Digital Ecosystem

Dataquest 35 Years: Accident Or Design?

As we search for the roots of success of the Indian IT industry, I find that so many have played a positive role

By: N Vittal, Former CVC- Govt Of India

The success of India in IT is recognized universally today. In fact, the Government of India led by our visionary Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his digital India vision.How did IT get a jump start in India? Was it by accident or design?


I was Secretary- Department of Electronics from June 1990 to January 1996. In between, I was also Chairman of the Telecom Commission from October 1993 to September 1994. During the entire period, I was also the member of the Telecom Commission. This was a critical period when the foundation for software exports and telecom revolution in India was laid.

Looking back over more than two decades, three things stand out in my memory.

The FIRST was the strategic alliance and partnership forged between the industry and the government. The goal was the same-Electronics was the sunrise sector and India must fully exploit the emerging opportunity in this sector.

Nurtured as a government officer and that too in the IAS, I was acutely aware of the professional hazard of the bureaucrat, namely, the Aristotle syndrome. Bertrand Russell in his skeptical essays observes that Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher and the guru of Alexander the Great, held the view that women had fewer teeth than men. Russell says if only he had asked Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth and count her teeth, he would not have made the mistake!

The danger the IAS bureaucrat faces is that power is given to him from the first day in his service, of a department about which he has no idea at all.He is ignorance personified.Unfortunately, the combination of ignorance and power is a heady and dangerous cocktail.Like the rock of Vikramaditya, many officers fall into the trap of believing that knowledge and wisdom flow from the chair itself. It is true the chair teaches, but it all depends on the student and his humility to learn.

I was lucky to make it to the Gujarat cadre.I joined IAS on 16th May 1960.Gujarat had been carved out of bilingual Bombay state on 1st May 1960. The enterprising spirit and the can-do spirit is inherent in the air and soil of Gujarat. Pragmatism matters more than mere bookish knowledge.

As I was exposed to the pragmatic culture of Gujarat, I looked upon the industry as my customers and within the first week of my taking over as secretary DOE on 20th June 1990, I met all the industry associations including MAIT, NASSCOM, CETMA and so on. By 30th August I submitted a paper to the Committee of Secretaries based on the feedback I got from the industry and their wish list of demands. Dr. Bimal Jalan asked me a simple question- The exports of electronics in 1990 was of the order of $100 mn. If the wish list of the industry was to be conceded, could it be made five times bigger within a year, to go up to $500 mn? I said that $300 mn was possible and I assured the committee that we could try for $400 mn if all the concessions desired by the industry were agreed to.

WIthin a week I addressed the NASSCOM in Bangalore and said that the government would agree to all the demands if they could achieve $400 mn dollars by September 1991. This was a huge figure and a very big target for the industry but at least it had the effect of making all of us in the industry think if not dream big.

As luck would have it, there were a lot of factors favoring the industry. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the supreme importance of the liberal economic policies where market was the final arbiter, championed by the duo of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Raegan, the severe economic crisis on the foreign exchange front compelling the Govt of India to accept the conditionalities imposed by the International Monetary Fund for liberalisation of the economy.All these developments provided the overall thrust for the take-off.

The SECOND most important act I remember was providing the infrastructure of the badly needed high-speed data communication [64kbps!] network by way of earth stations. So long as the DOT was the only provider of this DOT believed in the policy of making the industry like Texas Instruments pay for the earth station and charge them heavily for its use so that it ultimately became the property of the DOT!

No wonder the fledgling Indian IT entrepreneurs had no money for such a luxury. As Secretary DOE, I found a way out for this life and death problem by offering to install earth stations which would be used by the industry on a time-sharing basis. Thanks to my earlier exposure in Gujarat, and my spell as the Development Commissioner of the Kandla Free Trade Zone, [1974to 1977] I had inside knowledge about the thinking of the customs department and designed the Software Technology Parks by insulating it from all the problems faced by the Kandla Free Trade Zone.

We installed six earth stations at Pune, Bangalore. Gandhinagar, Trivandrum, Hyderabad and Bhuvaneswar spending `12 crores out of the `180 crores earmarked for rebuilding the semiconductor complex at Maholi, This played the role of Hanuman’s Sanjeevani so far as the industry was concerned.

The THIRD happy coincidence was that for nearly a year, October 1993 to September 1994, I became Chairman Telecom Commission and from January 1994 I was also back as Secretary Electronics. This was synergy in the fullest sense and I had the full advantage of synergy at the official level and perhaps this was the best period in the history of the Indian IT industry that at the political and bureaucratic level as well as the industry there was a complete congruence of goals, policy formulation, and implementation.

Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. As we search for the roots of success of the Indian IT industry, I find that so many have played a positive role, not the least political leaders and bureaucrats. The new generation of ethical and competent professionals like Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Azeem Premji and a long line of others have made that success a very happy and proud reality. And ,finally,wasthe jump strart oif Indian It by accident or design?

I will be eighty coming January. Thinking about all this, I realize that Lord Krishna in the Bhagwat Gita has said long ago: We were all only His instruments!


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