Telecom Commission - Section 10

As of 2015, the telecommunications department has about 200,000 employees instead of the earlier figure of 500,000. This has happened only through attrition and retirement. We had so many people that every year over 15,000 reached retirement age. So we waited and, in ten years, the number of employees reduced by itself to a reasonable figure.

In perspective, that time frame was not a huge deal. You couldn’t just get rid of people. Where would they go? It wasn’t as if there were other jobs out there waiting for them. This was their livelihood. This was how they fed their families. At the end of the day, they were a part of my telecom family.

After my experience with the labourers and janitors unions, I felt that, if anything, the engineers, bureaucrats and office workers were harder to deal with.

I met with them. ‘The system we have is ad hoc,’ I said. ‘We need to introduce some discipline in terms of strategic planning and annual operating plans.’

That was unheard of in telecom. The telecom department itself was a national entity. Then there were entities in the states and in the big cities. There were different telephone companies in these places. There was a need for greater coordination, cooperation and communication on matters of allocation of resources, plans and priorities.

I said, ‘I want a three-year national strategic plan and a one-year operating plan from the bottom up. I want to know how many lines you are projecting for the next three years. Based on that we’ll decide how much hardware you’ll need, how much manpower you’ll need, how much money will be allocated and who will produce the hardware.’ I instituted a planning process to put development and administration on track, with equipment availability and funding. But this turned out to be a painful exercise. Nobody wanted to do it. This step was going to bring about transparency, accountability and visibility. They understood that a rational planning system, with formal projections and a transparent budgeting process, would expose everyone to scrutiny and accountability—a new and deeply unpleasant prospect.

Finally, a few of the younger executives led by Dr Seth supported the endeavour and took charge of the planning process. That was progress. But the complexity of the problems and issues was immense, especially with respect to finance, purchasing, material management, human resources and planning. There were unions and sub-unions for wireless and telegraph as well as for telephones, each with its own requirements and customary practices and issues and personal demands.

It was all too easy to get irretrievably pulled down into all this. So I kept the focus on planning—improving processes, overall management, moral and vision, and introducing a modicum of discipline. I held regular meetings, I gave presentations. I was trying to change an organizational culture that was deeply rooted in a system based on perks, privilege, patronage, personalities, files and antique procedures, more than a few of them left over from the 19th-century British Raj. I travelled around the country to meet employees, view presentations, hold conferences;  I even made a series of video presentations to communicate my vision and reach out to others across the country.

three weeks on the job I got a call from the prime minister’s office. ‘We are getting complaints that the chairman [Sam] is not clearing any files.’ The fact was that I was indeed not clearing files. Piles of them were accumulating in my secretary’s office.

I said, ‘Look, I’m not here just to clear files. If someone wants a decision made, they have to come and talk to me. I’ll make the decision. But someone else has to do the file work.’

They did come. At one point the managing director of Indian Telephone Industries Ltd came by, a big manufacturing operation with several thousand employees. His factory was in Bangalore, but he made an appointment and came to see me in Delhi. We spent half an hour together. We talked, we had coffee, he told me how his business was going. The next day he came again. Then he came the third day. Finally, I asked him, ‘Why are you here in Delhi for three days? You’re supposed to be in Bangalore running your plant.’

He said, ‘Sir, you’re supposed to clear my file so I can go to Paris.’ ‘All right. Why in the world didn’t you tell me that the first day itself?’

‘Well, I thought maybe you had some objections that you wanted to talk to me about. But you didn’t ask me anything.’

‘I didn’t even know.’

‘The file has been in your office for the last two weeks.’

‘Nobody told me. I didn’t know. But first of all, why should you need permission from me to go to Paris? You’re running a multimillion- dollar operation. You’re chairman of Indian Telephone Industries.’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘That’s the way the system is. I need your permission.’

‘Okay, I’m giving you blanket permission. Whenever you want to travel, you can. It’s your problem, not mine.’

‘Sir, that will not be acceptable to my finance person.’

This sort of thing happened with nerve-racking regularity. So I tried to simplify things for people. Then I realized that we had file after file after file—for everything. In our building, in the heart of the city, we had two big floors stuffed with files. Covered with dust. Nobody was going to look at them, nobody was going to open them.

I said to the file keepers, ‘Why don’t you move these files 50 miles away from Delhi? Clear up the space. This is prime office space in the middle of town. Why do we have files here? If you need a file, send somebody to bring it. No one ever uses them anyway. They’re collecting dust. Keep last year’s files and send the rest.’

‘Oh, sir, we can’t do that.’ ‘Why not?’

‘We need these files available at all times.’ ‘Why?’

‘When you review somebody, you need that person’s file and records starting from the day he joined.’

This was unthinkable. It just didn’t make sense. Several of the employees had been working for the department for years, many for decades. And whenever a review or some incident came up, someone reviewed their file going back to the day he or she was hired.

The file-clearing system was hardly the only problem. Ever since I became the chairman of the department, a variety of national and international business leaders started visiting my office with flowers, small gifts and dinner invitations. I was very strict about accepting anything except flowers. One international company even had the audacity to offer me half-a-million dollars in cash to clear a file to purchase their equipment. I was furious, but I retained my courteousness and said no. I knew about the bribe-and-corruption culture in the country, but I knew I couldn’t do much, except to dissociate myself from it completely.

The fact was that a few of the department officers carried on       a side business in phone applications. They took 10,000 or 15,000 rupees. Sometimes, they charged a monthly fee, maybe 100 rupees, maybe 400. You could pay a bribe for your phone connection over time, in instalments. I knew what was going on, but I kept my eyes averted. Getting involved in all of that would open a Pandora’s box  of problems. An anti-corruption campaign would inevitably lead down the road to political people, business people, whole swathes of administrators in national, state and local offices. Just contemplating the possibilities was nightmarish. This wasn’t the time to combat the menace. I had other more important things to do.

But every once in a while, I’d get sucked into approving somebody’s telephone connection myself. Once, a group of swamis came to my office, unannounced. They just showed up. My secretary buzzed me and said, ‘There are swamis here to see you.’

‘I don’t need to see swamis in my office,’ I said. ‘Somebody will take a 

 ‘But sir, they’ve been looking for an appointment for a couple of weeks.’

I hadn’t known this. My secretary had been putting them off. ‘All right. They’re here already? Send them in.’

Five swamis entered the room. The first thing the main swami said was, ‘Your eyes are very bright. You have good confidence and energy and knowledge.’

I knew he needed something from me. ‘Thank you. What can I do for you?’ ‘Nothing.’

‘Please, you must have come here for something. What is it that you need?’

‘No, no. We just came to see you. We heard about you, we wanted to meet you.’

‘Would you like something to drink?’

‘Yes, thank you. We’ll take something cold.’

I asked my secretary to bring in some cold refreshments.

We were sitting there drinking our drinks. He started again. ‘We heard about you. You are a great man. You are bringing about many wonderful changes. You are a blessing.’

I thought, They must want something really big.

Finally, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I have another meeting. I’m going to have to leave.’

‘No, wait,’ said the main swami. He nodded to another swami, who opened a moth-eaten briefcase and pulled out two telephone applications.

They were here to get their applications approved.

I said, ‘Swami, you could have called my office. This is for a temple, yes? It’s for the public good. Normally, I don’t do this, but for a temple I would have done it immediately.’ I signed the applications.

The swamis were a  minor inconvenience. It was worse when    I was flying somewhere, business class, and four or five people would be waiting in the aisle to  see  me,  telephone applications  in hand. They had found out where I was going and had booked themselves on my flight for the sole purpose of pleading for a phone connection.

Once, while I was busy in my office, a gentleman walked in and said, ‘Sir, I am Milkha Singh.’

I stood up immediately, saying, ‘THE Milkha Singh? The high- speed runner that we all admired growing up?’

He said, ‘Yes, sir.’

‘What brings you here?’ I said.

‘I am sorry, sir, but I have been looking for a telephone connection for several years and have not been able to get one. I can’t pay a bribe, but I need a telephone. I was told that you may give me a sympathetic hearing, and that is why I am here.’

He was so humble, simple and sensible that I felt my eyes moisten as I looked at him. I said to myself, What kind of a country are we that we cannot provide even a mere telephone to our national hero? I immediately called member services in the Telecom Commission and requested a telephone connection be obtained for Milkha Singh within the next forty-eight hours.

The phone-connection problem eventually solved itself with the advent of cell phones. But even there I ran into controversy.

When cell-phone technology first made its appearance in India, I blocked it from proceeding. People didn’t understand. With landline connections making relatively slow progress, why in the world would I not allow mobile phones? Newspapers and even serious journals wrote articles questioning my judgement and, sometimes, even my sanity.

My refusal to approve mobile technology even ruffled feathers back in the US—that I would rather not have ruffled. Motorola was an early leader in cell phones. Based in Chicago as they were, I knew them well. I was good friends with the owner Bob Galvin and knew his family too. Galvin served as an IIT director when I was a student there. Later, I joined him on the board of IIT. Motorola had helped when I brought C-DOT engineers over to learn from them, and the family had been kind to me in other ways as well.

 him with Motorola, so all I knew was that some representative of the company was on my schedule. I was late for our meeting, and when I arrived it was a bit of a shock to see Senator Percy sitting in the lobby waiting for me.

‘Senator Percy, you’ve been sitting here?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have an appointment with you.’

When it turned out that his wife was with him, I invited them to our house for dinner, which was lovely until he got down to business. ‘Motorola,’ Percy said, ‘could help with India’s telecom problems.’ He said we should be embracing cell technology and we should be using Motorola handsets.

‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘I appreciate Motorola, and I don’t have to tell you how much I respect you. But I just can’t do it.’

Senator Percy didn’t like that. Given his background and stature, he thought he’d be able to convince me quickly, that it was more or less a done deal. But I had good reasons, and I wasn’t going to change my mind.

The fact was that early mobile-phone technology—Motorola’s and others’—was analogue-based. But new standards for digital transmission were being developed. If we went with analogue standards we would be buying into old technology, which we would then have to switch over from. Much better, I thought, to wait a year or two and do it right. Besides, early mobile phones were so expensive that if we allowed them, only politicians and rich people would have them. They would not even begin to meet the needs of the poor. So I decided to delay the transition—until the new GSM standards were declared we were going to concentrate on rural telecom.

One of my early decisions at the Telecom Commission was to cancel a pending World Bank loan for around 300 million dollars, which was on the Indian government’s priority list. The prime minister’s office was surprised at my decision and asked for an explanation. Finally, the matter escalated to the point where Mr Barber Benjamin Conable Jr, president of the World Bank, visited India, and we had lunch together with the prime minister. He wanted me to change my mind. In response, I was very firm and said, ‘Your loan has too many conditions and you want us to buy something we don’t need at this stage. We need to buy components to increase our domestic production and you want us to buy big switching systems from multinationals.’ Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi understood and supported me.

Similarly, there was a proposal to import a large amount of optical- fibre cable from abroad. As opposed to importing forever, I wanted to   set up India’s first manufacturing facility for optical fibre. Everyone was against the idea and felt India was not capable of producing this locally. I hired a young engineer, Mr Bhagwan D. Khurana, from Punjab Wireless, to lead the project. He was sent abroad to understand the technology, make licensing arrangements, and was thus equipped to launch indigenous production. Today, India has multiple factories producing optical fibre, and we have over a million kilometres in place. In fact, we plan to add another half-a-million kilometres of fibre by 2017 to reach the 250,000 panchayats in rural areas.

 

 

Telecom Commission - Section 09

Telecom was the only Mission where I truly considered myself an expert. But the telecom sector was experiencing a roadblock despite C-DOT’s success. The telecommunications department was the customer for telephone equipment, but they had a long history of buying foreign products, which meant they were enmeshed in a web of personal contacts and monetary relationships with overseas equipment-makers. As a result, they had embarked on a series of manoeuvres that were disrupting the broad-scale manufacturing, acquisition and installation of the Indian-made C-DOT products. They were delaying testing, demanding the addition of unnecessary features and otherwise doing their best to create problems. This had been a challenge with many other ministries including defence. Indigenous development was paid lip service while foreign products were preferred and purchased regularly to favour import lobbies and vested interests. Government policies were designed to encourage indigenous development but not indigenous production or purchase.

When I was unable to resolve these issues with the ministries, I went to Rajiv Gandhi with a proposal to set up a separate Telecom Commission. The commission, as I envisioned it, would include the telecommunications ministry, the finance ministry, the Planning Commission, the Cabinet Secretariat and the representatives from other relevant ministries. High-level decisions regarding telephone equipment, manufacturing and service would be made by the commission, then implemented by the telecommunications department. In this way we could carve a path through these roadblocks.

The prime minister agreed, and we organized a major national conference to help develop consensus. Over 500 people participated in the deliberations, including the prime minister, and various ministers, officers, industry leaders, labour leaders, and others. Then we started preparing the necessary documents. But as this moved forward the ministry went into defensive mode. They delayed processes. They sent the papers back for revision repeatedly. Then they sent back something different that they had purportedly drafted themselves. It was one delaying tactic after another. This went on for seven or eight months until it was crystal clear that they simply were not going to set up the Telecom Commission, whatever the prime minister’s office desires.

Finally, I told Rajiv that it was pretty certain that the ministry would not allow us to form a new Telecom Commission. ‘What’s the solution then?’ he asked.

The answer to this conundrum was that I would take on the role of the department’s chief executive officer. It seemed to be the only way to move forward. Taking on that job would be a stretch. I was still adviser to C-DOT, even though I had stepped away from any involvement in the operations. I was also, of course, adviser to the prime minister on the Technology Missions. But here too I felt that the projects were well-established enough, so I could move on. As I told Rajiv, I was prepared to take on the secretary’s job for two or three years. I could institute new policies, programmes and procedures, train people, and develop an executive management team to move forward.

But when the matter went to the principal secretary to the prime minister, Mr Deshmukh, so that my appointment could be processed, there was seemingly a hiccup.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘this cannot be done.’

‘What do mean “It cannot be done”?’

‘There’s a serious issue.’

‘What’s the serious issue?’

‘You are already a minister of state according to your role as adviser to the prime minister on Technology Missions. This new job, secretary of the telecommunications department, is one level below. The procedure is that the same person cannot hold positions at two levels at the same time,’ said Mr Deshmukh.

‘That shouldn’t be a problem. Just downgrade me on my adviser role,’ I replied.

‘I’m sorry. What do you mean?’ asked Mr Deshmukh with surprise.

‘All you have to do is downgrade me; I won’t have a problem with that. I don’t need two grades. Just downgrade me,’ I said.

For me, any kind of ranking in these things was an irrelevancy and didn’t serve any practical purpose. But in India’s hierarchical system, holding two ranks at a time was deemed a violation. Having a lower rank might not have meant anything to me—I would be doing the same work, regardless. But it was clear that my request was an unusual one. Mr Deshmukh was bewildered and seemed unsure about what to do when faced with this situation. So he called the prime minister, and the prime minister promptly dispatched Mr Dhawan from his office to resolve the matter.

So it happened. I became secretary of the telecommunications Department and founding-chairman of the Telecom Commission. I replaced Mr Satypal, who became secretary of services at the commission. As a result, I was now able to move ahead and operationalize the commission that had previously met with such dogged opposition.

Telecommunications was a giant department, with 550,000 employees represented by twenty-seven unions. The headquarters occupied a huge multistorey office building near Parliament in New Delhi. The department had around 4 million telephone lines with various state-level telephone operating companies known as ‘circles’. It was also home to the international telephone operation facet known as VSNL; wireless service; and manufacturing operations with Indian telephone industries, notably, Hindustan Teleprinters Ltd. However, the department was debilitated by a lack of planning and management discipline, complicated purchasing procedures, manual accounting and a serious shortage of equipment. The challenge was to expand production, substantially improve availability and access, and privatize production and then operations.

Most people who rise to the level of secretary have a lifetime’s worth of experience in large bureaucracies. They know the landscape, they’re comfortable with it. I, on the other hand, was forty-seven—younger than all the upper-level department officers. I had never in my life been part of such an organization. Now I was going to run one with four other government secretaries in the telecom department reporting directly to me with full profit-and-loss responsibilities.

That first day, a telecom department car picked me up from my home. At the department headquarters, people were lined up in front of the entrance, waiting for me with garlands of flowers. One after another they bowed, their palms together in a namaste. People expected these ceremonies—they were all normal protocol, the customary way of welcoming someone and showing respect. But it was also a reminder for me that I was entering a traditional, formalized culture—one I was going to do everything in my power to change.

Once everyone had greeted me I was escorted to my office by an impressive entourage. There I was met by a person who handed me a key. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘this is the key to your bathroom.’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t need a bathroom key.’

‘Yes, this is the key to the secretary’s bathroom.’

‘It’s all right. I don’t need it. I’ll use the regular bathroom.’

‘No, sir, you don’t have to do that.’

‘Why not? I don’t need the key.’

The attendant backed away, puzzled. The secretary’s bathroom wasn’t only private, it was clean. He knew the public bathroom was a different story. When I entered the public bathroom I realized why I had been offered a private key. Based on what I saw, I was convinced that I needed to meet with the janitors and cleaners to improve the building’s basic hygiene and maintenance situation.

This was a start. I would go about things the way I did—making the same kind of demonstration I used to make back at C-DOT to dramatize that what I wanted was different from what people expected, that I was not going to be doing things the old way. Of course, at C-DOT I was building from the ground up. The telecommunications department was a colossus with its own deeply ingrained customs and procedures. This place wasn’t likely to change easily, secretary or no secretary.

It wasn’t just the public bathroom that wasn’t clean, the entire building was dirty. I told my office, ‘I want to meet with the janitors in the boardroom.’

When I walked into the boardroom there were forty janitors lined up, their backs pressing into the wall, obviously scared to death that I was going to fire them. ‘Please sit down,’ I said. They didn’t sit down. It just wasn’t the way things were done. Not only were they janitors, they were at the bottom of the economic pyramid and thus were not treated with respect.

‘Please, do sit.’ I gestured towards the chairs. They moved towards them tentatively and perched on the edge of their seats.

As soon as they sat the tea arrived, with cashews and biscuits. What was going on now? They thought this man was going to fire them and now they were sitting down and being served tea.

I said, ‘Look, we’re all spending a lot of time in this place. Can you please clean it better? I don’t want to see any garbage on the floor, or have stinking bathrooms, floating papers, cobwebs, falling drapes, dusty files, broken windows or broken chairs around. I don’t want to see any paint peeling off the walls. The tiles are falling. I don’t want all that. Let’s fix this place. This is our home.’

‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ I continued. ‘I want you to select two teams. I want to send one team to the Taj hotel and the other to the Sheraton. These are five-star hotels. Go there. See how they clean there, learn what they do. When you come back, tell me what equipment you need. We will get it for you. But I want you to keep this place clean. Tell me what complaints you have. You don’t have enough supplies? It’s my job to get them for you. You need something else? It’s my job to procure it. This is what I want, and I need your support. I’ll give you two weeks. If you don’t get this place clean, I’ll tell you what will happen—I’ll come in every morning at eight o’clock and start cleaning myself.’

‘Oh, sir,’ they said. ‘You cannot do that. We are here to do that.’

Their morale shot straight up. They started meeting, discussing who would go to each hotel and how they were going to improve things. The janitors were charged up.

Then I started a little nursery for the janitors and construction workers in the building. We had almost a thousand people, quite a few of them women. I talked to them. ‘Whoever wants to bring their kids to work should please bring them. Whoever has toys at home, bring them too. We’ll take care of the kids during the day. That’s going to be our policy from here on now.’

This was a little thing to do, nothing more than a small gesture. These were poor people, their lives were a struggle. You couldn’t notsee that in their faces. And no one was paying attention to their needs. Get them some help,I thought. How difficult is that?

I wanted to send a message, a kind of a warning shot across the bows, to the department that there was going to be a shake-up and that I was going to change the way things were done. My real test would be if I could institute organizational changes and begin to rework the culture in a more egalitarian, production-oriented way. The more effectively I could communicate my vision, the better chance I’d have at execution and retooling.

I have found that, many times, in a hierarchical system of work, the people at the top do not engage in the details and articulate vision and commitment that affect the well-being of the people at the lower rungs of the organization. This is very evident at construction sites of big government or office buildings in major urban areas, where women can be seen carrying bricks on their heads. Hardly anyone provides better tools to improve the quality of life for the poor workers. Matters are even more grim for sanitation workers in India. My training in the US, especially in the high-tech field, was undertaken in flat organizational structures that required the top-level management to keep their ears to the ground and listen to the voices of the people at the bottom. To me, this was a Gandhian approach to management.

These relatively minor demonstrations with the janitors made an impact. Word spread, not just to people in the building but through the whole organization. As secretary, my official car was a bulletproof model, earlier assigned to minister Arjun Singh, very heavy, with doors that took some strength to open. Every time I was picked up or dropped off, my driver, Mugliram, would run around to open the door for me, which wasn’t necessary and was another of those gestures of deference (and perhaps even subservience) that I found irritating. ‘Mugliram,’ I said, ‘don’t do that. The day I lose my hand you can open the door for me. Otherwise you don’t have to.’

When I said that, Mugliram had tears welling up in his eyes. ‘Sir, why do you say such things to me?’

‘No, you sit there. I can open my own door.’

The message went everywhere.

Meanwhile, I was moving ahead with my reorganization plans. My overall objective was to break the department free of its inertia and shift the focus of the entire unwieldy establishment to upgrading telephone service in the country. That meant changing mindsets. It meant creating a goal-oriented culture in place of the frozen-in-time bureaucratic mentality that characterized the department. I was intent on converting the country’s telecom entirely into the digital mode, computerizing services and upgrading maintenance and response efforts to users’ complaints while privatizing elements of the data and telephone industries, along with a dozen other priorities. I knew all of this would be hard to achieve in the three-year timeline I had set for myself, but my intention was to get things off to a strong start.

I’m not sure how many shared my optimism in 1988; the telecommunications department wasn’t going to change easily. There was a great deal of cynical talk surrounding my appointment and the enthusiasm I showed with my direct reports and with the telecom officers. They were brilliant engineers, but were bogged down by old procedures, paper-pushing and a file culture that was designed to block as opposed to initiate change. I had been told that of all the barriers, the most formidable was going to be the labour unions. ‘The unions,’ I heard, ‘are going to eat you alive.’

Of the twenty-seven union leaders who represented department employees, the senior person was one Mr Choudhary, a weathered, old organizer, given to play hardball. ‘He’s very hard to deal with,’ I was told. ‘You have to be careful, he’s always armed.’

This was a person, a tough nut to crack who, along with the other labour leaders, I could see taking an unfavourable view of my efforts. And I knew they were in a belligerent mood already. By then word had spread that the new secretary was from America. The grapevine was buzzing that I was all for private enterprise, that I was going to break up telecom, that that was the whole reason the prime minister had put me there in the first place. According to the buzz, my entire intention, apparently, was to bring in private ownership and finish off the unions.

I knew that was what they had been hearing. But it wasn’t true—not all of it, at least. I wasn’t naive enough to believe I could break the unions, even if that had been my intention—which it wasn’t. I had no choice but to work with them; I wouldn’t be able to get anything done otherwise. Going head-to-head with Mr Choudhary and his friends couldn’t possibly advance my agenda. In some way I had to make them my partners.

But instead of an alliance there was a battle shaping up. As soon as I took over as secretary I held a press conference and announced my goals for the department. India now had 4 million phones, double the number we had when I started C-DOT, but still abysmally small. ‘We have 4 million now,’ I said. ‘By the year 2000 I want that number to be 40 million.’ (This was in 1988, before the advent of cell phones.) The unions had taken those numbers and made their own calculations. If we had 500,000 employees for 4 million phones, for 40 million phones we’d need ten times that number—5 million workers, i.e., 4.5 million more union members. Their whole attention was on hiring and membership. My whole intention was to cut the number of department employees in half to meet global standards and reduce costs.

The big question was how to do that without inflaming Mr Choudhary and the others to boiling point.

My first meeting with the unions was a highly organized, ritualistic kind of affair. The union leaders took their places on one side of the table, and the other department executives and I sat on the other side. As we started talking, I found that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. It was all acronyms: TaDa, CB, JTO, DOTO. The JTO is this, the CB is that. We won’t move an inch off the TaDa.I sat there thinking, What are they talking about?I didn’t have the foggiest idea.

Superannuation will take place after thirteen years of promotion from level X to level Y, except for those who are at level Z.What did that mean? And they all had big files with them, everyone except me. At the same time, I was the boss. I couldn’t look like a complete idiot. It hadn’t been my intention to make this a working session. At this point I just wanted to meet them and initiate some personal rapport instead of dragging on the animosity that seemed to underline our interactions.

Finally, I told them, ‘I’m not prepared to discuss contract details now. I haven’t been here long enough to completely educate myself on all the issues. I suggest that our next step will be for me to meet with the three senior leaders, Mr Choudhary [the gunman and a strong leader], Mr Gupta [the communist and a great nationalist] and Mr Venkat. Why don’t we schedule that? We can meet in my office.’

I might not have known what the TaDa or the JTO were, but I did know that no telecom secretary had invited union leaders into his offices as regularly as I did. It was part of the unspoken protocol governing relations between the two sides. But we set the meeting, and Mr Choudhary, Mr Gupta and Mr Venkat came by.

I understood what kind of preconceived idea they had of me—I was an American businessman who had made a lot of money and was against unions. So the first thing I wanted to do was put those notions to rest. They sat down. I ordered tea. I said, ‘Look, I want to work closely with you. Without you, I can’t do my job. People matter to me. I want to suggest a few things. I have two simple ideas to start with. Then you give me your ideas and we’ll work together. My first idea is that since we’ll need to be in close, regular contact, I’d like to set up an office for you here, right next to my office.’

They looked at me, incredulous. ‘Are you serious?’ Mr Choudhary said.

‘Yes, absolutely. We have space. I’ll get you an office. Second, all union activity concerns department affairs. Since that’s the case, the labour leaders around the country should be allowed to make calls for free.’

‘What?’ said Mr Gupta.

‘Yes. They’re my employees, isn’t that correct? I’m not talking about personal calls, I’m talking about labour business. I’m not doing it for you, I’m doing it for the department, to make it easier for me.’

We talked. I had thrown them off their guard with my ideas for the office space and the free business phone-calls. They were trying hard to scope me out and weren’t sure they could. These weren’t people who were particularly susceptible to charm.

‘Listen,’ I said, ‘if we’re going to be working together, it’s important that we get to know each other a little. Why don’t you come to my house for dinner? My mother is there. [She had come to live with us in Delhi four years earlier after my father had passed away from cancer in Chicago.] She’ll be happy to meet you.’

That made an impression on them. These three were all older than me. In terms of Indian family culture, it meant something for my mother to host them. They agreed to dinner at my home.

In an organization like the telecommunications department, people talked. And the chatter that now abounded was that the secretary was trying to befriend the union leaders in order to trap them. That I had an agenda and that I was going to brainwash them. That I was educated and smart, and they were naive working people. I had given them tea and biscuits, and now they were going to my home for dinner. It was a perilous situation.

The union leaders came home. Anu and my mother greeted them, both of them traditional women. I might come across at first as some kind of overseas sophisticate (despite the fact that I was from Titilagarh), but Anu and my mother did not give off that aura. My mother was every inch a village woman. And in spite of Anu’s years in the US, she had retained her traditional approach to life and her love for the old ways was also intact. They hit it off with Anu and my mother right from the start.

Mr Choudhary, for some reason, especially clicked with my mom. They talked about all things village, about jaggery and the different varieties of rice. ‘In my region,’ he said, ‘we make great jaggery. We grow rice. Next week I’m going to my village. I’ll bring some for you.’

And the next week he didbring it for her—ghee and rice and jaggery. They became friends, Mr Choudhary, my mother and Anu. Now the whole attitude was changing. Now, I was apparently a decent guy, despite being the boss. That I might think differently about some issues, but at heart I meant well.

When we did sit down to talk business, it was on friendly terms.

‘Friends,’ I said, ‘I need your help. We cannot have such an excessive number of people in telecom. We have to cut down. I don’t mean firing people; I don’t want anybody to lose their jobs. But I’m not going to be able to hire additional people either. So let’s agree on that first.

‘Second, I want to make certain that those who have been with the department for a certain number of years will get promotions. The first promotion will come after sixteen years, the second after twenty-six years—regardless of their classification levels or the jobs they are performing.

‘Third, I want to retrain people to elevate their skill levels. I want to start an institution for retraining telecom workers.’

What had happened was that if, for example, cable lines had to be laid and ditches dug, the department would hire labourers to do the digging. But because of union rules those people became permanent employees. Once the job was done, they remained employees, even though there was no further work for them. We had employees all over the country collecting pay but not doing enough.

‘We’re going to put those people to work,’ I said. ‘We’re going to upgrade their skills. Whoever is with us will stay with us. But no more hiring.’

Since the labour bosses weren’t dead set against this proposition, I worked out a plan and went to the Cabinet secretary. Then the labour ministry and the law ministry came into the picture. I told the Cabinet secretary, Mr T.N. Seshan, ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t know all the issues here, you do. Tell me how I need to get it done. Protect me from the legal issues and the inter-agency fights and all that. Please figure it out.’

Mr Seshan was brilliant, sensitive, supportive and willing to go the extra mile. He said, ‘Okay, let’s do this together. Let’s meet with labour together.’

So he called a meeting with labour. He spoke their language—the JTO, the CB, the DOTO. It took eighteen months, but in the end we negotiated an agreement.

Technology Missions - Section 08

The Edible Oils Mission was one programme where the primary motivation was economic. India had paid 1 billion dollars for imported cooking oils over the previous five years, even though there were significant areas of arable land suited for the domestic production of oil crops—soybeans, rapeseed, mustard seed and others. But Indian farmers weren’t growing them. Instead, they were planting wheat, rice and other crops that gave them higher monetary returns. This situation, characterized by unfavourable economics for farmers, was partly due to the fact that the oil industry was controlled by a small number of powerful families and by the exploitative activities of multinational oil interests.

To reverse this situation I called on Dr Verghese Kurien, a legendary figure in the Indian dairy industry. Kurien had done his graduate studies in the United States, then had returned to India and become involved, by chance, in the field of milk production. When he started out, India was importing large volumes of milk and milk powder. By the time I talked to him about the Technology Missions, he had turned the domestic dairy industry around to the point where India was exporting instead of importing milk. He had created a revolution. Under his guidance, some years later, India became the world’s largest milk producer, surpassing the United States.

Kurien was known globally as the ‘Father of the White Revolution’. He had created this near-miraculous turnaround by organizing farmers into large co-ops that could exert significant leverage on costs and prices, making milk production profitable for the small farmer. Kurien was a straight-talking, take-no-prisoners kind of individual, capable of running roughshod over political and industry obstruction. He simply would not sit still and watch while large interests exploited the Indian farmer. Over time he had become an ally and a good friend. When I asked if he would join in on our effort on edible oils, he agreed.

Our challenge in this sector was to create an environment where small Indian farmers would see the advantages of planting oilseed crops. That meant restructuring the marketing system and making improvements in crop technologies. Kurien brought in some of the same methods he used to revolutionize the dairy industry: cooperative production and marketing, adherence to standards, support for individual farmers and protection against unethical competition.

Kurien was head of the National Dairy Board, which was sitting on large cash reserves. When it was announced that the board was going to throw its weight behind the intervention on oil, the market panicked. Kurien, the Cabinet secretary and I would meet regularly to decide how much oil we would buy and at what price. When that was announced, the market would adjust to our figure, to the benefit of the small farmers.

By 1990, instead of importing oil, India was exporting oilcakes at the rate of 600 million dollars a year. The turnaround was all due to applying appropriate management methods, understanding and information, and giving small farmers a little bit of support. ‘We move into areas where there is gross exploitation,’ Kurien told one interviewer, ‘and try to restructure the marketing system so that the small producer is not fleeced by middlemen or oil kings.’

When we started working on the oilseed mission, Kurien suggested that it would be a good idea to have a mission on milk as well. He had turned the dairy market around through the massive reorganization of producers, but milk production itself had plateaued. A mission on dairy could mobilize the application of technologies to improve breeding, animal health and fodder production. We could significantly enhance milk production. When we launched this mission Kurien invited me to his centre, where I met with 4000 dairy farmers. This was a man who operated on a scale that others could hardly dream of, but which was necessary if you wanted to fundamentally change Indian conditions.

So now we had six missions supported fully by the prime minister. As the missions got under way, all six mission directors—Jairam, myself and a couple of staff—started our crazy, hectic travels as a group. Jairam was my biggest asset. We went to a different state every week. The state’s chief minister would be waiting. We’d meet with him and the heads of his departments to go through the missions one by one: What was happening in this state on drinking water, literacy, immunization, telecom, oils and dairy? Then we’d hold a press conference. With the chief minister sitting next to me, I’d announce where we were and what we were going to do. Going public like this meant that everyone was aware of the projects we were undertaking and of our timelines for accomplishing them. This meant operating under scrutiny, with complete transparency and accountability. It meant that the state ministers were publicly associated with these projects and, along with us, would be seen as accountable.

This was a new thing for the local governments—somebody from the prime minister’s office coming in to review the situation and making press announcements. The media, of course, loved it and lapped it all up. And nobody could say no, because the prime minister was fully committed to the cause. All the chief ministers and other political bosses were very supportive of the Technology Missions and other initiatives of the Rajiv Gandhi government.

As the Technology Missions work advanced, the UN became aware of what we were doing. The concept of the missions seemed something that might be beneficial to development in other nations as well, and the UN convened a meeting on the subject in Poland. I travelled to Warsaw for this and gave a series of talks, emphasizing on technology as the entry point for widespread development. The upshot of this was a UN report recommending every developing country to consider implementing the Technology Mission concept.

However, not all of our Technology Missions work was successful. We made an important impact in our six established areas—water, immunization, oilseeds, literacy, telecommunications and dairy. But my attempts to expand the missions to include environment, housing, floods and droughts failed to get off the ground. Prime Minister Gandhi was in favour of the plans, but I found that political problems and conceptual differences among the relevant experts were too knotty to resolve easily. I was simply unable to negotiate the problems within a reasonable time frame. I didn’t give up on these, but I put off pursuing them until the point where we might be able to marshal more resources.

The Missions also generated substantial political and media controversy. Of the many projects we undertook, some simply did not work out. Critics would say that they succeeded only 60 or 70 per cent of the time—which they deemed a failure and the proof of a mistaken, poorly conceived diversion of government resources.

People take great pride in identifying problems. I always say that you do not need talent to identify problems in India. All you have to do is stand on a street corner and watch the scenes for ten minutes. You will perhaps be able to identify many of the challenges facing India merely in that space. At times, even the solutions are staring right at you, however, we lack men and women with the domain expertise, leadership, ethics and courage to address these challenges against a potentially hostile bureaucratic environment and multiple odds. People tend to shift the blame and believe that the problem lies somewhere or with somebody else, as opposed to looking within themselves to introspect and critique. At times, I found that what people think of as important is really not very important, and that what people think of as unimportant is extremely important.

During one of my trips as part of the Technology Missions, we went to a small village in Uttar Pradesh after visiting a local health facility, a school and a biogas plant. We were escorted to a big meeting organized by the head of the village, with almost 300 people in the audience. In his speech, the village leader started complaining that the village doesn’t have a teacher, the doctor doesn’t come regularly, electricity is not available, and on and on. When it was my turn to speak, he was basically expecting me to say that I would go back to Delhi and promptly solve all their problems. As opposed to this, I told them that these were their problems and that in a democracy one need to take charge themselves and begin to solve local problems with local resources. I told them to not await the central government’s help to solve every local problem. I expect my speech was not too well-received.

I continually tried hard to explain why I thought this kind of criticism was unjustified. My job, as I saw it, was not to ensure a 100 per cent success-rate. We were in the process of building a nation, not a company that needed to maximize its productivity and returns in order to survive and stay competitive. Consequently, I wasn’t overly concerned if some of our initiatives didn’t work out. I could take responsibility when that happened, but ensuring success was not my goal. I was, if anything, more interested in the process than the product. My goal was to set up processes that were more effective than those currently in practice (which so often moved at a glacial pace, or all too often, not at all).

I was more affected and startled by the criticism of some of my friends, Rajni Kothari, for example. Kothari was the founder of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the person I had consulted when I was first developing the idea for C-DOT. Kothari, a pre-eminent political theorist, was not happy with technologists who lacked what he thought of as cultural and philosophical depth. He also believed that working in partnership with the government was a waste of time that would, as he said in public, ‘tie you [Sam] in knots from which you will find it difficult to liberate yourself’. Working in this way would be, he thought, a ‘kiss of death’. It was far better, in his opinion, to work from the grass-roots up rather than from the top down.

I thought Kothari was simply mistaken. He and many other leading thinkers were, at heart, anti-government people, which is why they made their intellectual homes in the think tanks and institutes. In that regard I had separated myself from them philosophically. I felt with absolute certainty that partnering with the government was the onlyway to make any real impact on a meaningful scale in a nation the size of India.

I felt very strongly that I had found the right niche for myself. I had certain specific skills in technology, in designing systems, in certain forms of management. I was highly driven and wanted to get things done, and I had developed a thick skin and the ability to project confidence, which helped me bring people along with me on the journey. And through some luck, I had struck up a friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, which allowed me the backing and political will I needed. I also received a great deal of love, affection and support from the media and the public. People were very generous with their praise and appreciated my sincere efforts to help modernize India.

Doing all these things at once—travelling constantly around the country, meeting not just with India’s own top leaders but with international personalities as well—was a head rush. I was charged up—there were so many areas where I thought I could make a dent. I knew, too, that time was going to run out at some point, which injected extra urgency into our projects. I could push this button, push that one—and every push could affect a million people, 5 million people. What a romantic thing to do, what a fulfilling thing to do—to make a difference in the fields of education, health, telecom, water and immunization for so many. I didn’t know what the future might hold, but for the moment, at least, I had found the right outlet for whatever compulsions were driving me—my need to fix things, my intolerance for political and bureaucratic dysfunction, and my dreams for a more progressive, more humane India.

Technology Missions - Section 07

The first challenge for the Mission on Immunization wasn’t technological per se, it was infrastructure-, supplies- and decision-making-related. India’s record of childhood immunization was abominable. A large percentage of the children had never been immunized against measles/mumps/rubella. But polio was then a much graver problem. In 1987 India had the largest number of polio patients in the world. Polio vaccines had been around for over thirty years, and we had still not been able to accomplish anything close to universal immunization. It was a national disgrace.

There was one simple bottleneck with regard to the polio issue—an ongoing conflict between those who wanted to use the Sabin oral vaccine and those who favoured the Salk injected vaccine. The two camps of physicians and medical scientists were fighting it out in public. The citizens, of course, had no idea what to think. Everyone was confused, and meanwhile parents lived in fear over their children’s health.

When we understood what was going on, I called a meeting of seventy of India’s top immunization people. Jairam and I met with the assembled experts in Delhi. I told them, ‘We have three days. We won’t be leaving this place until we can tell the nation what our stand on the polio vaccine is. Are we going to go with oral vaccines, or the injected variety? But we need one voice. I‘m not qualified, you are qualified. Now you have to decide.’

Dr Jacob Jones was an expert on vaccines, and he provided the necessary leadership during these difficult discussions. Everyone decided, finally, that oral immunization was preferable. The problem here was that the oral vaccine is a lower-virulence live-virus vaccine, which means it needs to be kept cold during transportation and storage. It requires what is called ‘cold chain’ handling, which mandates the use of cold-chain equipment. But how do you get refrigeration into every part of India? So I called a meeting of industrialists at CII (Confederation of Indian Industries). The whole logistics of the cold chain had to be worked out.

And they did work it out. It took time to get everything in place and start immunizing, but the process worked its way through until almost every Indian child had been immunized. And in 2013, twenty-five years after our intervention, India was finally declared polio-free.

The immunization intervention had other consequences as well. In 1987, when the Technology Missions were launched, India had zero polio-vaccination production capability. I wondered then: How is it that India has the world’s largest number of polio patients and perhaps the world’s largest population of children with polio, and we don’t produce a polio vaccine?

No one had an answer to that, so we did the research and I went to the prime minister. I told him it would cost us up to 300 million dollars to establish proper polio-vaccine production. When he approved the initiative, we sent teams to France and the USSR to study their methods. After that we drew up plans and the government made the investment. In a few years the company that had been established under the science and technology ministry was blending and producing all of India’s polio vaccine indigenously.

In fact, some of the problems addressed by the Technology Missions were as much societal as they were specifically technological—immunization, for example, and literacy. These areas often required a driving hand with strong political backing to break logjams and create new procedures. In a broad sense, creating new processes to solve problems was itself a kind of technology, at least according to my definition. In my view, ‘technology’ encompassed the design of new production systems as well as breakthroughs or advances in hardware. Technology is not merely a device or a gadget. It is, at its heart, a way to solve a problem, whether it involves software or hardware.

The Mission on Literacy illustrated that. New devices were helpful here. We developed and put into production a solar-powered lantern, so that people in areas without electricity would be able to read and perform all their other functions at night with ease. We designed and produced plastic blackboards that performed much better than the traditional models and didn’t use up wood resources. But improving literacy was not primarily technological in that sense. Instead, it had to do with motivating people and providing training and materials—but most especially, it was about motivating people.

Vastly improved literacy (and numeracy) was crucial to India’s socio-economic development. But it was also a prodigious challenge. When the Technology Missions got under way the country’s literacy rate was at just about 50 per cent. Several hundred million adults were illiterate, the majority of them women.

The question was—What is the best way to attack this? Children were being taught to read in schools, but adult education depended on, first, motivating people to learn and, second, providing teachers and study materials. With such vast numbers, it was clear to me that some kind of mass mobilization was necessary, which was not something the education department was set up to do. The plan of action now included launching literacy campaigns throughout the countryside. We set up organizing committees and created a massive volunteer effort. We sent street theatre, acting, circus and music troupes into villages, endeavouring to teach whole populations about the importance of literacy in an entertaining, appealing manner. We wanted them to know what being able to read could mean for people’s economic lives and well-being.

With over 2 million committed volunteers, we flooded rural India with information. We set up continuing-education programmes in hundreds of districts. We made tremendous progress. In our initial years we began cutting substantially into the illiteracy rate. In 1989, two years after we established our campaigns, the Technology Mission on Literacy was awarded UNESCO’s coveted Noma Literacy Prize. After the first year we understood a good deal about how to communicate to people the importance of literacy, and also how to teach reading to adults. At that point we began exploring how to grow and sustain these efforts.

Technology Missions - Section 06

It is an understatement to say that I was acutely aware of what my relationship with Rajiv Gandhi meant, not just in terms of the opportunities it gave me but also personally. I treasured that bond. His thoughtfulness towards me and, equally, towards Anu, was something that touched both of us deeply.

I started commuting to India in 1981 but decided to move my family there in 1985. Of course, doing that meant uprooting them, which gave me a deep feeling of anxiety. Salil was ten, Rajal seven. They had been born in Chicago, they were enjoying their schools, their family and friends. Chicago was their home. A big move was going to create a major disruption in their lives. Anu herself hadn’t lived in India for about twenty years. How would she feel about moving? I thought that at the very least I had to introduce her to Rajiv, so she could see for herself why I wanted to do this and could begin getting comfortable with the idea of this transition.

My chance came when Rajiv went to Washington to see President Reagan in June 1985. I didn’t have an appointment with him, but I called the Indian ambassador. ‘Please tell the PM that I’m going to be in Washington with my wife. We would very much like to meet him.’

The ambassador said, ‘There is no way you could do that. His schedule is solidly booked.’

‘I understand,’ I said. ‘But if you would please ask him. Just say that Sam Pitroda would like to see him.’

‘Certainly,’ said the ambassador. ‘I’ll tell him.’

Anu and I went to Washington, not having any idea if Rajiv would be able to make the time. Three friends came along with us, Dr Prakash Desai, Rajiv Desai and Dr Divyesh Mehta. We were being tourists and seeing some of the sights, when I heard from the ambassador that Rajiv was free for half an hour—between Caspar Weinberger, the then defense secretary, and George P. Schultz, the then secretary of state. All of us were free to come.

The meeting was at the Indian Embassy. It took us a while to get through the heavy security, and as we walked in I saw Weinberger leaving. When we got to the meeting room, I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, this is Anu.’

‘Anu,’ he said. ‘Welcome. Come, sit here next to me.’

I knew Anu’s heart must be racing. This was the prime minister talking to her, charming, good-looking, in such a warm and welcoming manner.

‘Anu, I know Sam wants to come to India. I want you to make sure the children’s admission to school is taken care of. It’s very important, and Sam may not understand these things in Delhi. Let me know. It’s essential to get them into the right school.’

He was speaking to Anu in exactly the sort of language she wanted to hear. I couldn’t help thinking what a truly exceptional person he was—what an effort he made and how relatable he could be.

Now, as I was finishing up with C-DOT, my relationship with Rajiv had only deepened. He would call me at night sometimes, at ten or ten-thirty. ‘Sam, come.’ So I would go with Anu to his home and we would talk, just the three of us.

But my personal feelings aside, I knew that my relationship with the prime minister had more or less given me carte blanche to take on whatever role I thought would make most sense post-C-DOT. I was thinking hard about how to bring technology to bear on India’s most pressing problems and what I might do to further that. We had talked about it. I was now beginning to get some clarity on what I wanted to do.

Additionally, I was part of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, chaired by Professor C.N.R. Rao, a world-renowned scientist in the field of super conductivity and materials science. Other members of the council were Dr Ganguly, Dr Tandon, Dr Mashelkar, Dr Narsimha, Dr Raha and Dr Lavakare—India’s most distinguished scientific minds. These were the people who had spent their lives in research. As a scientist, I wasn’t anywhere near as accomplished as them, but I interacted with them regularly, so I was able to learn valuable lessons in agriculture, health, biotechnology, vaccines and other areas from them.

This group was always pushing for more research funds. But they also understood the need to use science and technology for the improvement of society. That was one of the main items on their agenda. What do you do with all this knowledge if not help the common man?

Being part of these discussions had helped me refine my ideas on the best ways to use technology to address specific problems. I was just about ready to make a proposal to Rajiv, when one evening I got a call from his principal secretary, Mrs Sarla Grewal. ‘Mr Pitroda,’ she said, ‘can you come over right away? We have an emergency on our hands.’

I was alarmed. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Please,’ she said, ‘just come.’

When I got to her office, she told me. ‘The PM is so angry, he just fired the secretaries of water and agriculture. He exploded at them.’

‘What do you mean “exploded” at them? Why? What exactly happened?’

‘They were reporting to the PM on what they were doing about water and agriculture. He was so furious at their presentation that he fired them both on the spot. This hasn’t everhappened that the PM would fire two senior people like this. It will cause huge problems, big disruptions in those departments. I’m sure you can convince him otherwise. Please help.’

That same night I talked with the two department secretaries, effectively, the COOs of their ministries. But they didn’t have much to add to what Rajiv’s secretary told me. ‘We were making the presentation. The PM thought it was really bad quality. He just fired us.’

I called Rajiv’s office and told them we’d like forty-eight hours. Would his office please ask him to put the decision on hold for that time? Then I told the secretaries I wanted to meet with them the next day to better understand exactly what the problem was.

We decided to tackle the issue of water. ‘We’ve been asked to ensure adequate water supply for rural India,’ the secretary said.

‘All right. How much water is needed?’

‘Enough. Many places don’t have adequate water resources.’

‘What kind of water are you talking about?’

‘Water.’

‘Let me ask you some questions. Do you know how much water a dog drinks?’

‘What? What do you mean?’

‘I want to know. How much water does a dog drink, a buffalo, a camel, a cow, a cat, a donkey, a goat? How much do people need for bathing, how much for cooking, washing, drinking? Please get this information—then we’ll talk.’

The water secretary had simply not looked at the problem this way. He hadn’t broken the issue down into its component parts, which one would imagine would have been the first thing on his agenda. But he and the agriculture secretary were bureaucrats, not specialists. They didn’t get into the details. They were responsible for planning, but they didn’t feel that a technical understanding was essential for the planning function, or at least for their function. In their presentation to Rajiv they had shown a kind of feel-good, advertisement-type video on India’s water and food production—pretty generalities with little substance. Rajiv was a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy. I understood how those presentations must have infuriated him. No wonder he had stopped them midway and fired them.

I said, ‘Look, if you don’t break the problem down, how can you understand how much you need, and for what purposes? You’d require 20 litres per day, 50 litres, how much? And for whom? There are almost exactly the same number of animals per village as people. You need to know how much water they use, how much the people use. You can’t plan without knowing these things. You certainly can’t report to the PM without specifics.’

Before long they came back with studies showing hard numbers on water requirement and use in the villages. They needed 30 litres per day per person, 40 litres for cattle.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘What are the problems? What do you need?’

They ticked off the challenges: Excess iron in the water supplies, excess fluoride, and occurrence of guinea worms coupled with high bacteria counts. They needed water-testing labs, geohydrological surveys, satellite imagery and education programmes.

It wasn’t that I knew much, if anything, about any of these issues. I was simply asking questions they hadn’t asked themselves before they put together their presentations. A whole new horizon had appeared in front of the officials. There was a lot of technology in water and, of course, in agriculture as well. So we restructured the presentations together. Forty-eight hours later we sat down with the prime minister. They gave their presentations again, and this time he was happier with them. He took back their dismissals.

Thinking about all this, I concluded that now was really the time to look at not just telecom, but at some of the other areas I had identified in the paper I had done earlier, specifically in terms of where and how technology could most effectively impact development. Which of India’s problems were most amenable to generational change, and what kind of organization would it take to accomplish the transformations that might be achieved?

In fact, I was not the first to think along these lines. Several years earlier the national five-year plan had identified more than a dozen areas where science and technology could and should be fruitfully applied to national development. Moreover, the plan had discussed the efficacy of the ‘mission’ approach to addressing problems, i.e., utilizing special task-driven teams or organizations to accomplish specific goals. The mission approach would bring management, coordination and motivation to the efforts, which, by their nature, crossed over bureaucratic boundaries. Providing clean, adequate water, for example, involved the health, agriculture and education departments and others at the national, state and local levels. It required bringing scientists and technologists to focus their attention on specific problems.

The fact that there was no guiding, unifying force behind attempts to address these kinds of large problems meant that they typically got bogged down in a haze of territorial confusion and a multiplicity of priorities. This resulted in a psychology of impotence and somnolence, with little or nothing actually getting accomplished. The mission approach was a potential cure for this malaise.

Even though the five-year plan had established a number of projects to cut through the bureaucratic tangle, they had gone nowhere. Nobody understood them. Nobody was invested in them or wanted to take responsibility for them. They were, as one commentator said, ‘black boxes’. No one knew exactly what was inside them or how they were supposed to work.

But the five-year plan had suggested what the needs were and how they should be addressed. With this as a base, together with Rajiv, I decided that the missions should concentrate on five sectors: Rural drinking water, literacy, immunization, edible oils and telecommunications. Later, we added a sixth: Dairy production.

The National Technology Missions were launched to give new focus to development, where we shift from directing people to empowering them. These were launched in 1986–87, at the initiative of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The mission approach was required to create a sense of urgency, missionary zeal and infrastructure for technological self-reliance and improved delivery systems. It was also required to provide management focus, improved communication, improved centre–state coordination and organized information to substantially increase people’s participation. The delivery of these basic needs required a unique integrated approach to make use of modern technology and tools to understand grass-root realities and the talent of our young intellectuals, professionals and technocrats. It also required cooperation between the various agencies, the active participation of women as well as strong political commitment at the state and district level. To succeed in these missions we needed to rejuvenate our existing institutions, simplify antiquated procedures, decentralize planning, mobilize available national resources, eliminate the duplication of efforts, provide modern management for motivation, mobilization and monitoring, and focus on quality and continuity; there was also a need to bring social auditing by people outside the system, and bring traditional community participation back into our mainstream.

I would come on as adviser to the prime minister for the Technology Missions with a ministerial rank. My overall objective would be to mobilize technology to benefit the people, especially the rural population and those in the sectors we had identified. In addressing these six areas, I would attempt to integrate technological interventions with government efforts, private industry and volunteer resources. My job would be to coordinate the ministries and galvanize the work already being done. I would keep everyone involved and focused on goals and timelines. I’d operate independently and bring in new methods of management. All these functions were right up my alley. I wasn’t a specialist in any of the mission areas other than telecom, but I could be the catalyst for all of them.

The first requirement was the staff, i.e., a secretary, someone I could rely on as a kind of ‘chief of staff’. This was going to be a vast job. I had more or less created it for myself and I was ready to tackle it, but I knew I’d need someone with exceptional talents alongside me.

I found that person in Jairam Ramesh, a brilliant young man educated in India and then in the United States at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, specializing in engineering, economics, management and technology policy. Ramesh had been working as an adviser to Abid Husain at the Planning Commission, which had devised the five-year plan. Husain and I were close friends. He was a colourful man with an open mind, a generous heart and a deep understanding of government institutions. He was a strong supporter of the Technology Missions concept, and generously offered me his advisership. Ramesh personified exactly what I needed—he wasn’t just broadly knowledgeable, but full of ideas, energy, enthusiasm and drive.

Next, I hand-picked the mission directors. The team comprised Gauri Ghosh, Dr Misra, Dr Shenoy, Dr Rao, Dr Randhawa, Mr Narayan, Dr Kurien, secretary of health, Jairam, Dr N. Ravi and myself.

We now had in hand an interesting organizational structure. Each of the mission directors reported to their respective ministers: the immunization director to the health minister, the literacy director to the education minister, the edible oils director to the agriculture minister, and so on. At the same time, however, their objectives were defined by the Technology Missions, and they were accountable to me as adviser. In this structure one of my jobs was to resolve conflicts. I met regularly with the various national Cabinet ministers and also with the ministers and chief ministers of each state. My approach was to make sure the ministries got appropriate credit for our accomplishments, which had a beneficial effect all around.

In each of our mission sectors, my sermon was always that technology is an entry point to bring about generational change. Bringing the right technologies to the forefront would allow for radical new approaches to fundamentally transform existing conditions.

In the realm of water, for example, perhaps our most formidable problem was that there were over 100,000 villages without adequate sources of drinking water. Water had traditionally been located in these places mainly by dowsers and water diviners using age-old methods. Instead, we called in space research experts to provide us with geohydrological mapping so we knew exactly where to drill wells. Our success at finding water sources went up exponentially. At the same time, we had to use technology and build plants to remove excess iron and fluoride from the water. We also had to build many desalination plants to get drinking water from salty seawater.

A large percentage of Indian villages had water sources, but not clean water. We identified 100,000 of these villages and set up testing laboratories in each district. We instituted standards and established treatment facilities. We had over 30,000 villages with guinea worm affecting people’s health, and education, training and safe wells were needed to avoid contracting infection through feet in water.

A major challenge was posed by the Mark 4 model water-pump that was used all over India. When these pumps broke down, they often stayed broken because the villages didn’t have people with the skills to fix them. Our response to this issue was to print and distribute many thousands of easy-to-understand repair manuals. We knew that when these got into the right hands, a huge number of these Mark 4s would stay operational, significantly increasing village water supplies across rural India.

We printed the manuals in each of India’s fifteen languages, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Malayali, and the rest. But we had a major problem with distribution. When we shipped the leaflets, we feared the state minister’s office might keep 200 of the copies, the secretary might keep 100 and somebody else would keep fifty. By the time manuals finally reached the right local officials, their number was vastly diminished—only a couple of hundred out of a thousand, not nearly enough. And then we’d face logistical errors such as the Kerala officials being saddled with the Gujarati-language manuals, and the Bengali officials getting the Malayali manuals. It was all simply a mess.

Technology Missions - Section 05

In the August of 1987, the initial three-year period for C-DOT was up. To mark the anniversary, we decided to present a report to the nation at Delhi’s big Vigyan Bhawan and give a live demonstration of our telephone exchange to the prime minister and others. We invited 1200 people from all over the country—businessmen, manufacturers, scientists, academics, government ministers, students and all the major media, in addition to Rajiv himself. The C-DOT teams from Delhi and Bangalore provided a live demo and displayed the exchange components and associated hardware we had developed.

I gave a little introduction at the podium. It was outlined in the ‘Report to the Nation’, as follows:

 

Mr Prime Minister, distinguished guests, and friends from C-COT, it is a pleasure to present a report to the nation on C-DOT’s accomplishments in the last three years. Perhaps someone might be curious to know why, when C-DOT has been an open book right through. The answer is that this great nation of ours had reposed in us ‘super trust’ of developing a sophisticated digital telephone switching technology and products on our own from scratch for Rs 36 crores in thirty-six months. Now the question is, how far have we been able to come up to her expectations. Did we size up to it? The questions posed are as difficult as the answers themselves. But our endeavour would be to answer these queries frankly and honestly for you to judge. According to us, the task was not, and has not been, a simple one, by any yardstick. In fact, for quite some time it was considered to be a great gamble by many. However, we believe it has proven to be a great initiative on the part of the Indian system to challenge the genius and the drive of our young people.

The Centre for Development of Telematics was established on August 25, 1984 by the government with the following objectives:

 

•   To develop sophisticated telematics technology and products indigenously

•   To digitize India’s telephone network to improve overall service

•   To be prepared for the integrated service digital network of the future

 

C-DOT is a scientific society funded jointly by the Department of Electronics and the Department of Telecom. The main goal of C-DOT has been to develop accessibility and rural communication with a focus on self-reliance, labour-intensive and capital-sensitive programmes. At present, C-DOT has 425 people with an average age of 25 years. In Delhi, there are 215 working on software, systems and administration. In Bangalore, there are 210 people working on hardware and production. C-DOT has now developed small, medium and large rural exchanges, private automatic exchanges, and other exchanges for the digital networks.

In spite of all our accomplishments, we still have miles to go. We are conscious of the fact that designing a family of digital switching systems will not solve the telecom problems of India. We need to manufacture, install, maintain and service these systems for a long time to come. We recognize that qualified and dedicated people coupled with management skills to mobilize and motivate their capabilities are the ultimate limitations of development and not capital or technology. Finally, we would like to thank our families for allowing each one of us to spend long hours at work, the media for fair coverage of our ongoing activities, and all those individuals, organizations and government agencies who have supported us.

Mr Prime Minister, please allow us to say publicly that without your personal involvement from 1981, our dream to build self-reliance in this vital technology of tomorrow as part of the ultimate goal outlined by our founding fathers of an independent India would have remained only a cherished reverie never to be achieved—but only to be deferred, delayed, distracted and dead. Through your concern, commitment and continuing encouragement, it has been possible to deliver this development to the nation. Mr Prime Minister, thank you for your vision, support and presence.

 

Then one of the young engineers stood up and made a direct call to a colleague in Bangalore, the two describing and explaining the designs, the products, what they were and how they worked, all in clear layman’s terms, for the benefit of everyone in the hall. Then Rajiv spoke for fifteen minutes. He was impressed. Judging from the media accounts the next day, the entire country was impressed. I was proud of my team and very happy.

That was my concluding report on C-DOT, my way of saying:C-DOT is working well and it is on autopilot. This is the product and the process. Everything is on track and being implemented. Our engineers and administrators have the work in hand.Now it wastime for me to move on.

Path to Development Section 04

In all of this I was hands-on, designing, managing and cheerleading throughout the way. But as we went along I was also absorbing lessons and drawing conclusions. Telecom for India was in its infancy, but I was convinced that the exchange of information enabled by telecom and IT would eventually have the same kind of effects in India as it had had in the US. Connectivity would be the basis for openness, accessibility, networking, economic development decentralization and democratization and, as a result, fundamental social transformation.

I was convinced that the lack of information exchanges was directly connected with poverty. In India, as in many other parts of the world, poverty has a lot to do with the poverty of information and knowledge. However, knowledge is power, and not many people like to share their power. If people can get information and knowledge, in whatever form they need—be it agriculture, business, soil, water or health—it adds to their prosperity, directly and indirectly. I had seen, first-hand, the effect that telecom and IT was having on economic life in America. I was sure that India could move in the same direction too. All it needed was political will.

Telecom would be an economic and social driver. You could already notice the beginnings of that in the villages as the public phones made their appearance and became a part of village life. I could see that they would empower people politically as well. If you can pick up the phone and call your elected officials yourself, it gives you a certain perceived power. You can reach out to them. You can question them. You can ask them for information and explanations. You can make your presence felt. With phones you can organize things quickly across great distances.

India, I thought, was ripe for what I conceived of as generational change. Telecom was a big idea. Looking to the future, it had the potential to catalyse a pervasive, society-wide transformation.

As I immersed myself more and more deeply in the Indian environment I continued to think about the fact that there were two ways to go about creating this social transformation. The first was to create a big private business in telecom. The country needed digital switching coupled with local production. You could build a large company to do these things; you could ‘entrepreneurize’ it. This was a path to great wealth.

Assuming you wanted telecom to have a nation-building impact, the prerequisite was political will. Without political will and visible ongoing support from the government leadership, it is difficult to execute big ideas. I would have been nowhere without Mrs Gandhi’s approval and Rajiv Gandhi’s political will, support and enthusiasm.

And along with political will, you need domain expertise to get things done. In India, with its bureaucratic habits and stultifying procedures, you absolutely need young, fresh talent. But managing young talent is an art in itself. It requires an unconventional approach, with a focus on collaboration. It translates to egalitarian management methods and selfless commitment on the part of the leadership.

Young people need clear and simple goals. Not ‘simple’ in terms of how the goals might be achieved—there are few human enterprises more complex and challenging than building digital telecom systems—but simple in terms of being well defined, single-minded, explicit and clearly articulated. Youngsters need to be guided every step of the way. They need new work culture, work norms, work ethics, work habits.

At times, all this felt like an immensely frustrating uphill battle. So it was important to me to have my own guide—just as I was a guide to the young engineers. I needed to have an internal compass to find and preserve my moral and psychological balance. In my case I looked to Mahatma Gandhi for help.

Gandhi was embedded in my brain—his moral power, the way he never turned away from what he had set out to do, but also the fact that he arrived in South Africa as a lawyer, looking to make some kind of a career for himself. Yet, he found something completely different, a social mission. He became a new person, a person who devoted his life to what he called ‘public work’.

I did everything I could to keep our young people excited. We had parties, cultural programmes, performances and camps. With all the cheerleading and motivational talks, the drama training from my university days came in very handy. These were morale-building activities. But I also needed our people to feel like they were a part of something larger, that their work was essential to the growth and health of their country. I wanted them to feel proud. They weren’t just holding a job, they were vital cogs in an endeavour that contributed to India’s well-being.

Finally, I understood early on that even though our young engineers were so engrossed in creating C-DOT, it could not possibly be the farthest point on their horizons in terms of career and life goals. They were going to seek their own mobility, their own paths upwards—aspiration and ambition were part of their youthful natures too. I wanted them to see C-DOT as a rich environment that would help them progress in their lives. Doing their best at C-DOT would help them open avenues to their futures. At C-DOT they would build their skill sets and their résumés; doing their best with us would contribute to wherever they would be going over the next twenty or thirty years.

I tried hard to get that message across. It was part and parcel of envisioning C-DOT, not just as a telecommunications project, but as a springboard for Indian engineering talent. And after a year or so of operations a chance came along for me to make my point. Two of our managers came to me and said, ‘Sir, we have a problem—bad news. We have seven people who want to go to the US for further studies. We’re angry, sir. We want to fire them immediately.’

‘Fire them?’ I said. ‘Let’s throw a party for them.’

‘What do you mean? They’re taking advantage of us. They’re ungrateful. We trained them and now they want to leave us.’

‘I’m happy they’re doing that,’ I said. ‘What a great thing. Our engineers are going abroad. They’ll take with them all the things they’ve learned here. They’ll be our ambassadors. Of course, they should go.’

So I had a big party for them. I gave a speech. ‘I’m so proud of these seven young people. They’re leaving us. But they’ll take with them great memories of C-DOT, memories of love and affection. Now, if you guys have any problems, you can call them in the US, and they’ll give you answers. Look at them as your extension over there.’

The speech was a hit. I meant every word I said. And, in fact, it has played out very much like I thought and hoped it would. Today, there are several hundred C-DOT engineers in Silicon Valley. In 2011, I had lunch with forty or fifty of them. ‘Sir, I was there in 1987.’ ‘Sir, I was there in 1991.’ It was like an alumni reunion. C-DOTians are everywhere in key leadership positions in companies in the US, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. They are well-accomplished, well-connected, well-informed people who take pride in themselves.

But C-DOT itself was only a mere part of the larger picture, where we needed a comprehensive strategy. You could not say, I’ll design the product, but I don’t know how to manufacture.Or I don’t know how to set up ancillary industries.Or I don’t know how to create standards.All these needed to be part of an overall plan.

We also needed to be media-savvy. The press was going to carry our message. In India’s political environment, the tenor of that message would be important, perhaps critical. I knew there would be hiccups along the way, but I felt that if C-DOT was running well and doing its job right, the reporting would be positive.

A big part of doing the job right was to have a clear cost–benefit advantage in mind. Whatever we did, it had to be not only better but less expensive and affordable as well. We couldn’t build all this fancy technology and then find out at the end that it could be bought for a cheaper price abroad. So it had to be affordable, scalable and sustainable. But if it wasn’t affordable, the rest would be irrelevant. We were clear on the point that what works in developed countries would not necessarily work in India. We needed an Indian model of development to meet Indian requirements.

I didn’t fully understand all—or maybe even most—of these things when we started out. I distilled their essence as we went along. But I did know one thing clearly that stayed with me daily at C-DOT. That in order to accomplish what I wanted, C-DOT needed to be a part of the government, yet separate from it. In the first two-plus years of C-DOT’s existence I felt I had succeeded in establishing this healthy, functional bypass. C-DOT was organized and productive. Our costs were one-fifth of what it would have cost to import the equivalent equipment. We were scaling up, moving towards our ultimate goal—the 40,000-line urban switch.

But on that switch we were running behind schedule. I had promised a thirty-six-month time frame, and the large urban switch was going to take forty or forty-six months to deliver. But, in fact, a delay of this kind didn’t mean anything. C-DOT’s work was vast—the design, the manufacturers, the ancillary industries, the 6 lakh villages. In the big picture, a six- or twelve-month delay for the large switch was immaterial. But that was my engineering self speaking. I didn’t foresee how an essentially irrelevant thing like this had the potential to come back and bite me with a vengeance. This delay was used later by a few to harass me.

Now that C-DOT was on track, my presence was becoming far less crucial. From here on, the main work would be fine-tuning, which wasn’t an area I wanted to focus my attention on. With Rajiv Gandhi in office, I had a window of opportunity to do other things. If I spent a lot of my time refining C-DOT, the chance would slip away. In 1987 I began thinking seriously about what those other things might be.

Rajiv and I had spent a good deal of time talking about how technology could help address poverty, inequality, inclusion, basic human needs and some more of the country’s most acute problems. These were serious conversations, in the sense that the possibilities excited both of us. But to that point they were no more than discussions between friends. However, the more I spoke to Rajiv, the more I got sucked into dreaming big to modernize India.

But as we talked, and as I scaled down my participation in C-DOT, I began to think about these things more consciously. To enable some coherence on the subject—for myself as much as for anything else—I put together a fifty-page paper outlining the areas where I thought technology could play a critical role: literacy, water, agriculture, transport, energy, health. I entitled the paper: ‘India in 2011’. What kind of an India did we want to build in the 21st century? When I shared that presentation with Rajiv, he asked me to have a conversation with some of his staff in the prime minister’s office. Gopi Arora, his secretary, liked the plan and we collectively agreed with the prime minister to launch this vision document on national television on 14 August for public discussion. However, the government got busy with the Punjab Accord and our plan to start a national conversation on India in the 21st century got derailed. Similarly, I had also done a detailed document on the building of the Congress Party, right after Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the centennial celebration of the Congress in Mumbai. The plan was to operationalize his vision of the party for the future, a plan we had to also let go of due to our day-to-day firefighting activities.

 

Path to Development Section 03

The 128-line rural automatic exchange was C-DOT’s first product. To unveil it to the public we booked the big function room at the Taj West End Hotel in Bangalore. We invited the relevant group of Cabinet ministers. I organized the presentation and laid it out. The kids in Bangalore were working on it non-stop.

I flew in to Bangalore the night before, to hear that everything was on track. We were ready to go. ‘Good,’ I said, ‘let’s go straight to the hotel. I want to have a look at the room.’

The first thing that caught my eye when I walked in through the door was a line of sofas and armchairs in the front row.

‘Why are these here?’ I asked the hotel manager.

‘For the VIPs, sir,’ he said.

This was the last thing I wanted. C-DOT was supposed to be as egalitarian as possible—an ongoing struggle. I was not going to tell our engineers and staff that they were less important than anybody else—why folding chairs for them, and sofas for the higher-ups?

‘No,’ I said. ‘I want the VIPs to sit on the same chairs as everyone else.’

The hotel manager and his assistants were horrified at the thought that the hotel might be seen as being disrespectful towards the ministers. They insisted that protocol had to be followed; the VIPs had to be seated properly.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘this is not yourfunction, it’s ourfunction. Please get rid of these things for me. I’m not sending this kind of signal, that VIPs have a sofa and everyone else has to sit on a chair.’

I also decided that I wasn’t going to say anything myself at the event. I strongly felt the same way I had when we announced the creation of C-DOT. I was the driving force at C-DOT, no question. But there were countless extremely talented people involved, and this was a national project. The telecommunications minister was the one who ought to be making the speeches, not me.

The launch went beautifully. The ministers gave speeches. I stayed in the back, where I could easily watch the proceedings. I was filled with pride for what our young team had accomplished, and filled with confidence that we could accomplish everything else we had promised. Now we had to get these switches up and running—in thousands of interior villages.

This was not a job for the faint of heart. I was big on giving pep talks to C-DOT’s people. Some might have even thought I was a little overenthusiastic. But we all needed to be psyched—myself as well as the young engineers. Getting to this point was one thing, keeping up our energies for the long haul in front of us was something else altogether. The RAX was a triumph, but it was only the beginning.

As part of the launch, we announced that we would install one RAX a day. Our slogan was: ‘An RAX a Day’.For India’s 6 lakh villages we would need somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 rural exchanges. If we installed one a day, that would mean only 365 a year. To install ten a day, which I actually thought was feasible, would still mean a ten-to-fifteen-year project.

But the installations didn’t happen overnight; everything had to be geared up. So after a month, when ‘An RAX a Day’ didn’t swing into action, a newspaper headlined the event, calling it: ‘A Hoax a Day’.

All the engineers were mighty upset. ‘Sir, look what they’re saying. “A hoax a day”. This is not fair! How dare they say that!’

‘Don’t worry,’ I told them. ‘Let them write whatever they want. We’ll get there. We have to concentrate on putting out one RAX a day. Then we’ll go up to three, four, five a day, ten a day. We are going to fill up the country with them.’

Insulted as they were, the engineers put themselves on a war footing. After a month we were producing two RAXs a day. Ultimately, we did go up to ten a day. All the fabricators had to speed up and coordinate. More transformers, more connectors, more racks—it all had to be lined up. And all of it was, of course, indigenous production.

Along with the rural switches we needed to provide public telephones. For that, we designed public telephone installations we called STD/PCOs, which meant a telephone, a big, yellow STD/PCO sign, or sometimes a yellow stand-alone phone booth. The yellow was designed to stand out in the same way the red British telephone booths stood out. If you saw yellow, you knew a public phone was around. The phone had a little meter that came with it to monitor the length of the call and bill it accordingly. The phone was manned, but the customer did the dialling. At the end of the call, the manager collected the fee—20 per cent for him, 80 per cent for the phone company.

Public telephones were the property of the managers. The phones provided them with their livelihood. They maintained them and took a lot of care to ensure they weren’t vandalized. They often took the units home at night and plugged them in in the morning at their tables in the booths.

The idea was not just to make phones accessible but also to employ a large number of people. We instituted a policy that gave job preference to people with disabilities. Later, many women became phone managers as well. These public telephones poured out of our manufacturers as our switches were installed in village after village. Eventually, we placed more than 2 million of them throughout rural India. Everywhere you went there was a yellow public-phone. In villages behind mountains, across deserts—the yellow phones dotted the landscape. Now almost everyone could make or receive a phone call. Village kids found they could earn a few pennies by running off to find people if a call came for them. If Sanjay wanted to reach his sister, Radha, who lived in another province, he called the phone in her neighborhood, where an enterprising kid would run off to find her. ‘A call for Radha from Sanjay!’

In a short while, the phones became the centre of social activities. Something like an adda (the sociocultural tradition of people gathering together to talk and eat on a regular basis), much like the French salon. People socialized and spent time with each other where the phones were, while waiting to make or receive calls, make business arrangements, or just chat with friends. So the booth managers started selling things like tobacco, cigarettes, candies, a few sundries. It was a simple idea, but a fertile one. People loved the phones. They created jobs, and they did what I had envisaged they would do from the beginning. They gave people access to the world beyond the confines of their distant and isolated homes. The phones brought them a step closer to modernity. The telephone was no longer a luxury, but a necessity. A farmer could make a call to sell his produce, a mother could speak to her son working in another state, a local shopkeeper could order his supplies. People started using public phones in a variety of ways.

As we installed an increasing number of rural exchanges, we also designed and manufactured our next switch, the 512-line exchange. The smaller switches we placed in villages, the larger ones, capable of routing calls from ten or twelve villages, we installed in market towns. Rural exchanges and public telephones flourished simultaneously.

Path to Development, Section 02

Now that Rajiv was prime minister, I thought it would make sense to give him a brief on C-DOT’s progress. He had been a huge help in getting the project off the ground; I knew he was genuinely invested in it. But I wanted to show him exactly what we were doing. No laypersons understood what a digital switch was or what a 128-line or a 256-line rural exchange might be. RAXs (rural automatic exchanges) and PBXs—it was all Greek to them. What did the thing look like? How big was it? What did it actually do?

‘I can have a demonstration for you outside your office,’ I said.

‘Excellent,’ said Rajiv. ‘Set it up.’

The excitement at C-DOT could hardly be described in words. ‘The PM wants to see our design?’ ‘The PM is interested in what we’re doing?’ The kids were absolutely over the moon.

On the given day a small team of our youngsters set up the exchange near Rajiv’s office. I went in to meet with him first. When we walked out, six or seven of the C-DOT engineers were standing there with the equipment. From the outside the switches looked like nondescript metal cabinets. But the insides were a complex array of printed circuit cards with microprocessors, software, electronic components, ports, links, buffers, backup power sources and other elements that made these devices among the world’s most intricate machines.

Rajiv shook hands with all of the C-DOT youngsters. One of them said to me afterwards, ‘I’m not washing my hand for a month now.’

The switch prototypes we demonstrated for Rajiv Gandhi were the skeleton of the 128-line and 256-line exchanges designed for rural use. We had promised the government a family of switches from 128 lines for rural use to 40,000 lines for urban areas. My plan was to design every component of the small exchanges so that we could incorporate them as modules into the larger exchanges. We’d be using the same cards, processors and software. Everything was modular, flexible, expandable, scalable—and affordable.

But we wanted to start with the smallest exchanges, which we intended to install in rural villages. I wanted people in these small, remote places to be able to easily call their relatives and friends living in other places; I wanted to give small business owners the ability to connect with their customers and suppliers elsewhere, so that they could expand and build their businesses—none of which was possible with the current generation of scarce and unworkable phones. Villagers, the vast majority of the population, were isolated in stagnant social and economic enclaves. I intended to break them free from their barriers and connect them with each other and the rest of the world.

All over the globe, higher growth has been correlated with increased telephone density. The general wisdom was that if you were rich, you had a lot of telephones, and the corollary was that if you had lots of telephones, you were bound to be rich. In the industry of telecommunications, the prevailing wisdom was to start with the dense rich areas and work your way outwards.

I had a different view. My approach, which I talked about in every forum possible, was to not worry about telephone densityin developing countries like India, but to focus on accessinstead. Telephone density in the cities is not going to touch life in the villages, which is where India’s challenge lies. We needed to worry instead about improving access to telephones for everybody.

That, in essence, meant public phones. I wanted to make phones available to rural people, the village dwellers. Don’t give a phone to the rich man for his and his family’s personal use. Instead, put it in a shop or a pharmacy or a school or a bus station. Put it on the street, somewhere where ordinary people can use it.

But whenever I talked about public access, people thought immediately of the Western-style coin-operated public phones. I constantly heard things like, You can’t have a coin-operated phone; the people won’t have coins; they’ll be vandalized; you won’t be able to maintain them.

But I wasn’t thinking of coin-operated phones. ‘Coin-operated phones are the Western model,’ I would say. ‘They’re expensive to make, they’re expensive to install, they’re expensive to maintain. That’s not what I want. What I want are public phones operated by a phone manager or phone entrepreneur. Give phones to an unemployed person or a disabled person. Set up a table in a tea shop. People will come to make calls. The telephone will generate a receipt for each call. The users will pay the phone person. The phone person will pay a fee to the phone company and keep the rest.’ Ultimately, these public telephones came to be known as Subscriber Trunk Dialing/Public Call Offices—or STD/PCOs—set up with yellow signs all over the country for people to make calls anywhere without having to own a telephone. The public telephones created roughly 2 million new jobs in the country and provided livelihood to many families, especially the underprivileged and the handicapped. They also connected every corner in India to each other and to the rest of the world.

Because of these public telephones and their clear utility for common people, it became easier to privatize the telecom industry in India in 1994. But we weren’t thinking of industrial progress at that time. We were thinking about connecting India from the bottom-up.

Our engineers understood this concept and were committed to delivering a phone system that would satisfy local Indian needs and assure access. Together, we designed small 128-line exchanges that incorporated the most sophisticated technology, but we ruggedized them for local conditions. They were humidity-, dust- and monsoon-proof. They did not require air conditioning, which necessitated a design breakthrough since switches built for high-temperature and high-humidity environments invariably needed air conditioning. Beyond that, the Indian electrical grid was notoriously undependable; we couldn’t have the switches overheating every time the power failed.

Our answer to the heat problem was, first, to use low-powered microprocessors. That meant the switches were a little slower than the standard commercial switches, but in our circumstances that was irrelevant. Then we gave more space to the various components and configured them differently from what was standard in order to increase the so-called ‘vertical chimney’ effect, which would efficiently dissipate the heat from the microprocessors. Our switches weren’t sleek, they were bulkier than they might have been. But I wasn’t concerned about aesthetics. I just wanted them to work in a hostile Indian environment with dust, humidity and heat, and without air conditioning.

From the beginning I had several objectives for C-DOT. The first, of course, was to design and build switches. For C-DOT itself I had selected recently graduated engineers—our average age was twenty-three. I did this in order to get people who hadn’t been conditioned yet by the system, into the system. But I had a second goal in mind too. Indian schools were producing wonderful engineers—as good as any in the world. But, typically, these young people looked overseas for employment. Engineering jobs in the US and Europe were far more attractive and lucrative than jobs in India. The West was where the action and the opportunities were. It was an example of the brain drain. My second objective for C-DOT was that it would keep many of these smart, young people inIndia. C-DOT and its inevitable spillovers would nurture our native hardware and software talent and provide a home for them. From the beginning I had thought of C-DOT as a catalyst, or at least a model, for high-tech growth in India generally.

Another objective was regarding the manufacturing front. I talked a great deal about indigenous production, how India could build its own telecom system instead of spending cash reserves on imports from multinationals. As we made progress on switch designs in Delhi and Bangalore, I began organizing the manufacturing effort.

The first step was to enlist people and companies to build the equipment. To do this I called a conference in Delhi where we presented our manufacturing plans and announced that manufacturing licenses would be available for a fee of 4 lakh rupees. There was more than a little opposition to this approach; it seemed to some a random and overly casual way to build a manufacturing base. ‘Sir,’ I heard, ‘this is not possible. How can you let just everybody get a license?’ My idea was to build multiple manufacturing capabilities for telecom equipment and train a large number of people at various locations in the private sector.

My answer to that was, ‘Why not? They’re paying 4 lakh rupees, let themworry about it.’ That might have sounded a little flippant. But the fact was that no one in India had ever manufactured telecom equipment privately. So it wasn’t as if we had a group of experienced manufacturers to choose from. No one in India had ever produced telecom transformers. (Eventually, I had to send someone from the US to teach them.) No one had ever made connectors before, no one had fabricated serving boards or electronic racks. We were going to have to build an entire industry of manufacturers and vendors from nothing.

When I invited potential producers in to buy licenses, I knew that the licensees would be novices in telecom manufacturing. But I had lined up ancillary industries that would provide materials and components. I would direct the manufacturers to these sources. I would teach them how to fabricate and how to assemble to the required specifications. I would teach them how to test. My plan was to create a new native Indian industry from the ground up.

So, in a sense, the process was random, but I was certain the incentives would generate the necessary interest and, eventually, the necessary manufacturing expertise. Which is what happened, sometimes, in unexpected ways. One day at the Hyderabad airport a young man came up to me. ‘Mr Pitroda, I’ve read about you, you’re doing wonderful things. I’m a mechanical engineer. Do you think I could do something?’ I happened to have a connector in my pocket, a telephone jack—a dime a dozen in America, but hard to come by in India. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘make this in India. Go to the US, figure it out.’ Six months later he was making connectors.

At the Delhi licensing meeting, forty-eight people came forward to buy manufacturing licenses. Forty-eight was too many, I knew that. More than a few of them were bound to not have the resources or ability. Inevitably, some were going to fail.

But this kind of entrepreneurial risk-taking was not part of the culture, particularly in government-sponsored industries. People in the administration said, ‘How can you talk openly about people failing? It’s absolutely not acceptable.’

My answer was that we had to accept it. ‘The fact is that some of them are going to fail. There’s nothing to do about it. Failure is a part of life, and a precondition for success. It is okay for failures to happen.’

That caused some consternation. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru, India had embraced a command-driven, socialistically oriented economy. Privatization of this sort was a new idea, a different kind of culture. The expectation of failure sounded harsh, even unsavory. It smacked of cruel, crass American capitalism. ‘It’s okay to fail,’ I said. That might have seemed blunt and unsympathetic, but it was the truth.

I had envisioned that we would be creating a sizeable industrial base, but I think the scope of it wasn’t immediately evident to almost anyone. Even Rajiv Gandhi himself wasn’t aware of the extent of what all was happening. But he had implicit trust that I would be able to manage, and I didn’t want to burden him with anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. ‘The best thing I can do is give you the gift of time,’ I told him. I didn’t want to come to him with a set of problems for him to solve. I wanted to solve them for him. As prime minister he was bombarded by the problems of the world. I didn’t want to add to that. Why am I your friend if I’m going to add to your burdens? I’m not going to give you problems. I’m going to relieve you of problems. That’s my job.That’s what I thought.

That was my attitude. Rajiv liked that. I made no demands. I never asked for any favours. And there weren’t many people around him who didn’t want something. My intention was that whatever time we spent together should be time saved for interesting and innovative ideas. I wanted him to feel good with me, not look at me as someone who needed to be managed.

He and I both experienced that most people in India take thirty minutes to deliver a thirty-second message. The real message normally comes at the end of the meeting, and people invariably have a hidden agenda.

Once the manufacturing licenses were awarded our engineers got even more excited. It wasn’t abstract designs, systems and algorithms any more. They could sense that things were beginning to come to fruition. Some of the teams moved into a new phase, creating plans and teaching tools for the manufacturers to use. We prepared forty-eight sets of drawings. We set up a training room. We made videotapes demonstrating assembly methods. We trained the engineers to use the testing equipment.

All this had to be done on the fast track. Everyone understood what was at stake and that we needed to work as hard and in as disciplined a manner as we were capable of. People had been working hard before, but now it seemed as if the place had gone into overdrive. The young engineers were putting in twelve-hour days, some far more. They took pride in it; they felt totally committed. If someone needed to fly from Bangalore to Delhi to solve some problem, they just did it. I told them, ‘Don’t wait for permission. Do it. When I see it, I’ll sign it. I’ll backdate it. If you have work to do, don’t wait for permission—do it. Do you have to go to the US to figure out how to fix something? Go. Don’t worry about junk, about irrelevancies. Just get the work done.’

Path to Development

At the end of December 1984 Rajiv Gandhi was elected prime minister. His party, the Congress, swept to power on a wave of sympathy. On 5 January 1985 I went to see him.

I had thought a good deal about this meeting. The election had given Rajiv a massive mandate. He was young and charismatic, untainted by any hint of corruption. He was in a position to bring about great generational changes to life in India. I knew he had to be in the process of defining the goals for his administration and ways to achieve them. He was dreaming big. I had a big dream for India as well, one that I wanted to share with him. India could be poised for revolutionary development and growth,I thought, and technology could be a key driver to expedite this process.

We spent an hour together at his house. I described for him what I was thinking of, my plans, and how telecom and IT could change the face of India. I felt we ought to emphasize information and communication technology to expedite developments in vital areas like agriculture, health, education and governance, and to create jobs as well as rev up foreign exchange. I could help and was ready to do whatever was needed.

Rajiv was just about my age, only two years younger. He himself was a techie of sorts. He had studied engineering at Cambridge University. He had been a commercial airline pilot and a radio ham (operator). He liked to tinker with radios and televisions, and had a feeling for tools. He had a grasp on how things could be made to work, which was similar to the way I saw myself.

He was also used to the egalitarian system. He wasn’t impressed by the sycophancy that’s so ingrained in India. This meant that we could talk and exchange thoughts in a straightforward manner. It meant we could relate. He was also the only prime minister who had ever held a ‘regular’ job—unlike a politician—while he was a commercial pilot, so he knew what work life and culture meant, with schedules, commitments, responsibilities and teamwork, something else that made it easy for us to understand each other.

Moreover, as we talked it became clear that his own vision for India included the kinds of things I was talking about and wanted. Technology, we both believed, was the prerequisite for development. Technology, especially telecom, could strengthen India’s democracy; it could level differences and enhance feelings of community among the country’s disparate regions and peoples.

Rajiv Gandhi had grown up amidst the Congress Party’s liberal, non-sectarian ideology, the main force behind the Independence movement. He had gone to school in England and had married Sonia, an Italian woman he met there. Meanwhile, I came from America, with the different orientation I had imbibed in that country. On several fronts we had a basis for understanding each other, and for friendship.

As our discussions deepened, I realized that if I truly wanted to be a part of the kind of changes that were on the agenda, I would have to make up my mind about where I needed to be based. Did I really want to jump in fully and help, or did I want to remain a part-time player juggling between Chicago and India? I hadn’t felt the realization that clearly before, but I did now, seeing it was the same as making the decision. ‘I have decided I’m moving to India with my family,’ I said. ‘Lock, stock and barrel.’

‘Good,’ Rajiv said simply. We didn’t discuss the matter further. There was no job title, no job description, just a shared vision for India. It was understood that I would come and work, not just on C-DOT, but on telecom, information and other technology-related initiatives.

I knew I could go off somewhere instead, build a company and probably make millions and live a very comfortable life. But the opportunity to help build a nation—my India—was unique, challenging and romantic. However, it required a great deal of personal investment and family sacrifices. It was clear from our meeting that this was indeed an extremely rare opportunity, and that if I didn’t grab it, history would never forgive me. The risk was huge, but the potential rewards were huger. I also felt inside that if I did not rise to the occasion, nothing would get done. Connecting India was my calling.

Source: goo.gl/BrIRmR