India needs the science of the common people

It's a paradox that while the government is busy opening up the telecom sector to multinational companies, technocrat Sam Pitroda, perhaps the most well-known name in the telecom sector, sits in isolation in his office. Pitroda, known familiarly in rural India as the "telephonewallah", still displayed his charming manners, as he recounted to Down To Earth his dreams and hopes for technology in India and his experiences in a country that he emphatically maintains needs "the sudra's science" -- the science of the common man

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

From the dizzy heights of the Rajiv Gandhi days to your apparent sanyas, when everyone else but Sam Pitroda is talking of telecom, your life has been nothing short of a thriller. Today, do you feel politically isolated?
I think I have done my work. As a leader, I have set the telecom sector in motion. Now it's upto others to try and give it direction. To be frank, I'm tired and I don't have all that steam that I'm sure I had 10 years ago. As a pioneer, I am happy that telecom has finally been accepted as the key to progress. The problem is that in this country half your energy is spent convincing people of the need for the "sudra's science". Everybody wants the Brahman's science -- high-technology. Can you believe that a country of 800 million people isn't able to produce a glue that can actually stick the flap of an envelope? At times, I must tell you, isolation is comforting.

We hear that you have undertaken the task of building up a database on Indian medicinal plants. Do medicinal plants attract you or is this the kind of thing you are busy with of late?
For the last five years, I have been working for a foundation that is trying to build up a database on global health. While attending a press conference arranged by the foundation, some bright, young fellows got a little mad and said, "What is all this Western hype -- why aren't you looking at traditional Indian medicine?" I replied, "I don't know anything about Indian medicine. You're looking at the wrong guy" But they wouldn't listen.

So I decided to go ahead and prepare a database and it should be ready within the next couple of years.

The practise of using a database is catching up fast in India. But how about a database on traditional knowledge? And, anyway, how effective are such databases?
A detailed database needs to be organised on traditional knowledge. Nobody really knows what information we have and everybody makes all kinds of guesses. It's time we started making science out of traditional knowledge by providing scientific data. This is what modern science should be concerned with in a country like India. Common knowledge can be turned into science when the effect of knowledge can actually be repeated. Our present venture in collaboration with the government and 25 institutions is intended to launch a massive database containing thousands of medicinal plants and providing a nation-wide, real-time accessible database, with all kinds of information such as graphics, chemical composition and the area of growth.

From rural automatic exchanges to medicinal plants is a long journey. What were your dreams and ambitions and how far have they have been fulfilled?
That's the favourite question to ask Sam Pitroda, isn't it? But let me point out it's a funny question. Harvard Business Review has been after me to write an article on my life in India. As I have just finished writing this piece, I will try and summarise what I have said. The bottom line is that I came to India with a narrow view -- telecom. When I came in, doors opened and I realised that telecom requires a hell of a lot of funding. The world has changed and information is the key to development. Mind you, even today we are not funding telecom as we should. Telecom development was definitely the first item on my agenda. I had no idea that I would become chairperson, telecom, or any of that stuff. In any case becoming chairperson was not the goal of my life -- I think I got sucked into it.

What is your notion of technology? How did you intend to fit Western technology to the bureaucratic Indian set-up?
I have always felt technology is the key to development and in India, technology can be the only key to solving problems. The point is technology is not something indigenous or borrowed. There is technology everywhere. In India when you talk of technology, everybody backs off. For some odd reason, technology is not seen in this country as problem-solving. What people don't realise is that productivity, efficiency, mass production, improving quality, proper distribution -- virtually everything -- can be solved through technology, which is the key to social transformation.

What kind of social transformation?
Transformation that makes us move toward a more equal world, transformation that looks at better distribution, transformation that provides more literacy, better water, better environment. A good example is what I've just mentioned about traditional medicine. We'll have to bring together all the knowledge on plants, bring in modern doctors and convince them that this technology can be duplicated. Then, you have a very large base for rural health. A lot of people are not using it and those who are using it are not part of the system. The system and the people are mismatched. Is this why you emphasise networking? If it's so, networking for you is much more than the ordinary notions of it.
You are right. My idea of networking is not just providing connectivity. Whether it's computerisation of the railway reservation system or computerisation of land reforms, my basic goal has always been information flow, aimed at building people's power. My idea of networking may even extend to the realm of ideas, where there are no hierarchical, pyramidal structures. We are all networked on that plane.

Libnet (Library Network) and Inet (Indian Network), like all good causes, have died a natural death. How do you assess the success of your networking programme?
A whole lot of things have happened in the networking process. Therefore, it's hard to say how much of it has been a success and how much it has not. How do you measure success, anyway? I started the networking programme and without that initiative, we would have never started. It's all a question of getting started -- and that's the contribution of a leader. Moreover, the failure of a couple of networks doesn't say anything about the fate of the networking programme.

Do you think that liberalisation has helped telecom to any extent?
The effect of liberalisation is something that you can only see after years. You will see the effect of all that we are doing today only in 1996. So liberalisation two years ago, can't yet have an impact on telecom today.

But you have always supported using infrastructures available here. Are you now supporting the government's liberalisation policy?
See, I'm one of those who feels that change through technology development is meant to use and maximise available resources, but not to a point that you start to produce bad products. If you produce bad products, bring in technology to upgrade your productivity. I support the liberalisation policy to the extent it's not used to override talent.

You once made an interesting remark -- something to the effect that cellular phones in villages look obscene. Why obscene? Don't you want communication facilities in villages?
I used to say that you don't need cellular telephones in India because my concentration then was on rural telecom. I remember talking of opening one rural exchange a day -- and everyone had laughed at me. Now we open six rural exchanges a day. But you can't hang on to one position all your life -- positions change and so do perceptions. So, my position on rural cellular phones has changed now.

Do you think the telecom demand in rural areas has been met?
I think a lot of excitement has been generated in rural telephones. The country has 600,000 villages and we don't have a telephone in each village, but that's okay! Today, in rural India, everyone wants telephones. And this is important because people must at least be aware of the necessity.

If I were to ask you to focus on certain key areas in the years to come, what would your list as your priorities as far as telecom is concerned?
The priority has to be on increasing efficiency and developing confidence in our own abilities. The biggest problem with our technocrats is their scant respect for our own human resources. On the other hand, I don't think there is any such thing as Indian technology. It's important that we adopt the right kind of foreign technology and start building indigenous capabilities. More self-criticism and less pontification would help our scientists to be more competitive. And telecom is the right area with which to begin.

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