Can Do: The Legacy of a Prince with a Cause

met for dinner on April 18 a year ago, at a hotel coffee shop near his office,
to "brainstorm" on issues that Nasscom could take up in the year
ahead. Dewang joked that with all his experience, he could start a lobbying
training course–or writing a book about it. Lobbying isn’t tough, he said.
"Talk to the government in the language it understands. Tell it what it
wants to listen to. Spell it out: why should it care? What will it gain? How
much forex can it earn?"

"Here’s another chance to practice," I said. In the next few
minutes, I outlined a "project" idea for Nasscom: take up the cause of
bandwidth, the big bottleneck ahead for IT and economy alike. "Yes, I read
your April edit", he said. "Got any data?" On a borrowed pad, we
sketched figures: thousands of US-hosted Indian sites buying bandwidth. Dollars
and jobs lost. E-mails that traveled via US servers. India as a future hosting
hub. This wasn’t all my idea: it came up at a Voice & Data discussion,
where panelists rued how little had been achieved on this issue over decades–and
said: if only there were a Nasscom in telecom…

He went back from that dinner, rather thoughtful.

The speed with which he moved was the essence of how Dewang Mehta worked. By
May, Operation Bandwidth was launched by Nasscom–with authoritative-sounding
demand figures that were put together overnight, but which have been quoted ever
since. Then came a government bandwidth committee followed by a stream of
announcements: private gateways, a directive to VSNL to relax its grip on the
FLAG fiber gateway, policies to push private fiber and backbone deployment…

One year later, another brainstorming session, the evening before he left for
Australia. We discussed another idea–this time, for Nasscom to take up the
cause of a national citizen database project Dataquest had outlined in a recent
cover story. Government departments had frittered billions, with little result.
If anyone could package, market and lobby for this, it was Dewang. He agreed–and
we would meet again on April 17.

That meeting never happened. He was found dead in a hotel room in Sydney, a
journey cut severely short.

The greatest tribute we can pay to Dewang Mehta is to make sure his mission,
and his IT dream, goes on without interruption. Easier said than done. Few can
bind those diverse skills with so much passion.

On the other hand, he showed us what is possible in India, despite all the
tehelka of rapidly changing governments. Today, whoever’s in power, IT will
carry on in India. That was his contribution, the foundation we have to work on.

Prasanto Kumar Roy


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