TRAI feels the poaching pinch

Poaching by pvt firms and discontent among staff threaten to eat into TRAI's talent pool, reports M Rajendran.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2006 01:30 IST

It may not be so easy in cricket, but in the frenetic world of telecommunications, where talent is as much in demand as handsets and talk-plans are, the industry regulator is finding himself like a soccer referee whose linesmen leave to join the teams on the ground.

The chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is taking the exit of some prized senior executives in his stride, but others in the body say poaching by private companies and discontent among senior staff members over pay and perquisites are threatening to eat into the regulator's talent pool.

Companies like Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications and Hutchison Essar Ltd are looking for hot talent to keep customers from churning out, and they also need some talent with regulatory knowledge. And what better place to poach them than government-funded or appointed bodies where knowledge levels run high, but pay-scales are not competitive enough? Private players pay three to six times the compensation that staff who work with the regulator earn for work involving comparable skills and experience, industry officials say.

"While it is true that things can be improved, we cannot and should not compare the salary aspects with the private sector. People join government services for various reasons. The critical criterion is to have a feeling of public service," Nirpendra Mishra, TRAI's chairman, told the Hindustan Times. "One or two people joining the private sector from TRAI will not reduce our talent pool," he said.

After feasting on public sector telecom giants Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, private sector hawks are preying on the regulator that had painstakingly built a team which has gained respect and recognition among peers across the world. It does not help that TRAI is also losing out some senior staff to global deputation assignments in organisations such as the World Bank. TRAI has been seeking powers similar to the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to maintain its financial independence. It had sought a 0.05 per cent share of the revenues that telecom and TV operators generate each year to help pay its officers and staff better. The government has not moved on it for years.

Over the last few months, four senior TRAI officials have moved on or are in the process. S.N Gupta, principal advisor, fixed networks, is said to be on his way to helping UK's BT Plc in a senior position to oversee technical aspects. Praveen Sharma, joint advisor, mobile networks, joined Reliance Communications Ltd, and has since moved to Tata-run VSNL. Sunil Gupta, deputy advisor, financial analysis, is likely to join Reliance soon, say TRAI sources. D.K Gupta, joint advisor, legal, is also likely to join a private telecom operator, they said. Neither of them could be reached for comment. S.N Gupta confirmed to the Hindustan Times that he had resigned but it was not clear what he would do next.

"I cannot join any telecom operator in India but I would be an independent consultant to overseas multinational telecom companies, but it will take some months," he said.

TRAI officials said their pay-packets are small, with no housing leases from the employer. They even have to vacate government accommodation if they join the regulator. Besides, perquisites like transport allowances were withdrawn after October 2003, when TRAI's employees were declared to be of the same status as their central government counterparts.

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First Published: Dec 01, 2006 19:48 IST