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A case of computer breakdown?

India and the Computer: A Study of Planned Development C R Subramanian Publisher: Oxford University Press Price: Rs 250

By Kiran Karnik
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- IF ONE were to pick a single product to represent the tremendous technological progress in the second half of this century, it would certainly be the computer. In few fields has progress been so dramatic, so sustained and so significant.

Popular opinion has it that computers came to India with Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s. To simplistic "either/or" thinkers, it even seemed that "a computer on every desk" had replaced "food in every belly" as a goal. Yet, the fact is that India's flirtations with computers began much earlier with the first digital computer coming to India in 1955, thanks to noted statistician-demographer P C Mahalanobis. Work on developing an indigenous computer started even earlier -- at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay -- and the first indigenous computer (TIFRAC) was completed in 1959.

Nehru, with characteristic vision, an abiding faith in technology as a development tool and advised by Homi Bhabha, considered electronics as playing a vital role in the nation's future. A series of steps were initiated, culminating in the creation of the electronics commission and the department of electronics in 1970.

In India and the Computer: A Study of Planned Development, C R Subramanian traces and analyses the development of computers in India. Subramanian is an electrical engineer, who has worked both in India and USA, and who became the chairman and managing director of Bharat Electronics Limited in 1974. He has thus had a ringside view of developments in the field and was privy to some of the action as a participant. He is, therefore, able to lead the reader through the complex maze of organisations, committees, working groups and so on that were responsible for computer policy making and implementation.

The author says his book seeks to "present the reader with a historical review of policies and their laggard implementation, as they evolved". A chronological history of computer development and policies from 1968 to 1990 is dealt with in the book's first three chapters. The next three deal with peripherals, mainframes (large computer systems) and software. The author's analysis of the policies and their impact in each of these fields produces a far-from-rosy picture. The reader is then told the story of IBM's exit from the country (Chapter VII) and given case studies of ECIL and CMC, the two major public-sector companies in the computer field.

A separate chapter -- the longest -- provides a detailed look at technology and applications development. The chapter also provides an overview of the whole host of programmes and institutions involved in these fields in India. The author then makes a brief survey of the private sector companies in the field and ends with a look in Chapter XII at the future of the industry.

Subramanian brings out in his exceptionally well-documented book, not only the vagaries of Indian policies in the computer field, but also the utter failure to meet targets. While comparisons are sometimes unfair, the glaring contrast between the slow, plodding progress in India, especially of Electronic Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL), the primary implementing agency, and the mercurial success of Norsk Data, a small Norwegian company, is highlighted effectively. Even the brief vignette on Norsk highlights the dedication and work-culture of the employees: "They moved all their material to the work place and worked day and night.... work rarely ended before 2 am."

In India, too, many of the early pioneers displayed the same dedication. However, somewhere down the line, this dedication died, possibly stifled by wrong policies or overwhelmed by bureaucratic inertia.

India has been successful in other areas of advanced technology, notably satellites, missiles and atomic energy. Why, then, the apparent failure in the field of computer technology -- a failure that's even more surprising because computers (and electronics in general) are essential elements in those areas where indigenous efforts have been successful and also because they derive from the same Homi Bhabha-Vikram Sarabhai institutions?

The book does not directly address this vital issue, but provides enough clues for intrepid readers to draw their own conclusions. One aspect comes through clearly enough -- the extent and power of vested interests in this field. The "trader" lobby, including the screwdriver-technology "manufacturers", has become all-powerful, and policies from the mid-1980s have favoured them. B S Prabhakar, chairperson of ECIL, a public sector company, makes a loaded remark in this context, "Private sector companies (as agents of public sector companies) are in a better position to canvass orders, even from government departments or the public sector."

The author also highlights the lack of industrial exposure and understanding among the various scientists involved both in R&D and in policy making. In terms of policies, the author contends excessive emphasis on total self-reliance led to long delays and obsolete equipment and that a policy of importing components or even sub-systems could have yielded faster results.

The chapter on software (very appropriately titled Dreams of Riches) and another on the Rajiv Gandhi era are particularly relevant in today's context of even greater liberalisation. Whether the "flood-in, flood-out" policy will work and, even if it does, whether it is of any additional value, are moot points.

The book is certainly an invaluable addition to the very scanty Indian literature in this field. To the researcher, it is a goldmine of hard, factual data. To the lay reader, it is an interesting (and surprisingly comprehensible) journey through the difficult terrain of computer development. To the policy-maker (who, one hopes, will take the trouble to read the book) it provides excellent material on the effects of various policy initiatives.

Despite the plethora of tables, figures and references -- reflecting the thoroughness of a sound doctoral thesis -- the book is very readable, especially for those who have been involved anyway in the field. What one does miss, however, is greater editorial comment, given the author's background. He has carefully avoided expressing his own views directly. This is a pity, because it would have lent the book added thrust and relevance.

--- Kiran Karnik is director of the Inter University Consortium for Educational Communication, an autonomous institution of the University Grants Commission, Delhi.

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