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Sam’s Agenda

Sam Pitroda

The three fundamental challenges facing India today are disparity, demography and development: there is disparity between the rich and the poor, between urban-rural populace, and between the educated and the uneducated; demography is yet another challenge, given the fact that India has a population of over 550 million below the age of 25 and of 750 million below the age of 35; and, when it comes to development, change is taking place in the country but not fast enough. Action on these three areas will determine whether India can make the next decade its decade or not. Another crucial piece of the puzzle is the power of connectivity and accessibility. We have to understand the power of one billion unconnected people in this world is very different from one billion connected people. Connectivity offers different dimension and dynamics to development in our democracy in view of our vibrant young population.  It offers a unique opportunity to transform India in a very special way. And it is an agenda that Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations, is seeking to implement. According to him, the time is right for the ‘decade of innovation’, with the people having the right mindset for such change. “Today, India has confidence, there is a different mindset and there is a willingness to change. There are  challenges we have in front of us. But at least we know the direction we want to take and while we might face some roadblocks, I see this as a historic opportunity.”

“The true meaning of public-private partnership is not limited to the role of private sector as providing hardware and software. The role of the private sector is really to deliver services. When you go to 250,000 panchayats, they have to have trained people, systems to run and have government funding. We need to be careful in creating a public-private partnership system of right kind. This is where I am convinced that government must set standards.”

In an exclusive interview to Inclusion, the father of the telecom revolution in India, Pitroda said that the starting point to tackle the challenges that India faces is technology. While political will is important, it is technology that can force the change. “And today, we have the technology on the ground. But what is needed are the applications that will enable the people to benefit from such technology.” Pointing out that the country has over the last decade set up a huge information infrastructure, which can be upgraded very quickly to global standards. “If the global standards meet our needs, we will adopt them, if not then we will create our own standards.” He further added, “we have to crash the transaction costs substantially. We want to do open source and open standards as much as possible and sit Indian languages on top of that.”

IT systems and infrastructure in the country have tremendous potential to benefit people and improve the delivery of public services. This is especially crucial for the bottom of the pyramid where basic services such as healthcare, education, water, sanitation, energy and housing are inadequate. By creating accessible and transparent systems through IT and generating organizational reform, we can succeed in improving the delivery of these services across sectors. “Already, steps have been initiated by the National Knowledge Network to use this information infrastructure to connect all our universities, our R&D laboratories, agricultural research, health research, and libraries. The aim is to be able to increase collaboration because all modern research today is multi-disciplinary.”

Pitroda cautions that such change cannot happen immediately. “But, a start has to be made. Today, the communication system is in place. We now have to put in place the necessary infrastructure with standardisation. The assets on the ground are in place and the thrust now has to be on developing applications based on an Indian model, Indian needs and Indian languages.” Such applications, according to Pitroda, will come from both the public sector and the private sector. But, it is the government that has to put the standards in place, with implementation being done largely by the private sector. On the argument that decentralized implementation and issues at state level impede progress, Pitroda said that it was precisely because of this that the centre should put in place the necessary standards for system and processes on which new applications are based.

Common and standardized platforms are crucial for the service experience to become more citizen centric. Standardization and integration has the potential to optimize delivery of services of the processes which impact citizens the most such as birth certificates, death certificates, land records, pension, ration cards, drivers license, taxes, etc;  and also for expediting delivery of justice, and creating an all new interface for the citizen in e-governance. “One of the problems I find in today’s e-government programmes is that the states are being given money and then being allowed to spend it on whatever hardware or software they want to. That is why nothing has scaled. Because there is a programme, somebody goes and buys some hardware or software, somebody else buys another. This is preventing any kind of integration. There should be nation-wide applicability of any new system that is put in place. “We cannot have a system that works differently in different regions. Ultimately, one should be able to get a driving licence for Delhi by taking a test in Mumbai. And this is something that we do not need to look at the Western world for. This is because we are probably one of the very few countries where the driving licence programme is standardised. Every state has the same piece of software for driving licence. All we need here is better system integration.” He further said, “we have assets on the ground, we need to create applications now to really capitalise on these.”

This is especially important when it comes to issues like homeland security. “Even if we just organise information with technology, even if we take the 20-odd state security agencies and make their databases talk to each other, we will make a major difference. Today, the police is not talking to IB which is not talking to other security forces or various government departments not talking to anybody. Everybody is doing their own thing. That is where IT can make a difference.”

Agreeing that the task ahead is monumental, Pitroda said that learning lies in the telecom revolution. As telecom connectivity spread, the costs started coming down, accessibility improved even further and today we have a situation where we are adding 10 million new subscribers every month. Connecting rural India to urban India, connecting urban India to the world is really transforming the way we communicate. And it’s empowering the people. “So, it is a question of who walks the first mile. Once you do that, you will see that everyone is willing to walk the last mile. It is also a question of getting the right people to work at solving the problems of the poor. Today, the best brains are working on solving the problems of the rich, who actually do not have any problems. And, it is because of situations like this that we have an automated traffic management system for aviation but not one for the railways – the common man’s mode of transportation.”

According to Pitroda, it is technology that can bring in the required transparency even as it improves productivity, efficiency and accountability, and reduces cost, corruption and leakages. “Consider the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, where we have to pay 200 million people minimum wage for 100 days. Today, this payment is done through manual means. Is there a way to pay them through mobile phones or directly in an automated fashion? It is the development of such applications that can drive the change that we are all looking for. What one needs is a business model for all applications, with the private sector playing the role of service delivery and not that hardware or software installation and maintenance.” Continuing with his example of the Indian Railways, Pitroda says that today the Indian Railways are one of the largest in the world, but they still do not have an electronic signalling system. “If technology is put to use here and satellite signalling systems are installed, we can probably double the capacity of the system.” 

Governance has to be inclusive, not exclusive. It is all about building a society where we pay more attention to growth for the large number of people, not a mere handful. Economic liberalisation is no longer an issue. The big issue today is how do we create an inclusive society? How do we provide education, health services and employment? The realisation that provision of such services will come from only the government is beginning to change. “People are willing to pay provided the cost is right and the service is delivered.” And, this is where innovation comes in. According to Pitroda, organisational innovation is a crying need of the times. We need innovative IT interfaces that enable different government departments and arms to be able to talk to each other. Information should be able to flow seamlessly from one government department to another, with the necessary information security systems in place. For, Pitroda, diversity is very critical to innovation and this is something the country has in abundance. But now we have to change the way we innovate governmental processes. Beyond government, we need to create an ecosystem for innovation so that the benefits are reflected across sectors including academia, industry and society. However an Indian model of innovation has to be inclusive, with a special focus on the challenges and problems at the bottom of the pyramid. We need to pay attention to grassroots innovations and harnessing technology to create services for more at a lesser cost.

“I have been saying that best brains in the world are busy solving the problems of the rich. As a result, problems of the poor don’t get adequate attention. Technology can be used for solving the problems of the poor and ultimately can become a potential tool for poverty alleviation,” opined Pitroda. 

And for innovation to progress, we need knowledge. In fact, it was in this background that the previous government had set up the National Knowledge Commission. The Commission actually examined five aspects of knowledge. It looked at access to knowledge, knowledge concepts, which is education, knowledge creation, its application and its role in governance. Knowledge concepts includes primary education, secondary education, distance learning, vocational education, higher education and teachers’ training while knowledge creation looks at who creates knowledge and how is knowledge created? This includes science and patents, copyrights, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. Application of knowledge looks at its role in agriculture, health, the industrial sector and services delivery. We have a great deal of traditional knowledge, which we need to recover. In its report, the Commission submitted around 300 recommendations on 27 focus areas. While the term of the Commission has come to an end, the implementation of its recommendations is currently underway at the Central and State levels. 

Agreeing that implementation is still a major issue, Pitroda said that what is needed here are change agents. The government has unveiled major plans for most sectors, including education, social and health sectors. Such change agents are also needed within the government. “Today, when we are a global IT champion, it is quite dismal that we have no IT in our government. So, we are still moving files using paper. If we start moving files electronically, we can track where the file is, what is its status, and how long will it take to deliver results. This process has to start somewhere.” By increasing the role of IT, the government can take a lot of unnecessary human interface away and this should become the practice whether it is to file income tax, to get a birth or death certificate, for school records, passports, etc. The Government’s UID programme will also plug in to this drive towards accessible services. Today, the issue is to create services that may not be commercially viable in the beginning, but are citizen centric. We already have the necessary infrastructure; we only have to upgrade it so that the information super highways of tomorrow are created even as we go around creating traffic for this and this is something that has to be done simultaneously. For example, says Pitroda, tracking of court cases that have been pending for 15 years. How do we use IT to really computerise these court cases, change, if necessary, the regulations, so as to be able to use the infrastructure to modernise our legal system. That is another big project because that ultimately gets translated into public good.

Stressing on the importance of local self-governance, Pitroda said, the true meaning of public-private partnership is not limited to the role of private sector as providing hardware and software. The role of the private sector is really to deliver services. “When you go to 250,000 panchayats, they have to have trained people, systems to run and have government funding. We need to be careful in creating a public-private partnership system of right kind. This is where I am convinced that government must set standards.” The government must also take steps to ensure connectivity at the grassroots to enable delivery of services. In this regard, broadband connectivity needs to be expanded to the 250,000 panchayats in the country, which are the backbone of local governance.

According to Pitroda, one of the most fundamental changes being brought in the country today is in the education sector. Today, the government has reserved up to 13 per cent of the country’s budget on various education related activities. The aim is to set up 30 more national universities, 400 new colleges and 6,000 new schools, and work on this has already started. The aim here is to create at least one school in each block. The first stream will consist of 2,500 public funded schools in the educationally backward blocks,. The second stream of about 2,500 schools would be set up through public private partnership in other blocks with emphasis on geographical, demographic, gender and social equity. Modalities for the remaining 1,000 schools have yet not been finalised. Here again, the task can receive a significant boost, if the government is able to use its existing IT infrastructure in an efficient manner. Generational changes are required, for which our existing system does not appear to be fully prepared. It is time to take education to the masses! 

For the telecom czar, India is in a peculiar position: there are schools where every teacher has a laptop and there are still others, who do not even have a blackboard. “All of this takes time. We took 20 years to get the telecom thing work. In this day and age you can’t have a teacher without a laptop. It will happen but you still have five years down the road. This is the beauty of India, where everything has to happen simultaneously. Today, we have the technology, and what we need is the people, the applications and the political will to implements the change.” Similarly, when we come to the health sector, today we are faced with a greenfield situation. We have the technology and we can create our own health vault, with the health records of all citizens using indigenous technology. “We can’t rely either on Microsoft or Google for us to have a health vault. The work has to start. We cannot go on waiting for someone else to take the initiative.”

“We need to pay more attention at the bottom of the pyramid, focusing more on growth of large number of people and not the handful. We are setting up the right kind of infrastructure now for the next big jump. It is not about economic liberalisation. It is about creating an inclusive society, providing education, health services, and creating more jobs,” concluded Pitroda


Yellow…

Yellow is a colour that most ordinary people will associate the telecom revolution in India with; for this was the colour of the public call offices, or PCOs as they came to be known as, that mushroomed all over the country in the early eighties. But few people will associate this colour with the man who brought this instrument to them: Sam Pitroda. Again for Pitroda, it was not the colour of the instrument that was an issue at all, instead it was a desire to give something back to the country he grew up in and got his early education from. Interestingly, Pitroda himself first used a telephone only when he emigrated to the United States, first for his higher education and then to make his mark as an entrepreneur. That was way back in 1964 when telephones were an instrument that only connected those with ‘connections’. It was also a period when India was getting its early taste of modern technology. Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda, as he was named by his parents, was born in Titlagarh, Orissa. His parents had migrated to Orissa from Gujarat but retained strong linkages and this was why Sam got his schooling and his Masters in Physics and Electronics from Vadodara. 

His idea of going to the US was fuelled by President Kennedy’s statement of sending man to the moon. Landing in Chicago, Sam joined MIT before ‘accidentally’ picking up a job in the telecom sector. It was a period when everybody was working on inventing new things. With two friends as his partners, Sam then started a company designing digital switching systems. It was the acquisition of this firm by the multinational Rockwell International that saw Sam making millions and taking his first retirement. It was also the start of a remarkable period in modern India.

As Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharti Group, says: The bureaucratic approach till then was that telephones were a luxury, a high security risk and something not needed by everybody. This was the period when Sam came along as a messiah, radically altering the basic foundation of the sector. In fact, the public phone was his mantra for access to people.” However, Sam had to wait for quite some time before he could actually start work in India’s telecom sector. This was because decision-making in the Indian government had its own distinct political colour and after talking to a number of people, Sam was told that a decision on his vision of enabling easier telephony would only be taken by the Prime Minister. His vision had also changed in this period from one of providing connectivity to one of improving accessibility. His first attempts to meet the then Prime Minister saw him getting an appointment for only 10 minutes. Realising that this period was insufficient for him to make his presentation, Sam cancelled this appointment. For his next meeting, Sam had to wait for over eight months and when that meeting took place, Mrs Gandhi was there with her whole Cabinet and her elder son, Rajiv. 

This meeting also saw a great friendship bloom between Rajiv and Sam, both of whom appeared to be driven by the vision that they had to do something for those at the bottom of the pyramid. For, while Mrs Gandhi had agreed to let Sam do what he wanted to do for the country’s telecom sector, it was only after her assassination that Rajiv Gandhi asked Sam to shift full-time to India. On his return, Sam started the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT), an autonomous R&D organisation that indigenously developed the digital systems that would take the telecom revolution to India’s villages. As the state-run BSNL says on its website about Sam: “The key contribution was the RAX, or rural automatic exchange-small, cheap and robust phone switches-that helped take telephony to rural India, forming its telecom backbone.” The STD/PCO phone booths “displayed the phone call cost and generated an instant bill at the user’s end, instead of at the telephone exchange.”

The revolution did not happen overnight. In fact, as Sam reiterates somebody only had to make the start, the people were willing to embrace the change. As Sanjit Bunker Roy, noted social worker and activist, says, “Sam wanted to set up one rural exchange every day and this was technically impossible given the way the telecom department was then structured.” So, this sparked off another revolution. As Mittal notes, “that was the period when telecom technology was in the hands of a few players only. And these players wanted to ride on the India telecom bandwagon that was beginning to take off.”

This was also a period when as advisor to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he headed six technology missions related to telecommunications, water, literacy, immunisation, dairy and oilseeds. According to Jairam Ramesh if it had not been for C-DOT, India probably would never have found its place in high technology arena.” But, Sam had other ideas in mind: he wanted to build an ecosystem that was indigenous. And, this was a point that he drove into General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s mind when he came on a business visit to India to sell GE engines. During his meeting with Welch, Pitroda was quick to drive home the point that India would not buy GE engines unless GE bought its software. As Nandan Nilekani, the man behind Infosys admits, an early beneficiary of this hard bargain driven by Pitroda was Infosys. It got a big order from GE that supported Infosys’ endeavours in this area.” 

Sam’s dream of giving something back to India, however, had its bad notes also. His successes in telecom sector attracted criticism from several parties. While others saw in his work some vested interest, Sam was clear that his work was for the good of the country. And, he was doing it for free. But, as Mittal points out, “Sam was successful telecom entrepreneur in his own right, with hundreds of patents in his name. What people do not realise is that he gave all this up to do public service in India. That was a passion with him. He came to India because he felt he could make a difference.”

But such criticism was taking its toll on his personal life. And with Rajiv Gandhi also assassinated and P V Narasimha Rao taking charge, Sam thought it was time to end this phase of his life, a phase where he had sought to convert his dreams into reality. As B K Gairola, Director-General, NIC, says, Sam was a true dreamer, a dreamer who sought to make his dreams come true.”

In 1991, Sam returned to Chicago back to his businesses. It also marked the end of Sam’s first period of retirement from his business and it would be a good 15 years or so before Sam would decide to return to India again, writing yet again what is a new chapter of inclusive growth in India.

Empowering the Last Mile

The public services and information delivery mechanism in place today at the last mile (panchayat) continues to be the old conventional bureaucratic channel despite some degree of devolution of power to panchayats. In order to facilitate inclusive growth for Aam Aadmi (common man), it is important to devolve greater (power) autonomy to panchayats for selection, approvals and execution of the schemes. For panchayats to be able to use this power effectively it is important to build capacity, efficiency, transparency and social audit in the grassroot systems. It is only then that the Aam Aadmi will be able to harness the benefits from the social schemes of the government. Also the knowledge so acquired will enable him and the community to create job opportunities using new technologies such as ICT.

Availability of and access to, “Information” about the social sector schemes and services and their implementation can play a decisive role in speeding up the effective participation of the common man in local development. Information will facilitate and bring in awareness about his rights and privileges, status of their sanctions etc. and social audit will help in curbing misuse of funds and undesirable external interference in implementation.

RTI is a powerful tool for transparency and social audit, but lack of timely and factual information often makes it ineffective, especially for social sector delivery projects. Creating an independent and impartial Information Base on all activities in the government up to the last mile (panchayat), and opening it up to the masses will provide the first step in inclusive growth.

Public “Information” and” Information infrastructure” needs to be put in place in a mission mode to sow the seeds for social transformation for empowering the Aam Aadmi.

We need to evolve an Indian version of ‘public private partnership’. Partnership normally is among ‘equals’, otherwise it tends to become exploitative. The PPP model based on an unequal partnership with one partner being ignorant and illiterate cannot last. What is needed therefore, is to allow local communities to build effective service delivery models within the overall standards and guidelines laid down by Central and State governments as a single common guideline. This guideline shall be based on the larger goals set by the government and implemented by the panchayats as per the guidelines in an open and transparent manner. Such a model will take time to evolve and spread, but will be sustainable in the long run Access to ‘Information’ and innovative use to harness the power of information, is going to play very vital role in the next decade. Information will be the single most powerful tool to force through the social transformation and to take India to Knowledge Society. It is therefore important to recognize Information as a National Resource with effective mechanisms to collect, process, protect and disseminate it to all segments of the society with equal access.

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of INCLUSION. Comments are welcome at info@skoch.in)

Sam Pitroda

Sam Pitroda is Advisor to the Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations
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