In 1998, Aruna Sundararajan set up Kerala’s first ever department of information technology (IT). The exercise, which laid the foundation for the state’s digital journey, was a result of her incessant efforts in convincing the then chief minister E K Nayanar that the IT revolution was inevitable and needed a dedicated separate department.
That was 21 years ago.
After an eventful career, Sundararajan retires on Wednesday after helming the central government’s department of telecommunications through the choppy seas left in the wake of Reliance Jio’s entry in September 2016.
The 1982-batch Kerala Cadre IAS officer’s tryst with technology is not new. As the state’s founding IT Secretary, in 2002, she conceived and spearheaded the Akshaya project, an e-literacy project where over 1 million people were trained in basic digital skills on a campaign mode. Akshaya had received domestic and international acclaim as a digital transformational project.
The state, no wonder, holds a special place in her heart. She grew up in the Nilgiri region and trekked through the Western Ghats on most of her holidays.
“When I joined the service somebody who I respect very much told me that the first thing you should do is cultivate a passion apart from the service. That will both enrich and bring a sense of perspective. That early advice I didn’t realise how valuable it was but over the years I have seen that particularly in this kind of service where the pressures are fairly high, the responsibilities are also vast, it is essential to at least one other passion and for me that is trekking," Sundararajan had told Mint in a candid interview last year.
Sundararajan has spend over three decades with the government where she held key positions in economic and development administration, investment promotion and IT/telecom.
While she spearheaded the government’s Digital India programme during her time at the ministry of electronics and information technology, her most important role, however, has been as secretary of department of telecommunications since June 2017.
During her tenure, the industry saw intense disruption, shrinking revenue streams, companies going bankrupt, and intense consolidation in the sector. At that same time, she also rolled out the National Digital Communications Policy in May last year which aims to attract $100 billion in investments into India by 2022 and create 4 million jobs apart from providing broadband to all.
During the final stages of drafting the policy, Sundararajan worked till the wee hours of the morning. When work piled up, she took small breaks in her vegetable garden at her South Moti Bagh residence and listened to music. Her successor, 1986 batch IAS officer Anshu Prakash will now oversee the execution of the policy.
Sundararajan also headed the department at a time when telecom companies complained that the government was extracting too much from companies who were expected to pay huge prices for spectrum, especially given the government’s plan to hold the first auction for 5G airwaves this year.
“What things have to be fought in the market have to be fought in the market. What has to be done by government will be done by government. Protecting government interest and public policy interest is our priority and protecting market share is their priority. These two things, the dynamic will have to play out," she told reporters on Tuesday, a day before her retirement.
At her retirement, Sundararajan is confident that the worst is behind the sector and it will thrive because telecom is a key utility and in fact new players could also enter the market.
“We cannot predict the future, but the telecom pipes have to be there. There will be a convergence of powerful interests that make sure investments go into the carriage business," she said on Tuesday.
Not many know that she is also a Bharatnatyam dancer and trained in south Indian classical music. She loves to listen to jazz as well. “For me, the love of the arts has been a big anchor. Although I am a trained dancer, I have not really had the time to keep up with my dancing... trekking is something that I wish I could do it much more often," she had said last year.
“I can’t wait to retire so that I can travel the world and go on treks. That would be my number one desire. We bureaucrats have the tendency to really overrate and overestimate how important and central we are to the scheme of things. Travelling brings a great sense of perspective and tells you exactly where you belong."
After travelling, Sundararajan plans to get back in touch with IT start-ups in Kerala to begin the next innings of her career.