Home / Industry / Sam Pitroda on India’s Future

This is Kamla Bhatt. We bring you part 2 of our conversation with Sam Pitroda, father of Indian telecom and currently head of India’s National Knowledge Commission. In this episode he talks about his second innings in India.

Sam: So I decided to come back. I talked to then Narsimha Rao, he did not want me to come back and leave. I talked to Deve Gowda he also said, “Don’t leave." They were all very nice to me. I must say every Prime Minister in India has been exceptionally good to me.

Kamla: But what went wrong then?

Sam: I will tell you. I mean with great respect I must say that they all have been more than generous to me. d3abf0ae-c69a-11dd-8713-000b5dabf636.flvWhat went wrong in the whole thing is I ran out of money. I could not raise my hand to somebody and say that give me some money to feed. So I had to come back to US. But when I came back I didn’t have a visa to come back. I had given up my US nationality. So I came back as a tourist, but I could not work as a tourist. I had to restart my life and I did some of that. My father had died, my mother was with me. They lived with me for the last 20 years of their life. I had to rebuild my life and I did that. Now, my children are grown up and settled. My son, he went to Harvard, went to have IT, works in New York, I have a daughter who went to Michigan, worked with me for a while and now makes movies in Hollywood. So now in the last election I decided to campaign for the Congress party.

Kamla: Why?

Sam: Because I felt that my help was needed. I saw on TV time and time again people kept saying Congress did not do anything for 50 years and we did everything for 5. I just could not take it. I said this is really not true. Our founding fathers had great wisdom in setting up universities and IIT labs and IT’s and all that. We can’t ignore their contribution. These things take time. So I then called Sonia Gandhi and I said, “Look, I want to come and campaign." So my wife and I went and campaigned for 6 weeks for the party. When the Congress party formed the government a national advisory council was set up headed by Sonia Gandhi. I was one of the members of the council, where I was asked to look at science and technology and education. As I started digging more and more into it, I realised that what we did in Rajiv Gandhi’s time in telecom, IT, software it took 20 years to see something concrete. What is that we could do now which would take another 20 years to give us a next revolution? And I realised that it could be knowledge. So I did little work on it, made a presentation to Sonia Gandhi, made a presentation to the Prime Minister and Prime Minister immediately said “Sam we want to setup a knowledge commission" and I am sure he was thinking about it and others had told him about it I am sure. And then we setup a National Knowledge Commission to look at all aspects of knowledge in terms of infrastructure and institutions that India would need in the 21st century to take competitive advantage.

Kamla: But can we wait 20 years for the next revolution to unfold when half the population of the country is under the age of 21, they will be 40-42 at that time?

Sam: But that is what it takes. These things don’t happen overnight. If you start a new university by the time universities mature and right kind of students come out it is a 10-15 years cycle. Today from my perspective there are 3 fundamental challenges in India. Disparity - which is of great concern to lots of us, disparity between rich and poor, urban-rural, educated-uneducated, Demography, like you said, 550 million below the age of 25, 750 million below the age of 35. And development. Everything is happening in India, but not happening fast enough. We are building schools, but not fast enough. We are building roads, but not fast enough. Modernising airports, but not fast enough. So how do we make an impact on these 3 major challenges? And The Knowledge Commission looks at really 5 aspects of knowledge. It looks at access to knowledge, which relate to things like literacy, languages, translations, broadband networks, hotels, reservations, quotas, affirmative action programmes. Then it looks at all knowledge concepts.

Kamla: Before you complete the 5, I quickly want to interrupt and ask you this one question. What is different about the 3 points that you outlined when compared to when you were in this country in the 1980’s? The only difference that I see is the demographics, the development and the disparity were there then and they exist today.

Sam: I think on top of that there is also a big difference in terms of mindset. Today there is a different mindset, there is willingness to change. Privatisation has taken roots, there are various success stories. India has confidence. Then we had billion dollar foreign exchange reserve, now we have three hundred billion dollars. We have lots of multinational corporation of our own. So, I think India has been able to build confidence as a nation. That is a big difference.

Kamla: But could that confidence also blind us because we are so confident that we may not address some of the basic questions?

Sam: No, I have great faith in Indian diversity. It could blind some, but it cannot blind everybody. Those who are making money and feeling good and are on the top of the pyramid might get blinded saying we have a right. But those who are at the bottom and at the middle will put us on track.

Kamla: So, I interrupted you. You said there were these 5 points, one was education and access to education.

Sam: No, the first one was access to knowledge, second one is concepts, which is education - primary education, secondary education, distance learning, vocational education, higher education, open course where teachers’ training, all of that. Third area is knowledge creation. Who creates knowledge? How is knowledge created? This includes science and technology, patents, copyrights, innovation, entrepreneurship. Fourth area is application of knowledge in agriculture, health and small and medium scale industries and traditional knowledge. We have great deal of traditional knowledge, which is lost some place. I tell a lot of my western friends in public speeches that look, my mother had 8 children. They were all delivered at home in a tribal little village, which had no running water, no electricity and they are all healthy. They all did well. There must be something that they did then. We have forgotten all this. Today to think of delivering 8 children in a village without hospital is unthinkable. India has great deal of heritage and history of traditional knowledge that we need to harness. Whether it is in ayurveda etc.

Kamla: Aren’t you involved with some kind of a health institute in Bangalore?

Sam: I started a foundation with Darshan Shankar called Foundation for “Revitalisation of Local Health Tradition" where we document all of the twelve thousand herbal medicinal plants, which are unique to Indian climate. It has taken us 15 years to do that. But that is what it takes. These things don’t get done in two years. When we had started, nobody was ready to give us any money. Finally, I got some money from the Danish government, and then I started the foundation. Now, we have lots of money. TATA foundation just gave us some Rs. 35 crores or something. But, it took 15 years to get there. Going back to knowledge, the fifth area is use of knowledge to improve governance-state, federal, district and there we are focused on e-governance. So we have about 30 different topics to look at.

Kamla: You made a point somewhere about e-governance. You said that bureaucracy has just moved online.

Sam: Yes, I think we need to do more in e-governance. I firmly believe that information brings about openness, accessibility, connectivity, networking, democratisation, decentralisation and as a result social transformation. By computerising a lot of the stuff you can take that human interface little bit away and that is the process we are going through in India right now, whether to file income tax, to get your birth certificate, death certificate, school records, passport, and whatever. So I think e-governance is very important, but we have a long way to go in e-governance. So on all of these 30 difference subjects we have working groups. They go off, have discussions-debates in the country, give us a white paper we debate that, discuss it and at the end of it we produce a three page letter from me to the Prime Minister saying Dear Mr. Prime Minister in library these are the 10 recommendations. And then these recommendations go to various ministries and implementation starts and the discussions start. The bottom line is as a result of all that we have done and the need today, government has decided to spend $ 67 billion on education in the expand. Five times more money than ever in the history of India. 13% of Indian budget today is associated with education. My god, that is big money! That is the commitment this government has on education but there are two other pieces. One is deregulation and public-private partnership and we have not made much head way in these two areas. I must compliment UPA government and Manmohan Singh in particular. That government has been able to put huge amount of resources on education. We are going to be starting 30 new national universities, 400 new colleges, 4000 new schools, and 65 million mid day meal programmes. These are huge commitments.

Kamla: What happens when there is a government change and when there is a new government in place and a new set of policy makers in place? What happens to the knowledge commission and what you have outlined so far?

Sam: I believe any government- Congress, BJP or anyone else would recognise the importance of education, would recognise all the work we have done. One thing you will find in India is that parents are committed to children’s education. The demand for education is very high in India today, but supply is not there. So I am not concerned about the new government. Whosoever comes in would pick up pieces they may not continue in the same format but the task is laid out. An agenda is already on the table of the country and I don’t think you can walk away from that agenda.

Kamla: I have 2 questions. One is related to innovation. You know that is the buzz word all over the world: innovation, innovation, innovation. Second: because of the telecom revolution that was unleashed I believe there is some kind of a fund that the government has that comes out of the mobile. When you pay your bill there is certain amount of tax money that is collected by the government and that is some huge amount that is available and apparently that money is going to be made available for technological advancement and innovation. Could you tie both these pieces together and share your thoughts on the mobile revolution in India and 3G.

Sam: First of all when I entered India we had 2 million phones for 700 million people. Today we are adding close to 10 million new telephones every month. So we have made a huge difference in connecting India. Connecting rural India to urban India, connecting urban India to the world and really transforming the way Indians communicate. And it’s empowering, where a villager can pick up phone and call up his MP he feels the power of democracy.

Kamla: Does it happen?

Sam: Absolutely, it happens all the time. I get calls from India from some fellow who figures out where my number and I get a call in Chicago saying “Mr. Pitroda what about this what about that. “ Great! I think that is the power of communication. So we have made substantial difference and also the STD PCO’s have made telecom accessible to the poorest of poor where you don’t have to have a telephone to make a call. So that is one side. Innovation is definitely a buzzword all over the world because people want to be competitive in this globalised world. The only way to be competitive is to innovate. If you don’t innovate, you are going to die. So everyone is talking about innovation and I have different theories of innovation of my own. I believe diversity is very critical to innovation and we have the diversity that you need in the country. We have been an innovative country in a very different way. We have been innovative in our food, in our music, in our culture, in our dance, in our art. But the innovation people talk about is only about a product. When you look at the innovations in the last 50 years you realise that almost all major innovations have come from the US. Everything from laser to transistor to microprocessors to software to all that. I think that is going to change now. India and China, will begin to make a big dent on innovation. India and China will change innovation model to some extent, because today innovation is multi disciplinary and it requires collaboration and it is happening faster than ever before. My view is that the innovation model of the past also unconsciously has assumed the US model of consumption. Buy more, produce more gadgets, and produce more goods so when the shopping season in US is bad everybody is depressed in China and India and everywhere else. I think that model is no longer sustaining. So the innovation model will have to rely on a different model, which doesn’t focus only on conspicuous consumption. There are lot of problems to be solved at the bottom of the pyramid. Unfortunately the world over best brains are busy solving problems of the rich who really don’t have problems to solve.

Kamla: But there has been a paradigm shift in the last couple of years where the bottom of the pyramid argument advanced by C K Prahlad…

Sam: Yes but not much is happening. It is an argument. It is a discussion because there are no products, there are very few services. But something is happening and it will happen at a faster pace and that is where I bring China and India.

Kamla: But, mobile is a great example.

Sam: It happened because the cost structure changed. Earlier per line cost was thousand dollars for 40 years, when cost per line went to hundred dollars or less than hundred dollars the mobile revolution took off in emerging markets. So the innovations are coming out of China and India will have a different business model and will reduce cost and those are the real innovations, which I think would help at the bottom of the pyramid. Those innovations probably would never come out of the US because the traditional mindset is very different, requirements are very different. But again there is a big debate. I don’t think many people are clear on it yet.

Kamla: What about that fund? The mobile fund I talked about?

Sam: There is a fund…we have similar fund in the US also. This fund is in over some billion dollars in India. This fund was earlier supposed to be used for the rural connectivity and all. Now the government has been thinking about using it for innovations and all. I think it is a great idea. I think it will be good.

Kamla: You think that money will be deployed in a constructive and effective way?

Sam: Time will tell. But I think the fact that this money is going to be allocated is a great step forward.

Kamla: There is a company you would have probably heard of it called the VNL. It’s a Swedish Indian company. A couple of months ago they rolled out a rural GSM based station based on solar power. What kind of innovations do you think are required in the mobile sector in India to take it to that next level of interconnectedness that you talked about?

Sam: I think the real next revolution according to me is all about applications. It is not about connectivity. Connectivity is given its done, voice is free essentially. The question is what other applications you put on the telephone?

Kamla: The data…?

Sam: Data is a transport, application. I will give you one example. We have been looking at employee guarantee scheme programme where we have to pay 200 million people minimum wage for 100 days as national employment guarantee scheme programme. Today this payment is done through manual means where somebody goes there with book register, cash, whatever. Is there a way to pay them through mobile phone? That is an application, can we cut them and bypass the system and reduce the leakage and get to the person who is supposed to receive it? So there are lots of interesting applications whether it has to do with health, education, financial services. I think application is going to drive now.

Kamla: But the showstopper for applications is the regulatory environment. Say for instance when you talk about mobile payment there are certain regulatory environment policies that the Central Bank of India has…

Sam: So they will change. So it will have to be changed.

Kamla: Who is going to drive that change?

Sam: You will need change agents. To drive all change requires change agents. Without change agents there is no change

Kamla: So where are the Sam Pitrodas?

Sam: Well, I am sure they are there and much smarter than I was when I was doing this they are all there. Somebody has to just go do it.

Kamla: What you describe on papers is fantastic. The vision is fantastic, but when you have to execute it there are going to be challenges and I think that is the point I am trying to get to.

Sam: I agree with you 100%. The biggest challenge in India today from my perspective is leadership at all level to get things done. Not just political level, leadership in schools, colleges, universities, in villages, in institutions, NGO’s, you want large number of people to go get it done and not wait for somebody to do it. Not get more down into procedures and beaurocracies and bottlenecks. When we tried to do this in telecom we had to do all of this against many odds. And there are the man and woman who will get things done. Today if we want to build 30 new universities we have problem finding 30 new vice chancellors, who are really change agents we don’t want to do the same thing over and over again we don’t want to build 30 new universities which are very similar to the existing universities is an example. So we really want change agents to think out of the box and get things done.

Kamla: How are you going to create those change agents?

Sam: I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. I think when I look back and see what Nehru did. Nehru hand picked some of these people and brought them back from the US and Europe. We need to do similar things today. I think there is a need to bring thousand people back and put them in right place to do things. Some would be right some would be wrong. But you need those catalyst, you need those change agents. Not that people are not there in India, but I think once you are in India for 10-15 years you get locked into the Indian system, which sucks you in and you can’t do certain things. When you are from outside you bring in fresh way at least for a while. You need that today because if you want to keep up with this pace of growth out biggest challenge is going to be human resource. We know already that we have skill shortages of all kinds. We can’t get bus drivers, we can’t get mathematician, we can’t get software people but more importantly, we need leaders who are mountains. That is the challenge.

Kamla: This is a question I had asked but we didn’t get to answer. What is your view of 3G network in India?

Sam: To me it doesn’t mean anything. It is just high speed data. It is more applications more data and it is all buzz words.

Kamla: You have painted a very comprehensive picture of some of the changes that you are thinking about. It reminds me in some ways of the four modernizations that the Chinese government underwent in the late 1970’s. It took 30 years for that government to push through and achieve what China has achieved today. Has a similar thought crossed the Indian politicians mind or may be your mind? That you need a comprehensive plan to take this country forward?

Sam: I think there have been some discussions at some levels in the party with right kind of people. One piece of the puzzle is privatisation, which is going on sometimes stopped sometimes it moves forward. But in a collision government you can’t push through some of these agendas. Look what we have gone through in this nuclear deal the amount of hassle the amount of jhagda-lafda. India needs energy. This is not about nuclear deal to me. To me it is about lighting the lives of poorest of the poor in India. It is about giving lamp to a child in village who doesn’t have lamp to read. Happens to be nuclear. So I think when you look at these big pieces you have privatisation, you have energy but you also need whole series of things on basic needs: water, sanitation, agriculture, food, housing, the big piece on infrastructure-roads to airports to trains. There is just too much work in India. There is work cut out for 50 years. It is not about creating more billionaires. It is not about more Bangalore and software companies, more Infosys and TCS’s and Wipros. It is about people at the bottom of the pyramid. If you really want to build a nation you got to take that 400 million with you. You can’t leave them. And you can’t count on the trickling down effect only. So I think disparity is a big challenge. And whatever big plan we have that plan must take into consideration basic human needs. That is the challenge and it requires strong political will to get lot of these things done. It is hard in a coalition government.

Kamla: What went through your mind and this is my last question. Today you are in Silicon Valley, you flew from Chicago to Silicon Valley and you recounted an experience of a gentleman sitting next to you, who is in his 20’s and was going to Cisco (San Jose). He had no clue who you are. What goes through your mind when you look back and see what you did for India in terms of the telecom revolution and the larger picture that you have painted today. Why did you go back to India the second time? Yes, you did say that you looked at the congress party and you wanted to set the story right. But what was it that really drove you back the second time around considering you lost, you had to get a tourist visa to come back to this country, restart a life again? It is not easy.

Sam: That is true. But you don’t do this for anything else except the fact that it needs to be done. I feel it needs to be done. I don’t do it for anybody else. I don’t need any glory. I had my best times. I don’t need any clapping any more. I am done. I believe this is a great opportunity to be part of India’s dream. I had my first innings, now I am in my second inning. I had two bypasses, I had second bypass recently. I had cancer. So, I have not been very lucky in life, but I have been very lucky in terms of having an opportunity to make a dent. I am still the product of early 1940s. So when I was growing up as a little kid, Gandhi, independence movement was very fresh. We were the idealists. We believed in simplicity. We believed in truth and we believed in all the old values, which are not in fashion today. But, we were stuck with it. So I believe I have been very fortunate to have this opportunity to do things in India and people of India have been just absolutely great to me. Loving and caring, and I can’t ask for anything better and it is an exciting thing to do. You get to solve bigger problems. You get a chance to look at knowledge for one billion people? Who would give you that job? Even if I had to pay $ 10 million a year … I would pay for this job. I think it is romantic to get involved in these kind of things and get the support of the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi and others. So it is a great thing. So while going good keep it up. It may not last too long. So keep at it.

Kamla: Mr. Pitroda, it was a pleasure talking to you today. Thank you for such a lovely conversation.

Sam: Thank you very much, Thanks.

You were listening to Mr. Sam Pitroda head of India’s National Knowledge Commission and father of Indian Telecom. If you missed you might want to listen to Part 1 of our conversation where he talks about his early years in India. 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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