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?’
‘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.