dt1.jpg (7930 bytes)–Ravindra
Gupta,

Secretary, DoE, Govt of India

He is softspoken, but very
firm on what he is saying. The new Secretary of Department of Electronics (DoE) is a
veteran IAS officer who was Principal Secretary (Industrial Development), Government of
Uttar Pradesh. He is also boning up on technology and has ambitious plans for the IT
growth in India. For a quintessential bureaucrat, Ravindra Gupta is extremely candid and
brutal in his assessment of the ground realities facing the country. Mixing the macro
policy matters with the nitty gritties of the micros, Gupta spoke to DATAQUEST barely 12
days after he assumed office, on himself, DoE, the Government priorities, and his action
plan. Excerpts:

You have taken over the Department
of Electronics at a time when a major policy initiative is being planned in IT. This is
the first time such an initiative has been planned. Does this faze you?

No, why should it? I think this is a welcome recognition of the potentialities of this
area. There is a recognition that IT is important and there is no doubt that it can play a
key role in the country. It is an interesting time.

But this [policy statements from
PMO] did not happen in the last 15 years. Do you think that puts us in a position where we
will be unable to catch up with the rest of the world?

No, I don’t think so. Just because you put it on some national agenda or electoral
manifesto does not mean that you are not giving attention to this sector. This sector has
got attention. It is not that it is happening today. I think this sector has been
performing well. The overall growth rate of over 20 percent compounded annually. And in
software, of course, it is much brighter. So I think that at least in software we have an
advantage. It is not that government did not have policy initiatives, it did have.

What are your first impressions of
DoE?

It is a fine department and IT is an
area which will grow. You see, electronics, information technology, water, and genetic
engineering are the areas of tomorrow. These will have to get focus.

What have you decided as your
priority areas?
You have to assess your
strengths and then build your plan of action and strategy thereon. And secondly, in an
international environment, there will always be decisions that you will have to make in
that (global) context. And sometimes, decisions that might not always be relevant for the
global market. But these are two imperatives. By the way, software is an area of strength.
In a couple of years this will become the major export focus. That is an area where
sustained effort is necessary.

So you are confident of software
being a major growth engine?
Definitely yes. You see major
IT players are all looking at India for software. I think it is quite possible that we
will quadruple our share of the global software trade in the next few years and that is
only the beginning. But if we want to become a major player, I feel that apart from
software we need strong R&D support. I feel that the Department must give basic
support for building a strong R&D network. I think a strong R&D is also necessary
for strategic requirements.

For the last year or so
Indianization has been a buzzword in DoE. Are you going to give the movement a further
fillip?

Well, personally I am not sold on some word. You see we must look at the rationale behind
Indianization or indigenization. Today, technological obsolescence is so high that
sometimes it does not make sense go in for indigenization. Because, you have to compete in
your own market and you have to compete globally, and I think this move might not prove
very fruitful given the handicaps we have in the financial and infrastructure sectors.

But what about using local language
as a medium on computers to increase computer proliferation?

Yes, there is a definite need for that. But for a country to improve you need a
certain type of education. You need people to have a certain IT-orientation. There are
other issues involved. Like PC penetration, for example. Right now it is one per 1000.
Now, if we are to increase penetration to even 10 per 1000, that is up to 1 percent, then
it is important to have some kind of language development on the PCs, otherwise
penetration is not going to happen. That is why the country has to work on software on
Indianization. But there are other issues as well, like the question of affordability for
example. For the 0.1 percent penetration this kind of language development is not really
necessary. But if we want to go deeper then this kind of effort is well-intentioned and
well-thought-of. There have been a number of efforts within the Department in this
direction and yes, the Department will continue to give this a priority.

But one of the problems peculiar to
this Department seems to be that there has been no major IT policy initiative till now,
since the IT policy of 1984….What you are saying is that there is no published
document…

….No, it’s not just a document having a focus or a vision. No, but why don’t you have a
look at the Five Year Plan document? You will see the intent there. You will see the
direction there. You cannot say the intent or the policy is not there. It is there. There
might be problems with the acceptability of the intent and policy, but they are there. I
am aware of this, but I would like to review everything before I put forward a draft
policy.

Is this draft policy going to be
similar to the action plan suggested by the Prime Minister?
You see, you must have a
vision. Then you must have goals that will help you achieve that vision. The action plan
says that India must become a global IT superpower in 10 years. Now, we must examine what
this means and then work out on a practical achievable target. There are a lot of issues
involved. The government, for example, will not be able to find the kind of resources that
is required to make the statement into a reality. So, we have to look at other methods. Of
inviting private sector, of inviting global IT majors to come into the country. We have to
find a solution.

Do you think the government should
play a role in inviting major R&D based investment dollars into the country?

We have to play a role in getting the large investments. For example, I would like to see
one of the chip majors set up a mega-fab in the country. Now that is a huge investment in
the tune of over $ 2 billion just for the plant alone and another $ 1 billion for the
support infrastructure. But for this to happen, we need to give a push at the highest
level. I have proposed some incentives to the Finance Ministry which might be announced in
the next Budget, but you see nowadays it is no longer enough just to give incentives and
put it up on the Internet and hope that Bill Gates or somebody will see it and come and
invest here. You have to go out and get the investment. For example, when the Prime
Minister goes out of the country, we must try and arrange one-to-one meetings between him
and these chip-makers. That kind of special push is required if we are to get in the big
investments.

One of the things which has been
quite important is producing cheaper computers. Even the government tried it, but less
successfully. Now, is affordability on your agenda?

Affordability is a big issue. But I really don’t know if we can make another Volkswagen
Beetle. Reducing the price of a PC by a couple of a thousand rupees is not going to help
much. The PC will still be in the range of Rs 40,000-50,000. That is still too much for
most Indian families. It is definitely not the equivalent of $ 1000. How to make a cheaper
PC, I do not know. Because, even at Rs 20,000 the PC will still be too expensive for most
Indians. Even if we give incentives to manufacturers, there is still a component price
which is too expensive. So I really cannot see a solution to this. To counter this, one of
the things I am looking at is to see that we get computers more into our schools. Most of
the schools, today, cannot afford to buy PCs. So we are looking at various methods. For
example, permitting government organizations donate their PCs to schools after two years.
This is not allowed now. Further, one computer is not enough. But then, it is at least a
start. We have to start looking at ways and means beyond duty cuts. Today the duties and
taxes are not that high anyway. So cutting them is not going to make much of a difference.
Anyway, if we are to increase awareness and penetration then the schools is the best way
to go.

The DoE does have a society that
looks after computer education. Do you think you need to give a re-look at the
functionality of the DoEACC?

As I have already told you I will be giving a fresh look at everything. I don’t know yet
what extra role the DoEACC can play. In fact, I am looking at the ITIs which are spread
all over the country as the primary dissemination body for training on computers. You see
there are a number of issues involved but I look at it as four major issues or problems.
To sort these out, I will be setting up four missions-one each for technology,
infrastructure, HR, and mega-fab. These four will address the major areas of concern for
the Department.

By when do you intend to have these
missions in place?
You must give me sometime. I
have just taken over. You see we have to put the vision together. Get the policy mooted
and then put the structure in place. Mobilize the Department and the Government. There is
a lot of work to be done. All I can say is that I am looking at a Vision 2020 for the
Department.

There is a lot of talk recently
that the Department is going to be converted to a Ministry.
What is there in a name. You
people think that if we become a ministry our problems will go away. It’s like saying if
we appoint a relief commissioner then there will be no longer any calamity. Unfortunately,
it does not work that way. Whether a department or a ministry, the problems will remain
the same and they will be similarly dealt with.

L SUBRAMANYAN and
SURAJIT AGARWAL,

in Delhi.

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