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.