Tuesday 1 November 2011

Sam Pitroda: An Interview

This interview appeared in India Abroad, New York, Oct 21, 2011

"We need to redesign the nation"


Sam Pitroda has advised more than half a dozen prime ministers of India over the last three decades regarding technology applications and policy. Shivanand Kanavi captures the highlights of this rich experience in a conversation.

How did your engagement with government of India as a technology advisor start nearly thirty years ago?

In the early 80`s computers were just becoming more and more viable in terms of desktop, that was the time Rajiv Gandhi came into the mainstream of politics as a young MP in India. He was visionary and was himself technology savvy. He saw that computers could play very imp role. I had background in telecom, IT, and software in the US and I was also young and because of my background in telecom, I decided to look at telecom as an instrument of change in nation building. 

How did C-DOT come along?

Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi gave me an opportunity to set up C-DOT (Center for Development of Telematics) to develop indigenous technology for India’s effort to digitize networks. Then we had electro-mechanicals [switches]. However we were going digital so we needed products, and one idea was to get products and technologies from MNCs like Alcatel and another approach was to develop indigenously using Indian talent  to meet Indian needs like rural telephony, smaller exchange that can withstand Indian climate; dust; high temp and all of that, so my entry into India was to essentially focus on digital networks, develop rural telecom through C-DOT.

Were you not part of the “computer boys” of Rajiv Gandhi’s era?

Collectively we all felt computers have a role to play not only in telecom but also in other areas and if we really want people to see the benefits of IT then we need to apply it quickly in areas where average Indian could see the advantage. Otherwise they would all say, look this is all fancy stuff only for the rich, urban, elite etc. Many used to say ‘what does this guy know about rural areas? Rural India is very different’. People used to tell me you should work on agriculture, drinking water and sanitation. I used to say ‘you are right, but I don’t know anything about it. You need to find an agriculture or a water expert. I happen to know about IT & telecom so I can only work on it, my knowledge is limited, but there are so many other things going on in the world like biotech, nanotech I don’t know anything about it so I have to focus on what I know and someone else has to focus on other areas’.

How did the idea of computerisation of Indian railways’ passenger reservation system, which celebrates s Silver Jubilee this year, originate? That actually changed people’s perceptions on the ground.

Rajiv was convinced that technology can be an instrument of change. We said we must look for area which affects large number of people. Many people wait at the railway stations e.g. a person is waiting at the railway station window no 6 to get a ticket to Nagpur and you get all the way up to the line and when you say you want a ticket to Nagpur you are told that you have to go to window no 7 and so you have to start all over again. The hassle of getting railway ticket, going to station for booking it etc all that was a painful experience for every citizen. So we thought how about using this for railway reservation.

Problem however were the unions. They were going to be against it as the general impression was that computers take away jobs and that automation is not good. ‘Automation is for the west not for India and India should not automate anything. We should focus on labour intensive technology. We have more people we need to create more jobs so manual is the only way to do it’.

How did you overcome the resistance to the idea?

Unions reacted saying ‘no way’ we will allow this to happen. We started dialogue with unions saying this is important in the long-run and in passengers’ interest. In one of the conversations somebody figured out that if we put computers we would need to have Air-Conditioned rooms so people will benefit from the better work conditions and environments. So we said let’s try it in some place and create a POC (Proof Of Concept). We told the board, ‘give us a slot to try and if you are not happy, unions are not happy then we will revisit’. So people agreed that we should try. Dr P P Gupta the then CMD of CMC was very happy. He was given the mandate to prove the concept. CMC was seen as a new organization; dynamic and innovative. We had the talent in CMC to do this kind of things. After a lot of effort, when we showed the unions that it can work, then we saw change.

In India  at that point in time we also didn’t have the capabilities, if there had been RFPs then they would have surely gone to the IBMs of the world but then the mood was ‘indigenous development’. When proved the concept, people saw it and said consumer would substantially benefit from it as they won’t have to go through the hassle, but then the challenge was how we did it. Even today revenue-wise freight is more important, but we wanted to look at benefit for consumer because then the acceptance for computers overall at a national level would be better, so in a sense it was a railway project but it was more than that. It was a project to prove to all stakeholders; our consumers in many fields and unions in many fields that automation is not bad. Computers are not bad. They will upgrade the jobs. Now your people will work in AC. All those things were critical.

What about wider adoption of IT in the railway operations?

That’s how the CRIS (Centre for Railway Information Systems) was born. Besides reservation there are lots of other things but it took 20yrs for people to embrace this whole idea in a big way. Reservation and ticketing was an instant success. People thought it was a miracle and I would say this was the first grand success for IT in India. By then C-DOT was rolling and exchanges and telecom modernisation were seen as the important.

Going back to the railways story, don’t you think we could use technology to make them safer?

In the Indian Railways, we have huge possibility to use IT for travelling, traffic billing, we have built the highway we want satellite based or GSM based real time monitoring anti-collision device etc. All of that it is very simple. Indian Railway has 40,000 kms of its own optical fibre they are trying to put another 10000 so IT is becoming important in railways in traffic building. Many people die at railway crossings everywhere. We could give the person manning it this little device, which listens to the train coming in and gives an alarm signal that train coming so get off the track. Technology should be used to prevent such deaths. Very soon many technology initiatives of Indian railways are going to be announced.

There were also other technology missions….

Yes more technology missions came in where we could take technology to address the routine problems of people related to water, literacy, immunization, edible oil, and telecom. These were the 5 missions to which we added dairy development as the 6th mission. Then we started changing the mindsets. That was a big accomplishment in a country of then 800 million people-to convince people that technology is something that is positive. Technology is not bad it is not urban, exotic, fancy. To me in those 5 years this was the main accomplishment and it will benefit our young.

What are your current preoccupations?

Today we are nation of connected millions, unfortunately people don’t quiet appreciate this big revolution that has happened in the history of India. So far we were a nation of unconnected millions, now we are all connected in some fashion. You can reach Kashmir, Mizoram, Kanya Kumari just like that. So what does it mean for a nation going forward? How do you redesign the strategies  based on connectivity for development? Should we go around doing the same thing that we have done in the past and not notice the fact that we are a nation of a billion connected now? Something huge happened in last decade let’s sit back and take advantage of it. How do we do everything we do today, differently? I think that’s the main challenge how do we examine governance, public services.

So what it means is that now we need to redesign the nation, if I may use that word. How do we get birth certificate, how do we get land record, how we can file a police report. Today when I file a police report in kerala somebody in Maharashtra can’t read it due to different format, different column, and names do we standardize that so that when a police report is filed in Kerala  it is available in Maharashtra i.e. anybody in Maharashtra can read it and can we do it online because we are connected? Everything we do has to be rethought.

In a sense everything we do today is obsolete; people say we don’t have enough professors, with connectivity we can take a great professor from IIT Kharagpur and broadcast to 2000 colleges. All of that is possible now, distance learning, e-governance all of this can be a reality.  Can we provide for video conferencing so that people don’t have to travel hours for a 5 mins meeting? What we are doing now, could have been done on Skype. So we can avoid you travelling for an hour and half to reach this place to see me. All of these things are possible but this will take time to change the mindset of people. I was once telling PM, “a lot of people come to see you. You could schedule a 10 min interview with a person in Kerala that individual gets up in the morning takes a flight goes to PM’s house where 15 people are waiting he is always hassled it’s going to be 7:30 then 7:45 then you meet for 5 mins and he says “Sir ye problem hai”( Sir, such and such is a problem).. Poor guy has lost whole day so much petrol so much time... you could do the same on video conferencing”.

So going back to the original thought we are nation of connected million and we need to do things differently we need to use cameras, videos, scanning to reduce travel you know to manage our cities better. We cannot manage our cities the way we have been managing. For example, today everybody is focused on urbanisation but their idea is Mumbai has 18 million people and it will become 26 million in........ But we don’t want extrapolation. We need restructuring. How will I use GIS (Geographical Information System) to make Mumbai better. How to use scanners to make Mumbai secure? We really need to make our cities smarter. Come up with different ideas how we improve our slums.

Where is the resistance now?

The government in a sense is not technology friendly. There are young individuals like Jayaram Ramesh’s of the world, who are tech savvy, but there are secretaries in IT who don’t use computers. The Department of Electronics uses manual files to make decisions; they should computerize their files, how many people in Department of Electronics use computers to make decisions. They are taking decisions on technology but they are using manual files. But that’s the system we have. You never see people in Indian government taking notes on a laptop, how many ministers know how to use laptops. You have to be connected you have to be able to read your e-mails, you can’t write or call your secretary and say “dictate karta hoon note likho” (will dictate a letter note it down) and then mail it and then wait for the reply. Those days are over, we are a connected people. We have built this nation in the last 20 years based on technology. Today if we have over $300 billion forex reserve it is only because of technology. IT has given us great deal of global recognition, lots of global companies of our own, lots of success stories, our advantage is we are in large numbers.