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The next phase of Telecom revolution: Sam Pitroda
« on: March 14, 2010, 04:39:43 PM »

‘The first phase of the telecom revolution is beginning to end. The second is about to begin’


SAM PITRODA
: India today is very different from what it was 20 years ago in many ways. To me, it is different because it is a country of a billion connected people as opposed to a country of a billion unconnected people 20 years ago. Through connectivity come many things like access, openness, transparency, networking, democratisation and decentralisation. We have to do things differently if we are to achieve this. That is where innovation comes in. I think the next big challenge is to look at this information revolution with a new set of parameters.

The whole concept of education has to change. Teachers traditionally spend 70-80 per cent of the time preparing and delivering content. Content is available on the Internet and delivery is through multiple media. What is the role of the teacher then? Now his role is to be a mentor.

Today, I see many interesting things in India. At the same time, we have challenges related to disparity, demography—550 million people below 25 years of age—and development. Lots of things are happening, but perhaps not fast enough. We are not building schools fast enough or roads or power plants. I think the next 10 years are going to be very exciting in India. On the one hand, we have a lot of opportunities and on the other, we have a 19th-century mindset, 20th-century processes and 21st-century needs. We need to redesign a lot of our processes.


DHIRAJ NAYYAR
: You were here in the early ’80s, when you worked with Rajiv *hi, and you are here again for the last six years. How do you think the Congress’s thought processes have changed?

I don’t think much has changed at the political level. In fact, to some extent, it was much more exciting then, in the Rajiv *hi era, because we had a huge mandate. We did not use it effectively, but that was a different issue. We were all young then, in our 40s. On the other hand, India is very different today. We have over a 100 billion dollars worth of foreign reserve. The IT success story has given us a lot of confidence. We have our own multinationals.

COOMI KAPOOR: You have been close to Rajiv *hi and you are close to Rahul *hi. What would you say are the similarities or differences between the two of them?

I find Rahul *hi much more analytical and focused on the details. He takes his own time. On a personal level, I see his father’s unfinished agenda in his eyes. His destiny is sealed in many ways.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: Tell us some anecdotes from Rajiv *hi’s time.

I had never met Rajiv *hi until I went to Mrs *hi’s residence to give a presentation in November 1980 or ’81. I was all psyched up and prepared. We did not have PowerPoint and laptops and computers those days, so I was armed with my 35-mm slides. When I got there, I was told Mrs *hi was running late. While waiting, I saw four young men—Arun Nehru, Arun Singh, Vijay Dhar and Rajiv *hi. (Rajiv and I) were of the same age and we clicked. When I started talking about my idea of indigenous development—digitisation of networks, Indian talent, local production, rural communication, access and other things, he got it. While I was making my presentation in front of Mrs *hi, Rajiv was with her, constantly explaining things to her. After that, I hardly talked to Mrs *hi as I developed a bond with Rajiv *hi.

When the then President of the USSR Gorbachev came here, I told Rajiv I wanted to meet him. We prepared a presentation. Then Rajiv called and said he could not do it because the bureaucracy on both sides would not let us. Since Gorbachev was going to have dinner at Rajiv’s house, I asked him to arrange a tea meeting with him. After dinner, Rajiv asked Gorbachev to tea in the adjoining room—where we had already set up the projector—and mentioned our presentation. We gave him an hour-and-a-half-long presentation. In between, Gorbachev took some ilaichi by mistake and he did not know what hit him! Rahul and Priyanka were coming in and we told them to bring in more ilaichi. Those were interesting times.

Another anecdote I remember is about a meeting to celebrate India’s 40th Independence Day. Rajiv was on the podium and I was in the audience. He was looking very bored and I was really bored. So we started sending notes to each other through the security guys.

DHIRAJ NAYYAR: At what point did you decide to go back to the US?

Well, I ran out of money. I worked here for 11 years without a salary. I made some money by selling a company and I thought in 1979 that the $5 million I made then was a lot of money. I did not realise that in 11 years, I would use up all of it. Also, all of a sudden, I had a heart attack.

ANANDITA SINGH MANKOTIA: You head a committee that has submitted recommendations for BSNL. Have you set a timeline for implementing them?

No, that is not our job. We needed only to give recommendations. We have given 15 of them. We are waiting for the government to decide on our recommendations. Rather than writing a 40-page report, we took the difficult task of writing a four-page report.

RISHI RAJ: The telecom sector may be dong fine, but broadband is still lagging behind and that is the key to e-governance, tele-medicine, education, etc. How do you plan to tackle that?

The first phase of the telecom revolution—predominantly voice-based—is beginning to end. The second phase is about to begin and that is where information infrastructure becomes critical. Now that we have connected a billion people, what do we do with it? The next big challenge is to tag all human beings. That is what Nandan Nilekani is doing as part of the UID project. Then we have to tag every place, buildings, hospitals, schools and railway stations. Then we have to tag every programme—pension, food distribution, tax, passports, driving licence. Then we have to take the ID and plug it into a horizontal platform so that if I have a driver’s licence, you know that I subscribe to food distribution coupons, I take pension, etc. Nobody has undertaken such work anywhere. This is why we have to get this done now, because we have the technology and the capability. This is really the next revolution: to use telecom, IT and broadband to improve education, health, fisheries, agriculture and everything. The world is going to change significantly in the next 20 years and we believe IT will play a significant role.

I just had a meeting with the Universal Service Obligation (USO) team. I have been working for the past three months on connecting 2,50,000 children to broadband. We need perhaps another 2,00,000 km more fibre. Then we need 10,000 more towers. If we achieve these two, with the 3G spectrum, wimax, etc., we can connect the whole of India in the next three years. Then we can begin to collect data from the ground. For this, we have Rs 18,000 crore in cash, we are getting Rs 6,000 crore more every year.

AMITABH SINHA: On reforms in the education sector, are you on the same page as Kapil Sibal ?

I think so, yes. When the Knowledge Commission was set up, we really concentrated on the knowledge part rather than the education. Innovation is now becoming a key issue on the national agenda. When people talk about education, they talk only about higher education—the Knowledge Commission Report and the Yashpal Committee Report. We are talking about expansion, excellence, equity, flexibility, separating affiliated colleges, outlining a plan to provide autonomy to universities in terms of fees, etc.

DHIRAJ NAYYAR: You have been an entrepreneur yourself, but largely in the US. Do you think India is still a difficult place to be an entrepreneur?

I have lived in the US for 45 years and I have never visited a government office there. I have only signed documents that my lawyer gave me and started tonnes of little companies. I will have a difficult time opening a business here. But that is just me.

DHIRAJ NAYYAR: Do you believe the new theory that the balance of economic power is shifting away from the US to India and China?

I don’t think so. I don’t think people realise the amount of assets that have been created in the US over the last 50 years in terms of roads, infrastructure, universities. We will take a long time to bridge that gap. Look at the think-tanks in the US. It will take a long time for China and India to catch up. We still have basic problems like lack of water and sanitation.

COOMI KAPOOR: Can you tell us about your journey from a very humble beginning in an Orissa town to an inventor and innovator in the US?

I was born in a little town in Orissa. My mother had eight children. We were Gujaratis settled in Orissa and the only connection we had with Gujarat was *hiji and Sardar Patel. When Sardar Patel died, my parents decided that my brother and I should go to Gujarat to study. There I got a degree in physics and later a Masters in the subject. A few days later, I read in the newspaper that President Kennedy had decided to send a man to the moon. It sounded romantic and I decided to go the US.

I got there, went to college, studied electrical engineering and went on to get a Ph.D. in physics and found out that it took seven years to get a Ph.D. I had a girlfriend then and I thought to myself, to hell with the Ph.D, let me just get married to her. After I got the engineering degree, she came to the US and we got married.

I started my business in 1974, built it up to 2,000 people in 1979 and sold it for $50 million. Then I came to Delhi because I had never seen Delhi before. From the Taj Mahal Hotel, I called my wife, but after a series of hellos, I could not get through. The arrogance and ignorance on my part made me decide that I was going to fix this. I got interested in ‘fixing telephones’, started commuting and sort of bumped into Mrs *hi.

Then I had a heart attack, ran out of money. I went back to the US and started another business, then realised the next big thing is knowledge. Knowledge is going to be the key to India’s growth, because for 8-10 per cent growth, you needed a lot more skills. I went to the PM and talked to him about the Knowledge Commission, which he liked. Having done that, the next big idea was Information Infrastructure Innovation. I am 68 years old; I have had two quadruple bypasses and cancer; I have limited time. It looks like the next nine-10 years will be very interesting in terms of doing this.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: You spoke about Rajiv and Rahul *hi. Please compare Rajiv *hi and Manmohan Singh as prime ministers.

They are very different. Rajiv was more hands-on. Both are from different age groups. Rajiv was naturally impulsive and a man in a hurry. Dr Manmohan Singh is cool, calm, content; he takes his own time. Dr Singh is equally committed. I have a great equation with him as well.

SUBHAMOY BHATTACHARJEE: A lot of discussion is going on about how the telecom revolution will change the way health and education are delivered.

We are building a National Knowledge Network, where 5,000 nodes with 10 GB facility are to be connected to all our universities and libraries. We have already put 110 nodes in place. Once the network is built, the business model in education will change. A professor in IIT Chennai, who has to teach at the new IIT in *hinagar every week, won’t have to travel anymore.

Health will benefit too. You have your entire health information on your mobile. So if I am in a car accident, you can know if I am a heart patient, what my allergies are... This is the last mile for everything.

DEEPU SEBASTIAN EDMOND: You suggested an overhaul of higher education in India. But we see the same systems here as in the US—the internal quality assurance cell, the implementation semester system, even the names are unchanged. There isn’t much innovation.

Not just in education, it is there in all sectors. It seems to work and it is easier to copy. Nobody likes to take the risk for fear of failure. As part of the experiment, we have recommended the creation of 14 innovation universities with different models. Our goal is to create 14 new ideas and hope that 20 years later, we create another model. The existing European model has outlived its utility, but people are unwilling to accept it.

SHARON FERNANDES: How will the telecom revolution speed up things in the legal system—dealing with files, justice delivery, etc?


About three-four months ago, I was with Law Minister Veerappa Moily at his office and told him we have 30 million pending cases in this country and it takes 15 years to get justice. I said we can do it in three years. He liked the idea and immediately asked for a meeting with the Attorney General, Solicitor General and many others. I asked them if we could document the court cases under categories so that it would make some sense. We put together a mission document, the Cabinet note was prepared and the Cabinet has approved it. I am hopeful that in the next six months, it will all be set up.

Transcribed by Sahim Salim
http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-first-phase-of-the-telecom-revolution-is-beginning-to-end.-the-second-is-about-to-begin/590508/
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