama, news aggregator NewsHunt, Wikipedia and local government relations site AP Speaks. Other general services include travel, weather, sports and parenting information.
This means you will have to pay to access your favourite search engines like Google; email accounts such as Gmail, Yahoo or MSN; banks like SBI, HDFC or ICICI; insurance companies, e-commerce sites like Flipkart and Amazon, social networking tools like Skype and Twitter, or any apps requiring internet access.
This is like a phone company telling you that they will give you a free phone, but you can only talk to 38 phone numbers who have partnered with them to draw you to their services. It is like going to a library and being told you can access books for free as long as they are on the list of the pre approved 38 that are made available. Such a service is not net neutral or does not treat all content on the network identically.
The cost of free
Nothing in life comes free, and nor does internet on In fact the cost of is too high for India to bear. It destroys the ability for you to allow your website to be accessible to the whole world, ensures a start-up can never have a level playing field, and can even disable a small business from reaching to their customers. This will mean that, for example, a freelance journalist will face a barrier in reaching out to a wider audience via her blog, or stop an e-commerce website from reaching its market.
The many small businesses that provide service to a few are called the long tail of business. The long tail can reach out to their customers through a net-neutral internet. Research over the last 15 years has shown that the long tail of business generates at least as much revenue as the few large companies that provide services demanded by the many. This means that the long tail of business doubles the economy. This long tail is exactly what has the potential to double India's GDP.
Unless is checked from ending net-neutrality, it will not be long before other ISPs follow in ending net neutrality by making exclusive deals with websites for access, speed, pricing or bonus features. In the absence of a net neutral internet, the long tail of business cannot reach out to their customers. Without the long tail of business earning revenues the economy can no longer double.
Clearly will kill what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has claimed is India's potential of more than 9% growth rate.
The business models of ISPs
Traditionally, consumers of the internet are customers of ISPs. The ISP serves the need of their customers to access any website on the internet. It is this value proposition that has caused the internet to grow rapidly. The internet did not grow because someone gave it for free. It grew because it provided value to the customer.
No ISP is a charitable institution. Not even Without revenues that exceed the costs they would not be in business. So how can be in business? It is evident that they no longer look at the consumer of internet as their customer. Instead they look at the business wanting to reach out to customers as being their customers. They are not here to give the poor or the excluded internet access. They are not here to bring connectivity to everyone. They are here to provide their customers with customers. They are here to bring customers to the few who can offset the costs of reaching to the customers through them.
In this case, customers may well join for "free" access. As customers access the "free" 38 sites, Facebook will shrink its own user posts as a large chunk of them are drawn from other websites on the internet, which will no longer be accessible.'s customers will no longer reach the network of networks, but the network of As grows, the internet will shrink. So while will attract customers in the short run, they will shrink the industry in the medium term. Their own private interests will be better protected if they protect access to all websites on equal terms.
It is clear that is misguided or is working under the assumption that they do not care if the size of the internet shrinks as long as their share in the pie is bigger than when the internet is larger.
Business models using internet channels
If you are a financial institution who hoped to use the internet as a channel to deliver financial services you should be seriously worried. How many ISPs are you going to pay to ensure your websites are available to your customers?
If you are an e-commerce company providing services or goods you should be prepared to shrink your business or even fold up. It is surely not possible to pay all those ISPs to keep your business afloat as some of them may even begin claiming a percentage of your transaction.
If you are an entertainment, media or education organisation, you will no longer be on a level-playing field, as not only will you have to pay to reach your audience but your audience will face hurdles of cost, speed or preference in reaching you.
Start-ups can no longer hope to have a flat world as they need to work across countries with their own ISPs to access customers across the world.
Governments cannot assume that their websites are equally available across the country or perhaps even display identically.
Unless and other similar projects are checked, the end of internet as we know it may have begun.
Options for the government
Selective free access to certain websites is against the principles of net-neutrality. This is a suicidal step for the Indian economy, India's IT and telecom businesses, the government's ambitions of Make in India and disenfranchises and excludes every Indian in the information era.
FB founder Mark Zuckerberg met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2014 and is said to have discussed as a means to "bring connectivity for everyone". What he meant was bringing 38 websites to everyone. also constitutes monopolistic and restrictive trade practice under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969 and unfair trade practice by providing misleading advertisement and making false representations. Under this Act the government cannot only prohibit the concerned undertaking(s) from continuing to indulge in a monopolistic trade practice but also regulate the service to ensure net neutrality.
The government must rise to the occasion to protect public interest by ensuring that in order to continue its activities is made to offer equal access to all websites on identical terms.
38 websites Mark Zuckerberg believes "bring connectivity for everyone"
1. Aaj Tak: Read news in Hindi
2. AccuWeather: Get updated weather information
3. Read news in Hindi
4. AP Speaks: Engage with local government
5. Babajob: Search for jobs
6. BabyCenter & MAMA: Learn about pregnancy and childcare
7. BBC News: Read news from around the world
8. Bing Search: Find information
9. Cleartrip: Check train and flight schedules & buy tickets
10. Daily Bhaskar: Read local news
11. Search for meanings of words
12. ESPN Cricinfo: Get cricket updates
13. Facebook: Communicate with friends and family
14. Facts for Life: Find health and hygiene information
15. Girl Effect: Read articles and tips for girls
16. HungamaPlay: Listen to music
17. IBNLive: Read news
18. iLearn: Learn from Women Entrepreneurs
19. India Today: Read local news
20. Internet Basics: Learn about the basics of the Internet
21. Jagran: Read local news
22. Jagran Josh: Get education and career information
23. Maalai Malar: Read news in Tamil
24. Maharashtra Times: Read news in Marathi
25. Malaria No More: Learn about malaria
26. Read local news
27. Messenger: Send messages to friends and family
28. NDTV: Read news
29. Newshunt: Read news in English
30. OLX: Buy and sell products and services
31. Reliance Astrology: Read your horoscope
32. Reuters Market Lite: Get farming and crop information
33. Socialblood: Register to donate blood
34. Times of India: Read news
35. TimesJobs: Search for jobs
36. Translator: Translate words and phrases
37. Wikipedia: Find information
38. wikiHow: Find information

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Digital roadmap to build liveable cities

For good governance, the first step is to reform our information system, not our infrastructure. Here is a roadmap to improve information in our urban centers to make them liveable and to ensure we move from bad governance to good governance

There are five Nagar Panchayats, seven Cantonment Boards, 23 Municipal Corporations, 221 Municipal Councils, and 278 Gram Panchayats that govern 537 urban centers in Maharashtra. Most of these were created post independence. Not one of them is livable. 
Problems relating to food, water, energy, mobility, opportunity and even shelter plague our urban centers. They lack self-sufficiency of resources and need to mobilize more and more resources from further and further away. They generate waste at an exponential level, which they barely treat, reuse or recycle. Our civic services frequently break down, plaguing residents every day. Increasing hours are spent in commutes, as urban centers get denser and chaotic.
Less than 30% of our city plans are implemented. Worse, the urban areas continue to expand like unstoppable cancer. The life in our urban centers lacks dignity; in fact, it erodes the dignity of all who seek to make a life in it. 
Our urban centers are increasingly plagued by global problems too. They are increasingly targets of terrorism. Global pandemics bring our urban centers to a halt. The global energy crisis has been paralyzing economic activity in our urban centers. Global environmental challenges are destroying the buffers of fresh air, water, food in our urban centres.
Our urban administrators are increasing the costs of living in urban centers at compounding rates. They create infrastructure projects that are not in the city plans, not within the budget or even completely counter-productive to making the city livable.  They are also schizophrenic or have different responses at different times; they have no integral principles; no clarity of purpose, no commitment to public interest. They are also non-collaborative, attention deficient, indifferent, exclusive. They have completely eroded the trust citizens placed in their intentions, competence, incorruptibility and ability to protect public interest.
Unfortunately, we are continuing to make our urban centers increasingly unlivable, and building even more based on the same broken model. Our urban governance creates silos of information making them fragmented with multiple independent interaction points; no unity of direction; no shared practices. It is therefore little wonder that the result is bad governance.
How can we begin to reform this model? 
Information is the basis for life, sustainability, resilience, anti-fragility and livability itself. For good governance, the first step is to reform our information system, not our infrastructure. Here is a roadmap to drive information in our urban centers to make them livable and to ensure we move from bad governance to good governance.
Currently multiple agencies and departments create and spend money on similar projects at the same locations. Besides, there is a disproportionate distribution of money across different administrative or electoral wards. A simple requirement to geotag each budget item before funds can be allocated or released will help bring in transparency in local government spending. The budget should then be made public on a ward wise and urban-center wise google map at a website, such as Government assets, particularly offices, land, equipment, and vehicles owned by various government agencies should also be geotagged so that they are public at, simplifying the process of auditing them.
Land Use
One of the biggest failures in cities is the inability to implement their respective Development Plans (DP), the cities blueprints to ensure proper land use, create livable cities, and safeguard public spaces (open grounds, gardens, hills, streams, lakes, bus-stands, schools, hospitals etc.). To ensure that the DP’s are implemented, the local bodies need to display the survey maps with ward boundaries, land-use desired as per the DP, ownership details, and any legal issues on a single website, to overlay on Google maps and Google Earth. The maps should additionally display the project approval and completion details for each project on the corresponding survey number or road on the Public Google Map. A link to a Floor Space Index (FSI or how much you can build on a plot of land) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR or where your additional building rights have been transformed from) database should highlight congestion and decongestion effected by the FSI/TDR. The site should provide a means to receive anonymous feedback on violations of DP for each survey number.
Environment Protection
Most of our streams and rivers are being converted to gutters in land grabs and sewage disposal scams. Hills, hill slopes and trees are being razed to ease congestion in the name of development. All stream, river, lake, mountain and forest area boundaries should be geotagged with physical markers at their boundaries to ensure a public alert on any alteration. Trees must be tagged with a RFID (Radio frequency ID, or a small chip that stores information that can be read from a distance by a RFID reader and can be used to do a periodic tree census) along with its geolocation to protect the trees and ensure the country’s valuable assets are not stolen or destroyed. 
All these assets should be displayed on a Google Map at The maps should also display in color-coding survey numbers, roads and waterbodies with inadequate trees as per the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975. The maps should show an alert for trees that are under consideration for transplanting or removal, with reasons, requestors details and a means to raise objections and also provide a means for citizens to add untagged assets or to alert anonymously about exploited, encroached or missing assets.
Public transport routes are frequently poorly laid out. The routes are often barely known to citizens. It is difficult or impossible to have busses ply to and from locations of demand. Not only should public transport route and timetable be available on google maps and through sms query, but a website should allow route and time scheduling for bulk users to schools, work-place, and markets.
RFID based prepaid bus passes for the whole year, month or day that help build real-time origin-destination demand data and make traveling by busses accessible. The website should allow citizens to log failure, breakdown or inadequate public transportation or inadequate pavements and display them on Google map at in order to facilitate amelioration of the situation.
All public vehicles – buses, trucks, heavy machines, cabs, autos, should have a GPRS to track and show their movements on  
Water distribution
Inequitable and irregular water supply plagues the cities. To ensure that the water supply is equitable and regular, IP based motorized valves for water distribution and monitoring of water released in various parts of the city are necessary. Ward-wise water availability and demand should be on maps at Citizens should be able to log failure, breakdown or inadequate water supply and display on google maps at 
Waste Management
There is no feedback about the amount of waste generated or collected in each ward. A ward-wise map of the wet and dry waste generated and collected should be displayed at
There is no mechanism currently to ensure waste is collected before it overflows. Local bodies should be required to enable IP based bins with sensors that alert the collection system when they are ¾ full. Citizens should be able to log failure, breakdown or inadequate waste collection and display on Google map at 
Civic works
Each ongoing project should be displayed on with budget code, in addition to its purpose, details, status and citizen comments. Each department should be made to update the projects status every week so that there is a common shared map of the projects on in the city.
Resident Registry and Passbook
It is common knowledge that the UID is merely a random number assigned to unverified and unaudited data submitted by third parties paid per record. Since the UID is not a proof of identity, address or even a proof of existence, the use of such unauditable, unverifiable and unauthentic-able number to authenticate identity, to serve as the basis for governance, to be used to deliver benefits, rights and entitlements, to be used to open bank accounts and transfer money, to create citizen registers or electoral rolls is seriously compromising governance, national security and the rule of law. 
The government can enable a Shared ID at, as was designed in Pune to allow citizens to create, own and share their own ID with complete control on who can see or use the ID and logs of access by third parties to their information. They can also access information on demography, energy use, water use, land use, mobility and other details in their neighbourhood after logging in to their account on Citizens can also track the taxes paid, services, benefits available and availed from the local body. They can also access to their certificates and documents issued by the local body. 
The opportunity
Will the Chief Minister of Maharashtra seize the opportunity to make Maharashtra’s urban centres livable, usher in good governance and improve the lot for all of us?

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The mystery of a sudden rise in LPG connections

Almost 5.2 crore connections were added after Aadhaar was linked to LPG purchase for getting Direct Benefits Transfer. The newly added accounts means more than a third, or Rs15,725 crore, of subsidy at 12 cylinders per consumer per year

For the last several years, domestic consumers of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) have been put on gas with repeated changes in the delivery process. The latest is named PAHAL (for Pratyaksh Hastantarit Laabh) and was earlier also known as direct benefit transfer (DBT). Most LPG consumers have lost sleep over the heat each change has generated.
Direct Benefit Transfer or DBT is an initiative to replace subsidised goods or services with electronic transfers of subsidy amounts to beneficiary bank accounts. Under the DBT-for-LPG subsidies (DBTL), households are required to place an order of LPG cylinder from their LPG distributor, pay the full (unsubsidized) market price for the cylinder in cash on delivery, and then receive a payment equivalent to the current subsidy amount via electronic transfer to a bank account registered with their gas distributor. 
Why should the existing process be changed in favour of the DBT?
According to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, the scheme was created in order to remove incentive for diversion of domestic cylinders for commercial use, protect entitlement and ensure subsidy to the consumer, improve the availability/delivery of LPG cylinders for genuine users and to weed out fake/duplicate connections.

The business process

1 Consumer Books the Cylinder
Gas Refill booking XXXXXX for Con XXXXXX Booking Cleared till 01 Dec.14 at ABC AGENCIES. Ask deliveryman to weigh cylinder before delivery
2 Consumer intimated of Cash Memo
Gas Booking No XXXXXX subsidized Cash Memo XXXXXX; Dt 06.12.14 Rs.450,Refill will be delivered shortly. Ask deliveryman to weigh cylinder before delivery.
3 Consumer intimated of Delivery
Gas refill delivered on 06.12.14 vide Cash Memo no.XXXXXX.If not received, provide your feedback on XXXXXXXXXX. Use of smaller Burner Saves Gas.
SMS messages received by domestic customers at each step of the current business process
(Dates used for representation only)
Pre-DBT, the domestic consumers were required to book their refills with oil marketing companies (OMCs). The OMC would generate a Cash Memo and the Distributor would then deliver the cylinder. The OMC would ask the customer to report if the cylinder was not delivered. 
If the customer was within the limit of 12 subsidised cylinders a year, the cash memo was at a subsidised rate; else it was at the market rate.
If the consumers registered with the distributors were all genuine, this scheme provided little opportunity to distributors to divert cylinders without collusion from consumers who did not consume their quota of 12 subsidised cylinders. However, consumers who were not genuine could enjoy the benefit of subsidised cylinders and any supply of cylinders to them was in effect a diversion of subsidised cylinders to those who did not qualify for them.

The re-engineered process post DBT

Post DBT the domestic consumers are still required to book their refills with the OMCs. The OMCs are still required to generate a cash memo and the distributor is still required to subsequently deliver the cylinder. The OMC is still required to ask the customer to report if the cylinder was not delivered.
The cash memo, however, is now to be at the market price. The OMC is now required, each day, to generate a file based on the refill orders delivered and send it to a “Sponsor Bank” (currently State Bank of India-SBI) for transfer of subsidy amounts to eligible consumers. Consumers, who are Cash Transfer Compliant customers, or those who have a bank account linked to their LPG consumer number, will now receive subsidy into the bank account, they linked with their consumer number.
Does the reengineered process post DBT meet the objectives the government set to fulfil?

Diversion of domestic cylinders for commercial use

This change in the process of providing the consumer subsidy does not alter the ability to prevent diversion. If distributors were diverting cylinders in collusion with consumers who did not consume their quota, they can continue to do so. If non-genuine customers were claiming subsidised cylinders, nothing in the reengineered process has altered the ability to recognise genuine consumers from non-genuine. The non-genuine customers can, therefore still continue to consume subsidised domestic cylinders, thus diverting them from genuine consumers.
The reengineered process, thus, does not prevent the diversion of domestic cylinders for commercial use as desired by the scheme.
Protect entitlement and ensure subsidy to the consumer
Almost 96% of those surveyed in a pilot project by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found the DBT required too much paperwork, requests from multiple authorities for a range of documents including electricity bills, ration cards, bank passbooks and identification cards. This represents a non-trivial cost to access the reengineered process. 
It is therefore evident that the reengineered process actually makes it more burdensome for the consumers and in particular the poor and marginalised, to claim their entitlements. It does not protect the entitlement without having to pay a significant cost. 
The paperwork, requests from multiple authorities for a range of documents are barriers easily overcome by those in organised claim of cylinders beyond their own entitlements. Therefore, by increasing the barrier for genuine consumers, the reengineered process actually ensures the subsidy for those who may be fake or duplicate consumers. In fact, with the process it may be possible to draw subsidy without needing to consume LPG (and pay market prices) as long as the file of orders filled sent to the sponsor bank can include desired consumer numbers.
Furthermore, consumers now have to pay the full market price upfront. Despite the claim that there will be an advance after joining the scheme, participants have reported varying experiences, ranging from excess receipts, no receipts, to under receipts of the advance and subsidy amounts. DBT, therefore, does not ensure subsidy.
To handle the new process more government and non-government agencies are involved. To deal with issues involving the delivery of LPG and DBT more government is required, not less. It is clear that the DBT ends up increasing government, rather than minimising it, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly avowed to do.

Improvement of the availability/delivery of LPG cylinders for genuine users 

The IISD study also found that households reported a shift in expenditure and an increase in short-term household borrowing—especially by poorer households— in order to facilitate purchase of LPG cylinders at the new decontrolled price. There were also attempts to limit the consumption of LPG, including substituting it with firewood or other biomass for some heating and cooking tasks. This means the reengineered process will definitely improve the availability of LPG, but by forcing the poor or marginalised to reduce their uptake of cylinders or by obliging those who can no longer access the subsided cylinders to opt out.
Needless to say that it is actually any fake or duplicate consumers who will benefit from any improvement of availability/ delivery of LPG cylinders from the reengineered process.

Weed out fake/duplicate connections

To participate in DBT, the reengineered process requires the consumer provide their Aadhaar number using “Form 2” and to Bank details using “Form 1” to the LPG distributor. If the LPG consumer does not have an Aadhaar number, they can give their Bank details in “Form 4” the gas distributor or their LPG ID using “Form 3” to the bank. 
The provision of this information does not identify a customer as fake or duplicate. The absence of this information does not mean a customer is fake or duplicate either. However, it is trivial for fake or duplicate consumers to provide any of this information. Thus, this linkage with the bank account does not serve to weed out fake or duplicate connections. Furthermore, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) notification of 28 September 2011 made it possible to open bank accounts without verification. Such accounts can easily be opened by anyone, and in particular by entities that have been enrolment agencies for Aadhaar (since they are in possession of the Aadhaar number, demographic, and biometric details of those real or non-existent persons they have enrolled) as well as anyone with micro ATMs.
It is therefore evident that despite citing it as an objective, there is no step that can weed out fake or duplicates envisaged in the DBT scheme. The DBT obviously fails to protect public interest and deliver good governance.

The reality of connections

LPG consumers increased to 1,387 lakhs in 2011-12 from 845 lakhs in 2004-05 or an average annual increase of about 68 lakh consumers. Between June 2012 and December 2013, over 437.58 lakh new connections were added and 6.51 lakh multiple connections were surrendered (Lok Sabha Starred question No. 401 Dated 21.02.2014). This is 6.4 times the average annual increase of consumers. Between April and November 2014, there were 94.27 lakh new connections and 58.44 lakh Double Bottle Cylinders (DBCs).
This indicates that almost 5.2 crore connections were added after introduction of Aadhaar linkage to LPG consumers and DBT. The newly added accounts, with current practice of calculating subsidy, amount to more than a third, or Rs15,725 crore, of subsidy at 12 cylinders per consumer per year.
It is a well accepted fact that the Aadhaar number is merely a number assigned to unverified and unaudited data submitted by private parties (including banks and LPG distributors) who were paid per record. According to the UIDAI’s own affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, “The implementation of the UID Scheme which inter alia, include generating and assigning UID numbers to residents, defining mechanisms and processes for interlinking UID numbers with partner databases, framing policies and administrative procedures relating to update mechanisms and maintenance of UID database are continuous process involving interaction with agencies, public as well as private and also individuals.” 
Nowhere does this involve certification of identity, address or even existence of individuals.
This gives rise to the possibility that the new connections and linked bank accounts actually include a huge number of fake and duplicate connections. If anything, it is these new accounts that need verification and audit before any reengineered process is effected. 
Furthermore, the possibility of diverting subsidies using the Aadhaar Based Payment Systems (ABPS) for money transfers is real. Even if the government now allows regular bank accounts for making money transfers under DBT, it will still be using the ABPS and this can well allow subsidies to be diverted to fake consumers in bulk. DBT thus appears to serve no public interest but rather stands to benefit private interests who may be involved in organised diversion of subsidy.

The subsidy

How much money is involved? 
The total subsidy budget has risen to Rs46,000 crore for 2013-14 from Rs3,500 crore in 2004-05. This is a 13-fold increase in subsidy. By comparison, the consumers have increased from 845 lakhs to 1,600 lakhs or 1.9 fold in the same period.
How is the subsidy calculated? Public sector OMCs participating in the PDS Kerosene and Domestic LPG Subsidy Scheme, 2002, get to claim a subsidy from the government by submitting data of the confirmed sales. They are expected to pass the subsidy on to the customers.
As per this Scheme, the subsidy amount given to OMCs was to be equal to the difference between the cost price and the invoice price per selling unit (excluding state surcharge, excise duty, sales tax, local levies and delivery charges) computed ex-bottling plant for domestic LPG. The cost price was to be determined on import parity basis as specified in the Scheme and any changes in the cost were to be passed on to the consumer by making changes in the invoice price, which was to be revised periodically by the OMCs.
By calculations implied by this Scheme, it is apparent that only Rs22.58 per cylinder is currently available as subsidy. Additional amounts provided as subsidy beyond this are obviously added to the subsidy claim in deference to government directions that are not in the public domain. 
By allowing any such increase in subsidy by orders of magnitude, contrary to that allowed by the Scheme, has increased the subsidy that is available to divert from genuine consumers.
It is evident that the reengineered process post DBT does not meet any of the objectives the government set to fulfil. What then are the alternatives open to a government that desired minimum government and good governance?
Alternate processes
The OMCs could require consumers to enroll with them, and not with distributors, and have distributors to verify and the government to authenticate such domestic consumers. This would make the process of fake registrations significantly difficult. This one time process would help clean up the consumer database.
Alternately, to ensure that no one is denied subsidised LPG, the government may require that each distributor delivering any entitlement or right will create an ID of the family benefiting from the subsidised cylinder. Such a record would be maintained to identify the beneficiary for future transactions for the delivery of LPG without any hassles as well as to allow any audit of the delivery of LPG. All those having taken benefit would be listed on a public website,, for government authentication and public audit. Each distributor’s list of beneficiaries would be visible on public maps.
Yet another alternate process would be to move subsidy to a tax rebate. It makes little sense to collect the money and then spend it again on a leaky system to give it back. Those who do not want the subsidy will not take the benefit of a tax rebate. This eliminates any cash transfers and registration of fake/ duplicate beneficiaries by different agencies involved in administering subsidies. 
Those who do not file returns could be given a subsidy account linked to their NPR/BPL card by the Finance Ministry to allow them to receive all the subsidies they are eligible for. All such account holders would need physical verification by Branch Managers or Post Masters (if these were postal bank accounts). These accounts would not allow any cash transactions and would only allow claiming the subsidised service at the subsidised price. The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana should actually be this, not the creation of non-operative bank accounts. These beneficiaries too would be listed on for a public audit.
These alternate processes will allow the government to provide good governance with minimum government and thus protect public interest. Is the Prime Minister listening?

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