A man with vast experience, Som Mittal, Former President, and Chairman NASSCOM, has been wearing many hats during his 46 years career – from being part of the engineering and automotive industry to leading IT products companies, and later as the president of NASSCOM, senior advisor to the World Bank, McKinsey & Co., and Government of New Zealand, among others.
During his stint at the NASSCOM, Mittal set up the Data Security Council of India to promote data protection and develop best practices for cyber security and privacy. He also initiated the NASSCOM 10,000 Startups program that aims to foster entrepreneurship, build entrepreneurial capabilities at scale, and strengthen early-stage support for tech startups. Over the years, with over 5,800 startups, 500 startup-corporate connects, 400 start-ups in global ecosystems, and 150 new product concepts, the program has helped India become one of the top three startup ecosystems in the world.
Mittal also played a critical role when he steered the industry through some of its most challenging phases, including the Satyam crisis that could have severely impacted the credibility of the software sector in India. He also led the public advocacy efforts globally and was able to overcome protectionism issues in US, UK, EU, Canada, and Australia among others. Consistently reiterating commitment to free trade, Mittal took a strong stance against perils of protectionist policies, demonstrating how Indian companies contributed to local economies and at the same time ensuring that policies in India follow the same principle.
He has served as a member of Indo US and Indo EU ICT strategic dialogues, as a member of the Prime Minister’s Committee on National e-Governance, and as a board member of Global Advisory Council of the World Information Technology and Services Alliance. He also initiated the Digital Literacy Mission in rural areas and was a member of the committee to review the Bharat Net project that aims to provide broadband connectivity to 2.5 lakh panchayats.
Mittal is well recognised for his commitment to the cause of the IT and ITES industry in India, as well as his outstanding dedication to the growth of the global information and communications technology industry.
We are notches up digitally and savvier than before
An alumnus of IIT Kanpur and IIM Ahmedabad, he began his career in the engineering and automotive industry serving at Larsen &Toubro, Escorts, and Nippondenso from 1975 to 1989, before shifting his gear to join the IT industry to set up Wipro’s peripherals division, and later heading its server, PC and services division. Thereafter, he joined Compaq, driving its growth in India as the Country Managing Director. He was actively involved in spinning off the company’s software unit, Digital GlobalSoft (now HP Global Soft Limited), and managing the integration of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Compaq, before heading DEC as its Managing Director. His bigger industry role came when he took over the reins of NASSCOM in 2008, leading India’s IT services industry amid economic turmoil, political challenges, and the Satyam crisis. The doyen of India’s IT industry, Som Mittal, shared his views on the post-pandemic challenges, opportunities, and trends driving the IT and ITES sector. Excerpts:
DQ: You have been part of the IT industry since 1989. How will you describe the change from the early days of PCs to the present everything digital era?
Som Mittal: In the early years of the IT industry in India, a lot of intellectual capital was spent with very little output. There has been a dramatic change in terms of technology over the years, in the way the CPU evolved with its power and price moving in opposite directions. There was also a big change in terms of focus which shifted from hardware, technology, and enterprise to customers and their customers. Back then, information technology was limited to enterprises and EDP reports, but the moment it reached the desktop and other devices, the democratisation of technology started to happen.
I think the evolution of technology that has happened in the last 10 years was ten times faster than what happened in the decade before it, which was fast enough. In 1999, when Digital became a software company, we had very low microwave links. Fibre was not there and one had to be in the good books of BSNL to get a link. Data connectivity was not available so easily. It was limited only to an enterprise. During the last 21 years, the whole approach has changed. The availability of data connectivity for all is driving a big change. Connectivity did influence organisations in the early days, but today it can impact the whole world. Today, data connectivity is not just about enterprises running more efficiently, it’s about our lives.
DQ: The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways. What impact did it have on the overall IT industry and what role do you see the sector playing in enabling the economy?
Som Mittal: For every crisis that happens, there’s a silver lining somewhere. The demonetisation, for example, accelerated digital payments. The pandemic, in particular, has been devastating. In the first six weeks, we didn’t know what to do because there was a sudden lockdown. Employees didn’t know what to do because their own cyber security requirements were such that there was no possibility of working from home. The government would not allow work from home because the connectivity norms did not allow it. It took us nearly eight weeks to work it out. People learned how to work from home and got the infrastructure and connectivity solutions, the government gave the required permission and the industry worked out new ways of business continuity. There’s no other sector in the world that has been able to spring back to virtually the same level or more.
There have been some permanent changes in our lives too. Earlier, video conferencing was tough. I used to dread it. But everything changed suddenly, it became secure and efficient. I think technology did respond very rapidly to the needs. The other plus point that I see in coming times is enabling more women to work. Statistics indicate that we may have 50% women at the entry point in the sector, but the average number of women employees is 32%. This happens because a lot of women drop out, some leave the sector and many quit the profession because we did not allow them to work from home. With the new normal of work from home, I expect many of them to come back – maybe not full-time, but now the industry will certainly have access to that capability and scale, and the talent pool. The efficiencies of productivity due to WFH, however, may not remain forever because it’s not feasible to continue to work like this as there are negatives as well as working from home. Nonetheless, not only as a sector but also as an economy, we are notching up digitally and savvier than before. I see a bright future and a bright role to play.
DQ: India’s software and services success is an old story now. We have entrepreneurs who have made it big, but why is it that despite being the software guru, the country still does not have Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google, or the likes of WhatsApp?
Som Mittal: I agree with you. But we kind of ignore the likes of Paytm, BYJU’s, and Flipkart. They may not have been completely innovative but they have scaled up in a lot of ways. We need to understand that it is only in the last several years that failure has become an acceptable outcome. Earlier, the whole model was based on arbitrage. I don’t want to negate the great work that people did, because India was not known for its quality and we created it – this whole offshoring model is very much an invention of India. We made it happen and made it successful.
For entrepreneurs, there were two big deterrents: the fear of failure and the availability of funds. I could never have been an entrepreneur since I could not afford to be a failure. Amazon and Google struggled for a long time. But they had the conviction. Besides, two things helped them – their environment was not over-regulated and the availability of funding, which has just started coming to India. And of course, it depends on our capabilities of taking a big risk. I still feel that we don’t take those big risks today. Our R&D expenditure is very low. The stock market in India does not really support large investments as compared with margins.
I also feel that majority of the solutions in India have been aping the West. We create an e-commerce platform or look at how online teaching is happening and adapt it for Indians. We look at payment platforms that are already there and create one in India. It is kind of me too. Unless you’re solving a local problem and then taking it to the world, it cannot become big. China did it right. It had its people, the technology and money, and gave relaxations in regulation. So today from nowhere, it has become the AI champion of the world.
We should not worry too much about whether we have a Google or a Netflix, but the question is, are we working towards and encouraging that to happen? I would even say no. We still have the same regulatory environment for startups as we have for large enterprises. There is mistrust between business and government.
DQ: There was a time when India countered China’s prowess in manufacturing by highlighting its software power. With core technology itself moving from a pure-hardware-driven to a software-driven environment, do you think India still has that advantage, particularly since we do not seem any match in R&D for countries like China, Korea, the US, and even Taiwan?
Som Mittal: Without being unfair to many people who have done some great work, I think it’s unfortunate that the majority of our efforts in this area have been around import substitution, which then means reverse engineering. It was very convenient for us in the industry to talk about software power and we were basking in the glory of being a superpower. However, we need to look at what China did.
I don’t think China could ever match India in terms of service outsourcing, which will continue to grow. It tried very hard. China would invite us to NASSCOM all the time; it wanted to emulate us. But India continues to have an edge, not only in terms of cost and capability but also in terms of the level of trust. But China used its power to change things for itself first. We kept talking about technology for telecom, while companies in China – ZTE, Huawei, and others – kept investing in R&D. We need to understand that product development is not R&D. It is the IP that you create. Even in the US, a lot of technology happened with defense, aerospace, NASA. They fuelled innovation and a number of technologies came out of it. We have to just find our own challenges and solve them. For the first time, we saw something when DRDO announced that it has developed the medicine for COVID-19. Otherwise, those technologies are canned. Over 90% of the research in educational institutions is funded by the government. Industry barely funds 10-15%. That’s where the gap is; we need to combine R&D with industry needs.
DQ: You mentioned that there is a lack of coordination between industries and academia in India. Is the industry not interested because it does not see much ROI in such partnership or research in India?
Som Mittal: This is a point that should be debated. The industry-academia partnership in India started because the industry wanted to influence the quality of people that it gets and so we started helping them by giving them the latest technology and participated with them. The academia wanted to ensure good placement for its students because that raises the ranking.
A lot of good work was done but it remained there. I think academia and the industry actually haven’t worked together to achieve it though there are instances of strong collaboration as well. A lot of good work, for example, has happened at IIT Bombay. But it stops there. I don’t blame anybody but there is a huge resistance beyond the two motives I mentioned. Academia is very happy to get its people placed, to get grants from the industry and its alumni. But if we want to participate and teach, we are not welcome. If the industry is able to interact and participate more, it will learn about the research at the labs and will start funding those projects. So that connection is still very transactional.
DQ: Earlier, in your opinion pieces, you have mentioned that the industry needs to address challenges like low employability, gaps in structural education reforms, lack of fiscal policy support, etc. Do you see any change in the approach and progress?
Som Mittal: I think there has to be a very light touch regulation. I went to IIT Kanpur and never saw the government around us. Textbooks were never used unless they were bibles, like Maths. Most of the teachers taught us through notes because that was the latest based on their research. Today, there is a bhed chaal (mob mentality). Since we were short of talent, we started setting up engineering colleges without caring to have faculty, lab, and other infrastructure. Then we started putting conditions, reservations for faculty, for students. I think a lot needs to be done. A lot of work by people like Dr. Kasturirangan has gone into preparing the NEP, but will it be implemented, and how soon? We had two very good people, Indians from the US, joining the sector; one became the Director of IIM Bangalore and the other Director of IIM Ahmedabad. But both had to leave because they couldn’t bear the interventions, and when they spoke out, they had consequences.
We talk about demographic dividend but it is a pity that even today, young people, not far from Delhi, are not literate – our domestic help, drivers, and others. While there is so much focus on higher education, we still haven’t made it accessible to all. The pandemic has also shown how woefully short we are of doctors. We managed it in the past, but now all the cracks are visible. So, it’s not just engineering. It’s time to take a much broader view.
DQ: You had also outlined that India can be one of the top three innovation hubs for climate change and clinical research. Is that opportunity expanding after 2020? How can we tap it?
Som Mittal: Climate change has two aspects. First, it is about political negotiations. Obviously, if we do anything per capita, we will be the lowest in the world. The rest of the world may be using more energy than we do today, but as India moves up its economic ladder, we’ll become bigger users. That is going to add much more carbon than all those other countries can save. So, we have an opportunity to not take the path that they did, and I think it’s a big opportunity.
The second aspect is about consciousness, which is low at the moment. We have just started connecting people with electricity, so you can’t tell them not to use it. Having said that, the initiatives taken to drive the adoption of LED, solar power, etc. are actually increasing awareness. But then, we also have other issues like deforestation. The industry needs to do much more and it will be unfortunate if this is forced by the West. When we will be the net exporter, they will ask us about our carbon content, and then to measure that carbon content, we will have to buy carbon credits.
India is very good at reducing the cost when we buy something. Our driver will become competitiveness. But if there is any country that is going to suffer the most due to climate change, it is us. It’s already happening and we don’t have to wait for more proof.
DQ: What about clinical research?
Som Mittal: It’s unfortunate that we are the disease capital of the world. Let’s not talk anything per capita, let’s talk absolute numbers – whether it is diabetes, heart disease, all of them. Hence, if these numbers are large, there is an opportunity for us to be able to address them. I think we have done a fairly good job in terms of tertiary healthcare. We have some of the best hospitals, but those are limited to Tier 1 cities. We can address all this only if there is data. I think technology can help capture the information and data that is there. We will not be able to handle the shortage of doctors and nurses only with physical staff. The only way we can do this is by using technology, and it has to go far beyond telemedicine. I think telemedicine has been proven and it’s kind of done but we have some very good examples like Aravind Eye Hospital that is using technology to perform the cheapest, most efficient and the largest number of cataract surgeries in the world.
We have tons of patient data, including in the case of COVID-19. But we are missing a big opportunity. Nowhere else in a year’s time any country is going to touch so many people. Nine hundred million people are going to get vaccinated and we have no background of them. Except for the Aadhaar number, we are capturing nothing. I had COVID-19; what happened to me, what was my background, what predispositions I have, there’s no data. Even if we start capturing this data now and anonymise it, a lot more can be achieved. The announcement has been made about the national digital health scheme but I still don’t have my health records fungible. I have to go to the same doctor, nobody else can see me. How long will we keep debating it? I think there is a need to speed up the process and if COVID-19 hasn’t taught us a lesson, I am not sure what will.
I’m working on this new initiative ‘Patients for Patient Safety’ that aims to connect all sorts of secondary care hospitals, nursing homes, small hospitals because that’s where the volume is. That’s where all the X-rays are sitting. We want to make sure that this data can be used for diagnostics. While it is very easy for us to say we can do this, why will a doctor believe in that algorithm? For that to happen, we need rules. I know it will happen, but we are moving so slow that we will miss this opportunity of collecting the data.
DQ: Isn’t that hindered by the lack of privacy act in India?
Som Mittal: It bothers me what you said, because in 2011, under Justice AP Shah, when Aadhaar was coming in, there were concerns about Aadhaar and privacy, so we requested Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia to set up a group to look into it. The industry along with civil societies spent almost six months and we came out with the contours of the privacy law. It’s been that long. So, if the government can act so fast on Twitter, what happened here? We did come up with rules and regulations on types of data, how to handle them, the policy, etc. We had so many laws that were written and passed in between. So is the privacy act such a big problem? I think it needs conviction. This is not going to happen unless there is a huge amount of trust that is built in the ecosystem. And there is a lack of trust.
By Shubhendu Parth