40 years of ICT in India, and the next 10 years

Customers were able to convince the government of India regarding the role of IT. Y2K was a strategic inflection point for the IT industry

Pradeep Chakraborty
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The Dataquest Lifetime Achievement Award 2019 was conferred to Padma Bhushan Awardee 2011, Rajendra S. Pawar, Chairman, NIIT Ltd and Founder, NIIT University.


This was preceded by a panel discussion among the stalwarts of the India IT industry.  The participants were: Arjun Malhotra, Co-founder, HCL and Chairman, Magic Software Inc.,  CP Gurnani, CEO and MD, Tech Mahindra, Rajendra S. Pawar, and Pradeep Gupta, CMD, Cybermedia.

Opening the discussion, Pradeep Gupta, CMD, Cybermedia, said that 1980s was the time that the foundation of the Indian IT industry took place. Business was not looked up to. What was the essence of those times?

Arjun Malhotra said: "We had to live in the licence raj. The government had to decide. We started HCL. We had a licence to manufacture. We signed a joint manufacturing initiative with UPTRON. Noida was the place where we set up a factory. When we made the first 8-bit machine, we were packing it, someone asked whether the excise duty had been paid. We were told the time was about 4-5 months, but we had to deliver in 1-2 days. We were told the MPU policy has not yet been decided. Please come back 4 years later. We showed a photograph to the excise fellow. This was the environment that we were in."



On another note, Gupta asked CP Gurnani regarding what made him shift to the IT industry. Gurnani said: "What made me shift to the IT industry was my wife Anita! I shifted to the IT industry in 1986. I was also prompted by the reality that computers were really becoming aspirational products. PCs were now becoming available. HCL launched Busybee that year, and brought in a lot of awareness. So, I came in for the ride. DoE had come in, as did CNC, NIC, etc. I played a role as the industry continued to evolve. Raji had started NIIT, as there were no drivers for the industry. There was no education available for computers. There was a complete lack of manpower."

To this, Rajendra S. Pawar, added: "Computers were getting made. However, everybody soon realized that we won't have the people to run them. This threat would block the growth of the industry! Here, the crucial block of growth was talent! We needed people to create people! We introduced a 29-inch color TV from Onida. We bought a Sony VCR. We had imported tapes of people teaching COBOL, FORTRAN, etc. The idea was to have young, fresh graduates come into this field and making their career.


"We also ran faculty programs for school teachers. We looked at medical education. We became the biggest recruiters for IIMs. We then created knowledge that we took to classrooms. We created a franchise model in 1986, and that helped us reach 2,000 locations. Late Rajiv Gandhi had announced the computer policy in 1984. C-DoT was established.  The National Education Policy was announced in 1986. Elsewhere, FC Kohli made a policy at Tata that people needed to have a COBOL certificate from NIIT."

In his speech, N Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Group, said: "Raji is a true pioneer. He had a vision, long before others, to develop the human capital in the IT industry, to drive the nation's growth. He believed in two important things, and demonstrated both. First, India has its human capital to solve its problems. Two, the IT skills can be built. He founded NIIT in the 1980s based on these two principles. Today, NIIT is present in over 30 countries, and counts over 35 million learners.

Chairman, Tata Group


"Raji served on the Board of Governors at ISB, and also founded the NIIT University. He helped shape the IT policy in India, and around the world. His contribution to education, the IT industry and the nation, is very large. He is a role model for many entrepreneurs."

Eminence in software and Y2K bug

Gupta looked back at the 1990s, when the industry still had few people. Together, he and Pawar were part of the task force set up in the early 1990s. How did India achieve eminence in software?

Pawar said that the whole idea of NIIT was to prepare young people for the opportunity. Back then, Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda were the greatest supporters. Next, N. Vittal had also come in. Work was also done by TCS. The idea was to prepare the young talent and present them to the world. The talent story came alive.


So, how did the shift happen from hardware to software? Malhotra added: "We were recruiting from the top IITs. USA had restrictions on what was to be exported to India. We had a strong R&D team. Someone from AT&T came up and was impressed by HCL's products. We had McKenzie to do a study. The order went south as the company who ordered, got acquired. We had moved people out to the enabling technologies. We had a unique knowledge regarding MPUs. Everyone wanted our expertise. We started selling our expertise. HCL was a technology-based services company for a long time."

Also, did the Y2K opportunity that fell into India's lap? It made India take giant steps in IT. According to CP Gurnani, the other bug could have stopped all financial institutions. We were lucky that the computers could differentiate between 1900s and 2000s. The good education system also helped us.

He said: "James Martin had professor who was good in methodology. We ended up acquiring James Martin. Pawar's (NIIT)  COBOL engineers became the much-needed engineers. Real recognition came to India due to the Y2K problem. The regulator made it mandatory to test the software. Everyone realized that millions of lines of code were never documented. Public trust is sacred. India Inc. benefited as we delivered and maintained the trust of the client. That trust, we need to maintain in 2020."


Along with the Y2K bug, the ITeS industry also came up in India. Elaborating, Gurnani said: "The other benefit of Y2K was that we could never send so many people overseas. The offshore industry brought into the multiply mode around 2000. Around that time, American Express started moving their backoffice to India. GE started their backoffice operations. In a lot of ways, while ITeS was being created, India's role of managing apps remotely, and managed services, also helped. Today, there are over 1,000 customer delivery centers in India. We have also continued to add value to the top 100 companies in the world."


In a message, Rishad Premji, Chairman, Wipro Ltd, said: “Thank you Raji for giving me the opportunity to share in your success on this celebratory milestone. Congratulations on your successful run for these many decades, for the things you have done for the education industry, the technology industry, and Nasscom. It’s been a real pleasure to get to know you, and engage with you over these last many years. I hope you go from strength to strength and I wish you all the best.”


Internet revolution

Next, Pradeep Gupta touched upon how the Internet revolution had began. To this, Pawar commented: "The Internet revolution began in 1995, when the speed was 9.6Kbps. We ended up sending floppy disks to students at home. In 2010, the Internet speed was 512Kbps. The digital divide problem was raised in the 1990s. The government also wanted us to solve the digital divide. We started a program in Chhindwara, called democratization. We tried to do remote teaching. We got the opportunity in the decade of 2000-10."


In another message, Ms. Debjani Ghosh, President, Nasscom, said: “Raji, you have been a friend, philosopher and guide to NASSCOM. You have been part of our Executive Council, and the past Chairman of NASSCOM. Even today, you continue to find time for us as Chairman of the Data Security Council of India. Raji, your contributions and insights are always invaluable. The ability to get into the depth of specific subjects, your attention to detail and the willingness with which you make yourself available whenever we need you, means a lot to us. Y2K was a strategic inflection point for the IT industry. We are again at a similar cusp. The IT industry will emerge stronger from the crisis.”

Next, Gupta mentioned that there was a huge wave of entrepreneurship in the USA in the 1990s. This led to the same thing in India.

Arjun Malhotra said: "Getting a secure job was top priority in the 1990s. The security glass ceiling had pretty much broken. When the Internet came, suddenly, you had a new technology that could change the world. You had people who could jump in and do something on their own. The IT industry had broken the glass barrier for the middle class. The coming of the Internet also helped."

The Net Varsity came up in the 1990s. Edtech has taken a backseat, but has now emerged strongly. The NIIT University was launched in 2009. Pawar added: "We announced the Cloud Campus in 2013. However, the tools and technologies were ready, but the infrastructure was not ready. Learning was the most complicated process. Many, like us, have dabbled with multimedia. Time has been trying to chase us. Cumulative experience gained is now with us. The NIIT University is based on the infrastructure being the learning platform. We are in the process of NIIT Education. 80% of our activity is for Fortune 500 companies, who are looking to have people trained. Covid-19 is the next opportunity."

Gupta noted that similar changes have also taken place in the software industry. What are some of the changes that have happened?

Gurnani said: "A few events have taken place. Hardware became software, along with fault-tolerance. There is no newspaper that does not talk about India's capabilities. There are all companies that have an Indian insight. Moving up the value chain is now an everyday process. We can create end-to-end service offering. There is digital migration happening all around. How do you modernize so that your business becomes digitally native. Today's environment calls for technology as a layer. There are examples of Aadhar, Jan-Dhan Yojna, etc. We can combine the native technologies and create velocities in every market. The next leap has to take place."


In another message, Vishwanathan Anand, five-time World Chess Champion, and Former Ambassador, NIIT said: “I first met Rajendra Pawar in 1999. He had lot of good leadership qualities. The first thing that I noticed about Raji was his passion for education in overcoming the digital divide. For him, computers were not only about IT, but they were about education. I remember in 2000, he had a conversation with the President of the World Chess Federation, who mentioned that in his region they had introduced chess in schools, and it had produced much better academic outcomes for his students. And, Raji’s eyes lit up! Within a year, we launched the MindChampion’s Academy, and quite a few champions have emerged from it. I have loved spending time with him.”

Entrepreneurship to the fore

Next, Pradeep Gupta said that there have been great strides made over time. In the last decade itself, entrepreneurship has come to the fore.

Malhotra said: "When we started HCL in the mid-1970s, you had to have an office in Bombay. 10 years later, the Rs. 1.25 lacs we had invested in Mumbai had given us better returns. The founders did not see any real wealth in the first 20 years. Today, things have changed. You are now looking at new resources that can be monetized! We are optimizing our infrastructure. Entrepreneurship has changed, along with the new ideas and opportunities. Businesses have to now adapt very quickly. There are vast opportunities for new people. Your message has to be different, and your product also has to look differently."


In a message, Dr. Karan Singh, former Chairperson, NIIT University and former Member of Parliament, said: "Rajendra Pawar set up NIIT University a few years ago and wanted me to be its Chancellor, and I agreed. It was a green field university, and there was nothing there at all. But, in 10 years, I saw the way the University came up, bit-by-bit, little-by-little. Every year, when I went, I could see the new construction. Under the guidance of Rajendra Pawar and his excellent team of technologists and intellectuals, this has become one of the very visible technological universities of the world. Raji has made many contributions—through NIIT, and through the University—to the tech scene. I hope he goes from strength-to-strength. We should look for more success.”

India advantage and digital transformation

Finally, a look at the advantages that India has to offer.  Gurnani re-iterated that what can change India is the pre-valance of technology in everything that an entrepreneur is doing. We can build prowess when everything has AI inside them. We have to make this policy of having AI-inside for everything. Instead of being a service or service provider, we may even see new products being made in India. India has also got to make a 5G stack." He wished Pawar the very best and added that 'the best of Raji is yet to come'.

To this, Gupta asked, how can the transformation of India happen? Malhotra said: "I am trying to use technology to leverage the quality of education and healthcare. A lot of telemedicince solutions need to be developed as well. The economy is picking up. Every doctor is getting overworked. We are trying to use technology and AI to help doctors see more patients. The first area is the x-ray and MRI. It will also infiltrate into the other medical disciplines. It is going to take time, but it will happen. You can now put telemedicine solutions on the train as well. The ability to go through to a doctor is also amazing.

"In education, digitizing content has some way to go forward. There are some learning disabilities among students. Accessibility is going to come up fast. Technology is starting to play a bigger role in these areas."


Deep tech and Industry 4.0

Gupta asked how are we dealing with Covid-19? There is more deep tech that is going to get into everything. How do we prepare? Rajendra Pawar replied: "The government is scaling up its capacity for looking at deep tech. Today, mobile Internet is 10Mbps+. We have started talking about Industry 4.0 and that will sit on top of the infrastructure that will also see growth. A large percent of the new institutions are being set up now. New universities are looking at deep tech, quantum computing, etc. We are seeing capacity across the board to go to deep tech. NIIT University has benefited enormously having some of the most eminent people. There is a commitment to take every device down to the last child in rural India. The decade of the 2020s will be remembered as the decade of the digital."

RS Pawar was also handed the Dataquest Lifetime Achievement Award 2019 at the end of the event.

Pradeep Gupta, CMD, CyberMedia, said: “We are very happy and proud to confer the ‘Dataquest Lifetime Achievement Award 2019’ on Rajendra Pawar, Chairman and Co-Founder NIIT, and Founder, NIIT University. His pioneering vision has been an inspiration for the entire ICT Industry in India and has given back so much to our country and the society at large. His achievements and initiatives will always be a guiding force for the ICT industry.”


Rajendra S. Pawar was selected by a jury that comprised of Arjun Malhotra, Ritesh Agarwal, OYO Rooms, Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Meity, Gulshan Rai, Deb Deep Sengupta, Karan Bajwa, Som Satangi, etc., besides, Pradeep Gupta, CMD and Thomas George, Managing Editor, Cybermedia.

Some of the previous winners of the award include FC Kohli, Sam Pitroda, N. Vittal, Nandan Nilekani, Ashok Soota, etc.

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