Listen to the father of Indian Telecom

Listen to the father of Indian Telecom
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First Published: Sun, Dec 07 2008. 02 30 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Jan 26 2009. 07 38 PM IST
This is Kamla Bhatt; today my guest is Sam Pitroda, who is known as the father of Indian telecom.
He is a visionary, an entrepreneur, an engineer and policy maker. He currently heads India’s National Knowledge Commission. Prior to this in the 1980’s, he was the person who started C- Dot.
Half of India’s population was not born when Mr. Pitroda started C-Dot that unleashed the telecom revolution that we are witnessing today. Welcome to the show.
Sam: Thank You. Thank you for inviting me.
Kamla: Is it true you grew up in India without using a phone?
Sam: Yes. I was born in the east in a small little tribal village in Orissa. There was no running water, there was no electricity, there were no schools, and there were no radios. I remember as a child, when we got our first radio all you could hear in Orissa in that little village was whistle. There was no other reception. So kids used to just listen to whistle and that was great fun. So of course I had no need for a telephone. In those days there were very few telephones and if you had a phone you are too rich to be my friend. So who do you call? I made my first phone call essentially when I came to US.
Kamla: Which was what year?
Sam: 1964
Kamla: And how old were you then?
Sam: I was about 22. I was born and raised in Orissa and then went to school in Gujarat mainly because my parents came from Gujarat to Orissa and we had this strong connection with Gujarat through Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. So I still remember as a child, when Mahatma Gandhi died everybody at home had to take a bath as if somebody in the family had died. So when Sardar Patel died my parents decided to send us to boarding school in Gujarat hoping that we will study something. My father was not well educated, he was only fourth grade educated and he had this desire to make sure that all his kids would study something. So we, my brother and I went to Gujarat to study. We lived in Baroda. I did my degree in physics and saw that Kennedy had decided to send a man on to the moon. I was romantic, I was young, energetic and stupid and I said I want to go to America. I didn’t have money to go to America. Got some loan from Orissa government, bought a ticket, took a boat from Mumbai to Genoa, took a train from Genoa to London, took a plane from London to New York and took a bus from New York to Chicago.
Kamla: Sounds like a movie. Train, car, plane.
Sam: Well, you know I wanted to experience everything, we had all the time then. So came here in 1964 to get a PhD in physics essentially and realised that it takes 7 years to get a PhD in physics and I had a girlfriend in India.
Kamla: How come?
Sam: Well, you know in those days I had a girlfriend, I used to date, but it was not recognised in those days.. I was deeply in love with her and I said I am going to get something quickly done so that she can come here and we can get married. So I was told that I could go get a Masters in Electrical Engineering in 9 months and I said that is what I want to do. So I dropped my PhD in physics, had a degree in electrical engineering. I went to work for a small company in Chicago for a while and then called my fiancé here and got married.
Kamla: From girlfriend she progressed to fiancé?
Sam: Yes, and she then became wife and she is still my wife. We have been married for almost 42 years.
Kamla: And then you went on to establish a company and make your money.
Sam: Yes, then slowly and slowly I called my entire family here. You know we were a big family with 8 brothers and sisters. So 7 came here, then my parents came here. In the process I got to work in telecom, by accident, for a company called GTE, doing digital switching design. I got lot of patents and my father, who was visiting told me once he said that you work too hard, why don’t you work for yourself? So I said OK let’s think about it. I was about 31-32 years old. I started a switching business with two friends in Chicago area. In those days this was you know pretty unusual. This was in early 1970s. We built a business called Westcom Switching, and sold it to Rockwell International in 1979. I made a little bit of money for a guy who never had money. It looked like so much money; I said what am I going to do with all this money? I went to India just to visit. I had never been to Delhi. I went to Delhi, tried to call my wife from a 5 star hotel to Chicago and couldn’t really make a good connection. And I always say that little bit of arrogance and lot of ignorance said I am going to fix this. If I had known everything I know today I would have never even tried it. So, arrogance and ignorance is a great asset. I came back and I told my wife I found my mission in life. I want to go fix India’s telephones. It sounded romantic. So then I decided to go back and forth every 2 weeks just to learn about India and finally someone said “Hey you need to meet Mrs. Gandhi if you really want to do something on that scale”. I didn’t know how to meet Mrs. Gandhi, I had no connections, I didn’t know anybody in Delhi. Finally through somebody, this man was a member of parliament from Gujarat, who knew my father in law, Mr. Baria, a very nice gentleman. He saw spark in my eye and he said I will organise a meeting for you. He organised a meeting and it was initially going to be a 10 minute meeting and I decided to cancel it. I said look in 10 minutes you can’t do anything. This is really serious, she should give me an hour and everybody said “Are you crazy? Why would Mrs. Gandhi give you an hour?”
I said look we cannot do much in 10 minutes. So I waited. Finally got a call after 8-9 months that she would give me an hour. I went back from Chicago with a presentation and all that. She had her entire cabinet there, everybody finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, Venkatraman they were all there at that time. That is when I got to meet Rajiv (Gandhi) for the first time. Rajiv was just getting into politics and we were just about same age and it was an accident of faith, we clicked. I saw in his eye a very comforting, welcoming attitude. I thought he would be the guy who would understand what I want to do. So when I gave a presentation to Mrs. Gandhi he was there he took interest and then I sort latched on to him. Over a period of time we became friends and he was really the key driver. Without Rajiv Gandhi I would not be able to do what I did. It was his political will that gave me the strength to go do all the things. You could say to some extent it was a joint vision but the political will was the key. He had trust in me, confidence in me, he backed me up to the hilt, he was very nice to me, very supportive and I think that kind of politician is hard to find. I don’t think many people understood Rajiv. He was a man in a hurry, he was a man who wanted two things for India, modernise India. He believed that as we enter 21st century we cannot enter with all the excess baggage of the past. We must look forward. He believed in technology, he was himself a tinkerer. He would fix a light bulb and he would say Sam look I got this light bulb.
Kamla: He was also a pilot.
Sam: Yes, he was a pilot. So it was a great combination. And then he gave me initial support and then when Mrs. Gandhi died, in January of 1985. I met him at his house. I still remember that and I decided I must go back. So I told my wife that I want to go back to India for good and then he was visiting US to meet President Reagan, by then he was Prime Minister. So I took my wife to meet him. He was very gracious and it was a great motivating force for Anu (wife) as well. So we decided to go back with the family and I spent essentially a decade in India.
Kamla: But you gave up your US citizenship?
Sam: Well you couldn’t really work closely with Prime Minister day in day out and still be US citizen. It was a moral decision on my part, he never said anything and nobody ever said anything. People didn’t even know that, that well but I felt I couldn’t do that.
Kamla: C-Dot had already been established by then.
Sam: C-Dot was established before Rajiv Gandhi became a Prime Minister. C dot was established in August 1984 under Mrs. Gandhi’s regime.
Kamla: Just a month before she died.
Sam: Yes. But Rajiv was very active at that very point of time. So in 1985 when he became Prime Minister, he was committed to modernising India. He was a firm believer in the use of technology; he and I both very strongly felt that technology is a great social leveller. Technology is an entry point to bring about generational changes and not an end point. So beside telecom, under his leadership I got to work on technology missions related to drinking water, immunisation, literacy, edible oil, milk production, dairy development and telecom. The idea there was to really take technology to people. There is technology in water from a desalination plant to hydrological surveys, satellite imagery. So technology unfortunately is seen by many as something exotic, fancy, urban, latest.
Kamla: What does technology mean to you?
Sam: To me technology is problem solving. Technology is a tool through which you can really begin to solve problems, which are complex, which at the end of the day help people.
Kamla: Means to an end?
Sam: Yes, it is a tool. Technology by definition is something you do outside your body to give you comfort whether it is a chair or glasses or clothes or food or communication. So our goal was to really take technology to people to see if you could make a dent in poverty, disparity, expedite the process of development, those were the fundamental issues. People at the top of the pyramid will find their way; in technology but can we take technology to the bottom of the pyramid was the real challenge.
Kamla: Before I go to the next question, let us quickly clarify what is it that C-Dot did? What forces did it unleash in India?
Sam: C-Dot was set up more as a bypass to the telecom system because Rajiv firmly believed that if we don’t setup a bypass it would be very difficult to change the system.
Kamla: Work around?
Sam: This is true today also. I think in many areas today if we don’t bypass some of the generational changes would be very difficult to implement because of the mindset. So C-Dot was setup as a group of young people dedicated to designing through indigenous development of the telecom switching systems and related products with focused on rural communication, digitisation of the telecom network and with a focus on building human capacity for telecom, software, computers all of that. We had some total of about 500 young engineers with average age of 23. I would say almost all of those people are now very important, in key positions in global ICT revolution everywhere all over the world. They are all over the world. It is not just C-Dot then we started C-DAC Centre for Development of Advanced Computing. A lot of new institutions were started in Rajiv Gandhi’s time: TIFAC (Technology Information and Forecast), we had a thing called C Dome, for advanced materials. There were some very interesting activities we launched then and those were the seeds we planted. See in those days it was very difficult to understand privatisation, public-private partnership because we were coming out of this socialist mindset. So people were not in tune with privatisation. It took us a long time to convince people to privatise telecom by MTNL, BSNL, bring private people to produce telephone instruments. But telecom was the key to privatisation in India and since we installed rural switching and thousands and thousands of STD PCO’s, people saw the benefit of telecom through our masses and that helped in privatisation. People don’t understand this, ok. Then people saw that telecom is indeed for poor, rural and if it’s going to help through privatisation lets do it.
Kamla: Then you went through a phase of wilderness you know where...
Sam: No, I think what happened basically is we lost the elections. After the election V P Singh became the Prime Minister. I was advised by many that I should resign as chairman of the telecom commission and as advisor to technology missions. I thought about it and I decided against it and I said look I didn’t do this for the Prime Minister though Prime Minister was very important. The Prime Minister was my pillar, a rock. Both of us did it for people of India.
Kamla: But here was the new Prime Minister who probably didn’t have the will that you saw in Rajiv Gandhi?
Sam: So, the new Prime Minister could have decided to fire me that was his privilege but I couldn’t resign because that would be hard on my part. That is how I saw it. I said I got to do this job against all the odds. I had support of the Prime Minister, I was lucky. I don’t have the support of the Prime Minister that is ok but I got to be convinced that I have a job to do. Any Prime Minister fires me I’ll accept that and Prime Minister was wise enough not to fire me. Some ministers took some shots at me which is part of Indian politics I have no regrets. I have no any bad feelings about it, that is the way life is and the poor Minister was doing his job. So I was attacked and you know they said I made money, I am a crook and all those stuff. I know my family went through very difficult times and we were followed by agents, we used to get threatening calls my wife used to get calls from all kinds of people we’ll rape you, we’ll throw you out to US, you go back, my children could be kidnapped and all that. But, that is part of the package. We hung in there. I had a heart attack in the process. Finally, Prime Minister VP Singh decided to change the Minister. New Minister came I continued but after heart attack I had to take a month or two off and when Rajiv Gandhi died --when he got shot or blown out -- that is when I really lost my heart. And I felt that I need to rethink through my life. By then I had got into a position that I had no money. I worked in India for 11 years but without any salary. I just went on with Rajiv as a sort of romance with the nation. When I realised that I don’t have money I also realised that my children are grown up now and they’ll need to go to college and I need to pay for the tuition. So I realised that pretty soon I will need 40000 for the tuition so I decided to come back I talked to then Narsimha Rao he didn’t want me to come back and leave, I talked to Deve Gowda then. H also said don’t leave and they were all very nice to me.
That was part of our conversation with Sam Pitroda. Tune back in for part 2 of our conversation where he talks about why he returned to India and his role as the head of the knowledge commission that was instituted by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Man Mohan Singh. This is Kamla Bhatt and this interview is brought to you in association with Live Mint Radio and as always thank you for tuning in.
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First Published: Sun, Dec 07 2008. 02 30 PM IST