TRAI Let Down Millions By Saying No To Free Basics

12/02/2016 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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India, Uttar Pradesh, Agra, Indian man riding bike with village boy loking at photos on a smartphone.

At last, the much awaited decision on adapting Facebook's concept of Free Basics is over. The Telecom Regulatory of India (TRAI) ruled in favour of net neutrality and rejected Free Basics (wherein free internet was to be provided for selected apps and websites). Now, while this has pleased many people, I think TRAI just made a huge mistake. It seems that while making this decision they prioritised telecom companies and people who can afford internet, and turned a blind eye towards rural India.

Not everyone can afford internet

According to the World Bank, the average per capita income of India is about $1580 per annum, which roughly translates to ₹6,542 a month. As per 2014 data, India's working population is about 52% of 125 crore, which is about 62 crore. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), there will be 500 million internet users in India by 2017 of which 220 million used smartphones alone in 2015. This means that every third person India, by the end of 2016, will definitely be a possessor of a smartphone.

Believe it or not, reservations and Free Basics have a lot in common... to level the playing field for the under-privileged.

Now, it is a matter of common sense. Barring those who manage to earn lakhs per annum from blue collar jobs, can a person earning about ₹6,500 a month afford an internet connection? The answer would be no, obviously. However, with Free Basics in sight, the answer would have been different. If we want to unlock the true potential of rural and middle-class India then we have to allow Free Basics at some point of time.

The internet has become a necessity in day to day life. The launch of Free Basics would have provided free access to important data and information which could have significantly helped people who can't afford internet. They would have access to information about schools, colleges, jobs, hospitals and lastly, free access to apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media tools, which help close the communication gap.

If reservations exist in India, so should Free Basics

Believe it or not, reservations and Free Basics have a lot in common. Reservations were created to level the playing field for the under-privileged. Similarly, Free Basics sought to provide internet access for people who are unable to afford it. It was an opportunity for the underprivileged to come to par with everyone else. So what problem did TRAI have with that?

Many may argue that Free Basics, would have given Facebook an unfair monopoly. Moreover, a particular app or website would have to be partnered with Facebook to get listed on Free Basics. However, TRAI could have negotiated and found a common ground with Facebook before shelving the whole idea of Free Basics.

It is said that justice and equality are two principles that should be followed by everyone. TRAI did in a manner stand up for equality by backing net neutrality, but it failed in providing justice to those who cannot afford internet access.

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