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.