New Delhi: Ram Sewak Sharma joined the civil services in 1978 and bought his first computer in 1984. He was then the district magistrate of Begusarai, which was then a den of criminals.
The computer was a DCM-Tandy with an operating system (OS) called control program monitor. Sharma, among the first few owners of the computer, fed in data about lost and recovered firearms across the state, and with the help of some algorithms, solved several cases of stolen firearms.
This was 34 years ago.
The outgoing chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has been, throughout his career, a man with a flair for technology without the introvert nature of a computer geek.
One of the most outspoken bureaucrats, he was unfazed with the recent incessant trolling that came his way after he, in response to a Twitter user’s doubts on the security of Aadhaar, threw an open challenge, publicly posting his Aadhaar number, and daring people to cause him harm.
His career has seen stints with various government departments, dealing with information technology-related programmes, the most important being the creation of Aadhaar as the director general and mission director of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for four years (2009-2013). He even wrote the first software for UIDAI for enrolment.
“Having devoted an important part of my life to contributing to the design and implementation of Aadhaar, I do understand how it works and what can and cannot be done with it... I wanted to prove the larger point that Aadhaar is designed in such a way that it cannot cause harm to the holder, but only empowers him or her. You would agree, my dear friends, that at the end of the day if one lacks courage of conviction then one’s life has been a waste," Sharma wrote in the Indian Express after the Twitter controversy.
In May 2014, he returned to the Centre as the secretary of the department of electronics and information technology where he spearheaded the government’s ‘Digital India’ campaign and various projects under it.
“Whenever we walk into our office, we will remember Mr Sharma," says IT secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney with a chuckle. Why? Because Sharma led the creation of a biometric attendance system to keep track of punctuality of government officials.
Not many know that in 2000, Sharma, who holds a masters degree in mathematics from IIT Kanpur, took a mid-career break to further dabble in his love for algorithms and went to a university in the US where his fellow classmates were half his age.
“At the age of 45, I took a sabbatical for two years and went to the University of California and did masters in computer science... I taught there as a teacher’s assistant," he says.
Sharma, a Jharkhand cadre IAS officer, has throughout his 40-year career blended his passion for technology with his bureaucratic duties, which led to various successful e-governance projects at the central and state level.
His most recent role as Trai chairman, which ends on 9 August, coincided with the sector going through massive disruption with the entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, which announced free data services and later rock-bottom tariffs which caused a severe hit to the revenue streams of operators such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, and Idea Cellular. Struggling smaller telcos shut shop or were acquired by bigger operators.
Many regulations issued under Sharma, including the cut in interconnect usage charges, were strongly opposed by older telecom operators on the ground that these rules favoured only Reliance Jio.
“This is not the way to conduct debate or conduct your opinions. It is not correct… it certainly hurts," Sharma had told PTI in an interview in September 2017. “We welcome constructive criticism. It is a free country. People have the right to their views. But some criticisms have gone beyond normal criticism. They have questioned the honesty and integrity of the authority and individuals who are part of authority," he had then said.
There was also criticism for being too active and extending Trai’s reach to issues such as predatory pricing, which also ruffled feathers at the Competition Commission of India.
“We have never seen so many discussion papers under any regulator...issues that are even outside its ambit. I keep getting calls from nervous investors to explain what is going on," Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) director General Rajan Mathews said in March.
However, the one big victory for Indian netizens during his tenure has been him championing for a fair, free and open internet, with the government recently enacting a policy on net neutrality which received praise from global quarters.
The second was the crashing data prices during his tenure, which led to a surge in consumption, and a boost to businesses of many online platforms including the content ecosystem.
Sharma recounts how at a global conference he bragged about India having the most affordable data prices. “I attended a conference in Turkey where people were talking data prices. I asked them batao kitna cheap hai tumhara data (how cheap is your data). In one lira they said they could talk for one minute. I told them in one Turkish lira an Indian can talk for one hour. In India you can get one gigabyte for ₹ 5," he says.
We ask him his plan after he leaves office. Sharma says he has a passion to teach and would love to pursue teaching in public policy and technology. He recently completed his PhD on identity systems from IIT Delhi.
“In fact, I first taught artificial intelligence at LN Mithila Institute of Social Sciences in Patna in 1992," he says.
He is also looking forward to working at the orchard on his ancestral land in Firozabad where he grows fruits including Indian gooseberry (amla), kinnow, jujube (ber), guava and jamun.
It is difficult to imagine him at a field and not in front of his computer, where he wrote codes and built platforms aimed at improving governance.
“Many times we don’t take pride in the things we have been able to do. We still look somewhere else thinking greatness is happening there. Believe me in the digital space greatness is happening here," he said at a press conference during his last week at Trai.