Prakash Kumar, CEO, GSTN, is DQ IT Person of the Year 2019

Prakash Kumar, CEO, GSTN, was conferred the Dataquest IT Person of the Year 2019 award, this evening.

He was selected by an eminent jury, including, Ajay Sawhney, Arjun Malhotra, CP Gurnani, Deb Deep Sengupta, Dr. Gulshan Rai, Karan Bajwa, Som Satsangi, Ritesh Agarwal, Vikas Bhonsle, etc.

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In a message, Nandan Nilekani, Non-Executive Chairman of Infosys, said: “I am delighted to learn that Prakash Kumar, has been awarded the DQ IT Person of the Year 2019. He is truly a unique individual. GSTN was set up to be India’s most radical backbone for India’s tax reform. The country moved to one single national tax system. This was a major change in technology and business process. I am convinced that Prakash has done an amazing job.”

There was a panel discussion on digital ecosystems to transform India, featuring, Prakash Kumar, CEO, GSTN, Ajay P Sawhney, Secretary, Meity, GoI, J Satyanarayana, Chief Advisor, C4IR India, World Economic Forum, R. Chandrasekhar, former president of NASSCOM, and former Secretary, DoT, and Pradeep Gupta, CMD, Cybermedia Group.

Back in the 1980s!
Opening the discussion, Pradeep Gupta, CMD, Cybermedia Group, said: “PM Modi has set a target of US$5 trillion and of an Atmanirbhar Bharat. Back in the 1980s, the railway reservation system was the first project in India. R. Chandrasekhar ran the first IT department in Andhra Pradesh. Give us your thoughts on the journey?”

Dr. R. Chandrasekhar, former president of NASSCOM, and former Secretary, DoT, said: “The way Prakash has handled the ever-changing timelines and goalposts is commendable.

“I was given the task of setting the first IT department of Andhra Pradesh. As a stated objective from the government level, Chandrababu Naidu, then CM of Andhra, was a leader and pioneer. Cabinet Secretary ASR Subramaniam recognized this. He persuaded us to host the e-governance conference. It allowed us to focus on governance. There was some resistance by the employees, but those were overcome. The e-governance plans of the state were later emulated by many states.”

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Gupta next asked J Satyanarayan to share the milieu of those times!

J Satyanarayana, Chief Advisor, C4IR India, World Economic Forum, said: “Prakash has done tremendous work for GSTN. May I congratulate him.

“It was and is more like Kal, Aaj aur Kal! We had to transform the department using technology. We launched the program across 300 locations in 15 days. It was from 128Kbps speed to 128Gbps in your pocket. The project recorded change management. Somebody had to manage the whole process. We had to convince people. There was the e-Seva, a one-stop shop for citizen services. We had to struggle with technology. Later, we did G2B, or e-procurement. These were early trend setters in this space.”

Gupta noted that this was time when there was emergence of software and Y2K, etc. States were also looking at IT. How did it look like?

Ajay P Sawhney, Secretary, Meity, GoI, said: “First of all, congratulations to Prakash. GSTN is one of the national digital platforms.

“That was a wonderful time, as Dr. Chandrasekhar has put it. We built a fabulous HR base. He initiated the cyber towers, and IT parks. There were shepherds grazing, and a hilly area. L&T came in and helped setting up of cyber towers. There was a dynamic CM pushing it along. There was a meeting between Chandrababu Naidu and Bill Gates. He persuaded Gates to step out of Seattle and look at Hyderabad. We had a list of companies. We had to look for a way to get them to Hyderabad. I used to start by receiving key people, and take them to a tour, for a favourable outcome. We brought in some excellent companies.”

Gupta added that earlier, the bureaucrats used to have the industry come to them. Things changed when they themselves started going to the companies.

Prakash Kumar noted: “The thinking was around: how can we go to the people? Then, can we bring all the services in one place? In Hyderabad, we also ran lotteries for some time. There was a project called Twin Cities. From that time, we have almost 2-1/2 lakh CSDs. There are all kinds of services are now being provided.”

Last 20 years
Gupta next moved the talk to about the last 20 years. DoE had become a ministry. Most or all states had an IT Department.

J Satyanarayana added: “The importance and benefits of IT were very well known by then. It was also Chandrasekhar’s idea to form the National Institute for Smart Government (NISG). The formative time of the NISG was very interesting. We were working of projects. We had to be clear about the work. We should architect e-governance. Also, we tried to build capacities within the state government. We played a key role in NISG. We did a G2B project as well.

“Companies could file their return from their offices. We also promoted PPP in the NISG. We also thought about what we should not do. We also did a Passport Seva project. It touches the citizens deeply, creating a huge impact. We had a vision for the Passport Seva project. The PM said: no one should stand in line. Anyone who goes in, should be out in 45 minutes.”

Gupta said that there was the NEGP, CSC, etc. What were the changes in processes and thinking?

Dr. R. Chandrasekhar said: “From 2004 onwards, so much happened. The national e-governance program was finalized in 2006. The telecom infrastructure and mobile telephony growth was also happening. A lot of change in thinking happened due to these developments. Aadhar was an ID project. The UPI, direct benefit transfer program, etc., happened.

“GSTN was established in 2013. States that were behind, they also became motivated. Role of social media in politics started from 2014. PM Modi had tremendous thinking of the interplay between social media and technology. Moving to local languages brought in few hundred more. The Indian IT industry also touched greater heights. Today, there is also the focus on Atmanirbhar Bharat.”

Next, Gupta asked Prakash: “This was the time you moved to the private sector. What were the challenges in terms of acceptability, scalability, etc.”

Prakash Kumar noted: “We didn’t have a mechanism to push through so much transactions. Last year, the amount transferred was Rs. 3,81,000 lakhs. There was also Aadhar. What started in 2013 with 10 crores, became 70 crores. It is the thing that has done away with leakages, etc. That’s the kind of scaling up we did with technology. We had to build a system that can scale up. We were fortunate to have some of the best designers. We had to replace 37 different systems. Today, everything can be filed electronically.”

Ajay P Sawhney, added that the Digital India program took shape in 2015. Many of the projects, including the efforts on infrastructure, broadband, etc., were included. These are some of the major imperatives that gave shape to Digital India. We have gone through that journey. Now, we are having horizontal platforms like Aadhar, and sectoral programs, as well. Digital India is changing a whole lot of sectors.

In another message, RS Sharma, chairman, TRAI, noted: “I congratulate Prakash on winning the award as the first CEO of the GST Network. India is celebrating two milestones — mobile telephone and the Internet in India — along with the presentation of the DQ IT Person of the year award 2019. Both of these are necessary for the success of GSTN.

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“GSTN is a major change in collection, administration and distribution of taxes that would have long-term impact and on the development of this country. Prakash has proved to be up to the task in doing so. Third parties can also create low-cost, locally-relevant solutions that serve the needs of the people.

“Imagine, just how many such open systems and protocols can drive the efficiency and promote competition in the country! Businesses can also prosper brightly. Would this require policy intervention by the government? Perhaps! It is also necessary to disrupt the monopoly practice of the large players. These are thoughts for digital innovation that present a unique opportunity for India. We are charting the path of digital innovation for India. We are also continuing to develop solutions that are open, frugal, and cost effective.

“Prakash Kumar has extremely varied experience. More importantly, I am especially delighted that he comes from my home state of Jharkhand. Prakash means ‘light’, has followed the motto and done the path-breaking work of GSTN. GSTN has the potential to transform the country in the future. Dataquest has a stringent policy for the award. Dataquest would not have found it difficult to nominate him for the award. I congratulate him again for this achievement.”

Focus on digital transformation
In the last leg of the discussion, Pradeep Gupta said that digital transformation is now a necessity. Deep tech is coming into every walk of life. What exactly is being done in promoting deep tech and startups?

Ajay Sawhney said: “Looking at the number of unicorns we have managed to grow, we are getting more entrepreneurs. There is such amazing scope. We are almost having a rerun of the 1980s. We know that the technologies coming in will have a huge impact, but we don’t know how much and how deep! We are also looking at the startups, BPOs, ITeS, electronic devices, etc.

“We are creating a situation where you can get government support and mentorship. Aarogya Setu has had over 15 crore downloads so far. We are overwhelmed by the work and the talent that exists. The government should encourage them, and also groom them to capture the market globally. Startups can succeed in all the areas that have to be served.”

Promoting ecosystems
Gupta next asked what will be the benefits to the economy will emerge in the future?

Prakash Kumar said: “Now, the time has come to put the citizens at the center, and dismantle the different sections. How do I bring the direct benefit program, etc.? How can I enable the citizen to do things on the mobile phone? We need to break the silos. Citizens need all the support. We have implemented the GSTN. We should now make the citizen as the center, and grow all of the services around him. We need to make him or economically independent for the future.”

As for the transformations being brought about, J Satyanarayana added: “We need to evolve from systems to ecosystems. The NISG was set up to build systems. We now need to build and promote ecosystems. We need to move from IT (information technology) to ET (ecosystem technology). The ET should be based on federated architecture. There should be interoperability, driven by standards.

“We must leave the window wide open for innovation by the startups. We need to give access to data. You also have to think of privacy and security by design. Ecosystems are evolving in health, education, women and child, etc. An ecosystem, by design, should absorb emerging technologies such as AI/ML, AR/VR, etc. At the World Economic Forum, we are looking at how to make use of emerging technologies in the ecosystem.”

Finally, where are the gaps to move to $5 trillion economy? Dr. Chandrasekhar said that today, there are two countries above $5 trillion — USA and China, and Japan is quite close. The expectation was that there could be $1 trillion from the digital economy. However, post-Covid-19, the timeline has been pushed back. The growth of the digital economy has been much faster.

“We are well poised for the growth of the digital economy. When you move from system to ecosystem, the catalytic role of the government is critical. How they will succeed in integrating the economy? A lot of the regulatory framework will also be critical. Not allowing market forces to act, is one intervention. Policies for data governance and platform governance are very important. The future looks really bright for the Indian economy.”

Accepting the Dataquest IT Person of the Year 2019 award, Prakash Kumar said: “I would like to thank Dataquest. I would like to thank the 1,000+ boys and girls from GSTN and Infosys. I would also like to congratulate Pramod Kumar, R. Chandrasekhar, and Nandan Nilekani, etc. I would also like to thank Umesh Sehgal, who challenged me to do automation, back in 1992. I would like to thank my wife, Pallavi, who has also been a gentle critic for the last 34 years.”

Pradeep Gupta thanked everyone for their participation.

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