Sam Pitroda -- "DEVELOPMENT, DEMOCRACY, AND THE VILLAGE TELEPHONE"

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"DEVELOPMENT, DEMOCRACY, AND THE VILLAGE TELEPHONE"
Sam Pitroda
Harvard Business Review Nov/Dec93

Section: World View
"DEVELOPMENT, DEMOCRACY, AND THE VILLAGE TELEPHONE"



Modern telecommunications makes as big a difference to the Third-World
poor as literacy or high-yield agriculture.

I was born in 1942 and raised in a poor village in one of the poorest
areas of rural India, a place with kerosene lamps and no running
water. In 1980, at 38, I was a U.S. citizen and a self-made
telecommunications millionaire. By 1990, I was 47 years old and
nearing the end of nearly a decade back in India as leader of a
controversial but largely successful effort to build an Indian
information industry and begin the immense task of extending digital
telecommunications to every corner of my native country, even to
villages like the one where I was born.

That effort persists today at an increased pace, but it remains
controversial. Some of the controversy has centered on me and my
methods. Most of it focuses on the efficacy and logic of bringing
information technology to people who are in global terms the poorest
of the poor.

Common sense and accepted thinking about economic development have
long held it ridiculous to supply Third-World villages with
state-of-the-art technology. What subsistence farmers need is not
high-tech science and complex systems, the argument goes, but
immunizations, basic literacy, disease- and drought-resistant cereals
and oilseeds, simple pumps, deep-drop toilets, two-phase
electrification -- all the "appropriate" technologies that the
unsophisticated rural poor can use and understand.

I agree with this argument as far as it goes. Third-World farming
villages need water, hygiene, health, and power, and the need is
usually great. But the argument falls short in its definition of
"appropriate." It ignores technology's profound social implications.
And it comes dangerously close to consigning the Third-World poor to a
life of third-rate capacities and opportunity. The policies of
development agencies like the World Bank too often limit "appropriate
technology" to the two-dimensional, two-penny solutions that bring the
poor to the doorway of the modern world but not actually across the
threshold.

For me, three facts about Third-World development stand out with great
force. First, high technology is already an essential element in
effective water sourcing, sanitation, construction, agriculture, and
other development activities. Geohydrologic surveys are carried out
from satellites. Bioengineering has revolutionized crop production.
Appropriate technology has moved well beyond the water screw and the
inclined plane.

Second, modern telecommunications and electronic information systems
are thoroughly appropriate technologies even in those regions of the
world that still lack adequate water, food, and power. The reason is
simply that modern telecommunications is an indispensable aid in
meeting basic needs. If a U.S. community needed, say, widespread
immunizations or replacement of a power grid, would the telephone seem
a vital or an irrelevant tool in getting the job done? Would the
telephone seem more or less critical if the job were tied to a natural
calamity such as flood or drought and required the mobilization of
diverse resources over a broad area?

Third, as a great social leveler, information technology ranks second
only to death. It can raze cultural barriers, overwhelm economic
inequalities, even compensate for intellectual disparities. In short,
high technology can put unequal human beings on an equal footing, and
that makes it the most potent democratizing tool ever devised.

In 1942, the village of Titilagarh in the Indian state of Orissa,
southwest of Calcutta, had a population of 6,000 or 7,000 and no
electricity or telephones. My early education took place in one-room
schools, and most of my classmates had no shoes or books. My family
was of the suthar caste--lowly carpenters--yet my father was an
ambitious man. He never learned English until I brought him to the
United States to enjoy his retirement, but he did business with the
English and used what opportunities he had to build a prosperous trade
in lumber and hardware and to send most of his eight sons and
daughters to high school and on to university. For 12 years, I lived
with one or more of my brothers and sisters in towns and cities far
from home and studied hard to get the kind of grades that would
outweigh my origins. In 1964, I succeeded. I was only 21 years old,
and I had never used a telephone. But my masters degree in physics,
specializing in electronics, from Maharaja Sayajirao University in the
city of Baroda in Gujarat state, gave me membership in a new
technological caste that superseded the one I was born to.

My older brother and I decided that I should apply to a university in
the United States to do postgraduate work, and my father readily
agreed to give me $400 toward this education, expecting me in return
to bring my brothers and sisters to the United States one by one as I
made my way in the world. I applied to the University of Oregon and
the Illinois Institute of Technology but did not apply for
scholarships, on the theory that an expression of need might reduce my
chances of getting in. I was accepted at both schools and chose
Illinois. The state of Orissa gave me a travel grant of $600, just
enough for a taste of every form of transport: a boat to Genoa, a
train to London, an airplane to New York, and a Greyhound bus to
Chicago.

I arrived in December, 1964, with my father's $400 in my pocket.
Tuition for the first semester was $700. I paid half on account, found
a cheap apartment to share with another Indian, and landed a job in a
physical chemistry lab to earn my keep and the rest of my tuition. A
year later, I had a master's degree in electrical engineering. I had
not only learned to use a telephone, I had, in essence, learned to
make one. More important still, I had learned enough to design an
electronic telephone switch.

Telephone switching is what operators used to do by hand in the early
days of the century. Using a board with cords and plugs, the operator
created a manual connection between the telephone in the caller's hand
and the phone being called across town. Voice transmission then took
place by means of analog electrical signals derived from a vibrating
diaphragm in one handset and translated back into sound waves in the
other. The system was marvelously simple, but, by technological
standards, dreadfully labor intensive. If all the calls in the United
States were handled that way today, every U.S. citizen would have to
be a telephone operator.

Fortunately, electromechanical switching appeared in the 1920s,
allowing the system to locate and connect two phones entirely by means
of electrical signals opening and closing metallic contacts. These
switches were automatic, but they had moving parts, and any device
that moves wears out. So, while they required no operators, they did
need people to carry out routine maintenance and regular replacement.

Finally, in the 1960s, I myself was involved in the invention and
evolution of digital electronic switching equipment, which has two
huge advantages over its analog predecessor. First, without moving
parts and able to perform its own automatic maintenance, it never
wears out. Second, it uses microchips as its basic building blocks and
therefore takes up very little space. A large metropolitan switching
station for 50,000 phones once occupied a six-to-ten-floor building
and needed hundreds of people to keep it operational. The same
capacity can now be housed in one-tenth of the space and requires a
staff of perhaps ten people to operate its computer and software
controls. Indeed, the only serious remaining drawback is that digital
switches still produce heat and must be air-conditioned to prevent
overheating.

Over the next few years, I worked for GTE in Chicago, designing and
refining digital switching equipment and analog-to-digital conversion
technology. I was responsible for nearly 30 patents and enjoyed a
prominent position at GTE's annual patents banquet in the late 1960s
and early 1970s. I married an Indian girl I had met at the university
in Baroda, started a family, brought my parents and most of my
brothers and sisters to the States, and began to become a middle-class
American.

But my father kept telling me I was too young to get into the habit of
working for other people, and I was beginning to tire of pats on the
back for the patents I'd won, so I quit. In 1974, with two local
telecom entrepreneurs, I founded Wescom Switching Inc. -- their money,
my technical expertise -- and we began manufacturing digital switching
equipment that I designed. In 1980 -six years and more than a dozen
patents later -- we sold out to Rockwell International. As part of the
deal, I agreed to work for Rockwell for three years and undertook not
to compete in telecommunications for five years. My 10% of the company
came to roughly $3.5 million in cash.

I left Titilagarh in 1951 to go to boarding school in Gujarat; I left
India in 1964 to go to graduate school in the United States; now, in
1980, I was a millionaire, and to my own surprise I felt nearly as
much guilt as satisfaction. All my life, I had dreamed of wealth and
success, but now I suddenly confronted the fact that I had walked out
on India. The sheer immensity of India's problems, the huge gap
between my luxurious U.S. suburb and the struggling poverty of
villages like the one where I was raised, the selfishness of my own
success so far, all of it weighed on my mind and set me off in pursuit
of another American dream: the exploration of a new frontier and
challenge. In my case, that challenge was to use telecommunications as
an agent of change-a bridge between the First World and the Third.

As I began my new job as vice-president at Rockwell, I began observing
telecommunications at work in underdeveloped countries. What I saw
disturbed me. On the whole, telecommunications was not so much closing
as widening the gap between the rich countries of the north and the
poor countries of the south. The First World, inventing and deploying
new technology as if it were fast food, seemed headed in the direction
of unlimited and universal information access. Even in the Second
World, information technology had penetrated far enough to destroy the
information monopoly that supported totalitarianism and to launch
Eastern Europe toward the West. However, in the Third World,
telecommunications and information technology remained an urban
luxury, and an unreliable one at that. India had fewer than 2,500,000
telephones in 1980, almost all of them in a handful of urban centers.
In fact, 7% of the country's urban population had 55% of the nation's
telephones. The country had only 12,000 public telephones for
700,000,000 people, and 97% of India's 600,000 villages had no
telephones at all.

What was worse, India, like most of the Third World, was using its
priceless foreign exchange to buy the West's abandoned technology and
install obsolete equipment that doomed the poor to move like telecom
snails where Europeans, Americans, and Japanese were beginning to move
like information greyhounds. The technological disparity was getting
bigger not smaller. India and countries like her were falling farther
and farther behind not just in the ability to chat with relatives or
call the doctor but, much more critically, in the capacity to
coordinate development activities, pursue scientific study, conduct
business, operate markets, and participate more fully in the
international community.

Worse still, I was perfectly certain that no large country entirely
lacking an indigenous electronics industry could hope to compete
economically in the coming century. To survive, India had to bring
telecommunications to its towns and villages; to thrive, it had to do
it with Indian talent and Indian technology. In other words, there
were two goals to work toward: telecommunications and other
information technologies could not only help Indians create wealth in
every walk of life, a telecom and information industry could also
create wealth of its own. Unless we had both, we had no future as a
nation.

Worst of all, I began to see that information technology played an
indispensable role in promoting openness, accessibility,
accountability, connectivity, democracy, decentralization--all the
"soft" qualities so essential to effective social, economic, and
political development. India needed the capacity to network people,
ideas, and initiatives. Telecommunications was as critical and
fundamental to nation building as water, agriculture, health, and
housing, and without it, India's democracy could founder.

I began looking for an entry into Indian telecommunications, a rigid
bureaucracy with about a quarter of a million employees: one for every
ten telephones.

In 1981, a friend in Bombay sent me a newspaper clipping reporting
that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had set up a high-level committee to
review telecom development. I wrote to its chairman and asked for an
interview. From my name and location, he concluded that I was an
Italian-American with telecom products to peddle. I wrote back at
greater length to say I had nothing at all to sell except the
conviction that India possessed all the talent necessary to pursue
telecommunications modernization on her own. He invited me to India.
He could not absolutely promise me an appointment -- and I would have
to pay my own way -- but he did ask me to come. Ultimately, I spent
two hours with the entire high-level committee.

My message was that India should abandon electromechanical switching
and move immediately toward digital systems for switching and
transmission. My reasoning was twofold. First, electromechanical
switching was ill-suited to the Indian climate and to Indian
conditions. With few available telephones, most lines were intensively
used, and electromechanical equipment was much more likely than
digital to malfunction from overuse. (We later discovered that some
public phones in India generate as many as 36 calls per hour at peak
volume, compared with maybe 10 to 12 in the United States.)
Electromechanical switches are also more vulnerable to dust and
moisture. Analog transmission, finally, suffers over distance, while
digital transmission is what gives those astonishingly intimate
connections halfway around the world. In a country with low telephone
density like India, distance -- and therefore static -- were nearly
unavoidable.

Second, the development of digital technology would help build native
industries in electronics, software, and related fields. Moreover,
India needed one piece of digital equipment that no other country
manufactured but that many developing nations could use: a small rural
exchange. In the United States and Europe, the smallest exchanges
built will accommodate 4,000 to 10,000 lines, and, in small towns and
rural areas, these exchanges are installed and then deliberately
underutilized. This kind of waste may be tolerable in a country where
the number of small exchanges is tiny. In India, exchanges with a vast
overcapacity would have to be installed in hundreds of thousands of
villages, and waste on such a scale was unthinkable. Development of an
efficient exchange for 100 to 200 telephones would not only solve
India's problem, it would give the country a valuable high-tech
export.

The committee was impressed -- by my enthusiasm if nothing else -- and
suggested I meet the prime minister. Two weeks later, Mrs. Gandhi's
office agreed to give me ten minutes of her time. Because I needed at
least an hour to get my message across, however, I turned the offer
down. New Delhi was full of people who had been waiting years to get
ten minutes with the prime minister, but I really did need an hour. By
pushing what few connections I could muster, I eventually got my
background papers into the hands of two advisers to Mrs. Gandhi's son
Rajiv. One of them spent several hours studying the file, and in
November, after five months of trying, I got an hour with Mrs. Gandhi,
her senior cabinet colleagues, the chief ministers of several Indian
states, and Rajiv, whom I met for the first time that day but who was
already an advocate for my point of view.

I began my slide presentation almost as soon as Mrs. Gandhi walked
into the room. There was a lot of ground to cover, and I covered it as
swiftly as I could. I summarized world telecom statistics and
correlated telephone density to productivity, efficiency, prosperity,
and gross national product in about 50 countries. I pointed out that
only a handful of countries had achieved universal service and raised
the possibility that it was not so much wealth that created telephone
density as telephone density that created wealth. I reminded them that
Indian telecom was characterized by high unsatisfied demand, low
accessibility as well as density, poor connectivity, lack of
dependability, substandard maintenance, superannuated technology,
overcentralization, bureaucracy, bad management, and limited capital.
I underlined India's reliance on imported equipment of traditional,
not to say obsolete, design, and tied that equipment to poor service
and system inflexibility. I laid out a program that emphasized rural
accessibility, customer service, digital switching, and large-scale
technological innovation and integration, all of it accompanied by
privatization, deregulation, and organizational restructuring. I
outlined plans for design, production, installation, networks, fax,
E-mail, telex, and more. At the end, I spoke of resources and
management and then offered three alternatives.

The first alternative -- obviously unacceptable -- was to do nothing
at all and let the system limp along until it failed completely. The
second was to pursue the present development plan, using imported
technology to address some problems and ignore others. But the present
policies meant that India would fall steadily farther and farther
behind the developed world, with dire consequences for India's
economy, government, and people.

My third alternative was to adopt radical new technologies, products,
and programs, hire new people-in particular, a core group of young
research-and-development engineers to develop new hardware and
software -- and set India on the path to universal telecommunications
accessibility by the turn of the century. I suggested the creation of
new organizations with the power to issue bonds and sell stock to
raise massive sums of capital. I talked about large-scale
manufacturing plants to meet domestic and export demand. I proposed a
telecom commission to oversee regulatory requirements. I spoke of the
need for a generational change in telecommunications thinking.

Prime Minister Gandhi listened attentively to the entire presentation,
and when it was over, I answered a number of questions. In the days
that followed, the word went out that the prime minister was
interested in a plan to modernize Indian telecom, and I began three
years of commuting between Chicago and New Delhi to put together a
strategic framework, plan the program, give shape to an R&D entity for
developing human resources and new technology, and lobby it all
through India's parliament and intricate governmental bureaucracies.

Living in the United States for the most productive years of my life
had altered my values and perceptions beyond recognition. My approach
to business, and for that matter to life, had become performance
oriented. But every few weeks I left Chicago for New Delhi and a set
of standards and values that were feudal, hierarchical, and complex
beyond belief. From my now thoroughly American point of view, India
was in desperate need of modernization. And my frustrating efforts to
install some of the modernizing mechanisms only underscored how badly
the country needed technology to organize, simplify, economize, and
create the infrastructure to meet basic human needs. I saw so much
potential for technology's problem-solving capacity that even as I
struggled through quagmires of social and political confusion, I was
near to drowning in ideas and excitement.

Through all of it, Rajiv Gandhi was my ally. I saw in him a young,
energetic, modern man, direct and honest, eager to explore telecom's
role in Indian development. He and I had clicked at our first meeting
and quickly became friends. Over the next few years, we fought
together for dozens of administrative experiments and reforms using
information technology -- computerization of railways, for example,
and of land records, which was vital to the progress of land reform.
At the moment, however, we worked together for the creation of the
Centre for Development of Telematics, C-DOT as it came to be known.

The battle was uphill. Every important decision had a political as
well as an economic impact. For example, a few months after my meeting
with Mrs. Gandhi, India signed a deal with a French multinational to
manufacture a digital switching system, so those who stood to profit
from this arrangement opposed our concept of an indigenous digital
industry and labeled it redundant. One European CEO wrote a strongly
worded letter to Mrs. Gandhi pointing out that his company had already
spent $1 billion developing digital technology and questioning the
wisdom of so massive an investment by the Indian government. Given
India's limited resources and the vast needs of its people, that
argument had wide political support.

In 1984, the breakup of the U.S. Bell System set in motion a process
of deregulation and privatization around the world and gave our
proposals the extra boost they needed. In August, C-DOT was registered
as a nonprofit society funded by the government but enjoying complete
autonomy. Parliament agreed to give us $36 million over 36 months to
develop a digital switching system suited to the Indian network. An
executive director was appointed, we found five rooms in a rundown
government hotel, and we went to work using beds as desks.

A few months later, in October, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated,
and her son Rajiv became prime minister. He and I decided that I
should press the initiative for all it was worth. Since I could not
simply pull up stakes and move to Delhi -- back in Chicago, my father
was dying of cancer -- I began spending about half my time in each
city. I did not finally move to India with my wife and children until
August, 1986, after my father's death. In the meantime, I continued to
commute, now more often than ever.

From 1984 on, I was a principal adviser to C-DOT with a salary of one
rupee per year, an arrangement I modeled on Roosevelt's dollar-a-year
men during the New Deal. I wanted the chance to work for a cause, an
Indian cause in particular, and I knew that in order to succeed, I had
to place myself above the suspicion of greed or self-interest. In any
case, what could I have earned? The top government salary at that time
was 5,000 rupees per month -- then about $400 -- and I was spending
more than ten times that amount of my own money just on plane fare and
hotels. In any case, it was an arrangement that no one in New Delhi
understood. One day the deputy minister for electronics took me aside
and said, "Mr. Pitroda, what is it you really want out of this?" My
answer, "Nothing," puzzled him. Whether or not he believed me, my
motives remained a subject of discussion in New Delhi for the next six
years, with eventual dire results for me.

For the moment, however, activity was bliss. Our engineers were
conspicuously young, and they never seemed to sleep or rest. Most had
been ready to leave India when this opportunity came along. Now they
threw themselves into India's future and worked with an energy that
the underdeveloped world is not commonly supposed to generate.

From the outset, C-DOT was much more than an engineering project. It
did of course test the technical ability of our young engineers to
design a whole family of digital switching systems and associated
software suited to India's peculiar conditions. But it was also an
exercise in national self-assurance. Years earlier, India's space and
nuclear programs had given the country pride in its scientific
capability. Now C-DOT had the chance to resurrect that pride.

From the outset, consequently, I was interested in process as well as
product. Technology may be complex, but human motivations and
interactions are even more so. I knew India had great young engineers,
and I believed there was nothing they couldn't accomplish if we
challenged them and gave them a proper environment to work in. Part of
our mission was to inspire a whole generation of young talent and
thumb our noses at the nay-sayers, the political reactionaries, and
the vested interests whose prosperity rested entirely on imports. I
set impossible targets. I cheered people on. Knowing as I did that
young Indians did well in the United States, I tried to create an
American work environment. I set about instilling a bias toward
action, teamwork, risk, flexibility, simplicity, and openness. I was
almost brutal in my determination to root out hierarchy and
bureaucracy: I once shouted and made a thoroughly mortifying scene in
order to get typists to stop leaping to their feet every time a
manager entered their work space to use one of the two telephones we
started out with. I did my best to shield our young engineers from
bureaucrats, politicians, and business interests. At the same time, I
opened our doors to the media, which responded with excitement,
optimism, and the kind of hero worship that we hoped would attract
more young people to technology careers.

By 1986, C-DOT had sprawling, chaotic offices, 425 employees (average
age 25), and the drive, activity, and optimism of a U.S. presidential
campaign. My methods had been highly unconventional for India and
highly unpopular with a lot of the old guard, but within C-DOT we had
accomplished wonders.

By 1987, within our three-year limit, we had delivered a 128-line
rural exchange, a 128-line private automatic branch exchange for
businesses, a small central exchange with a capacity of 512 lines, and
we were ready with field trials of a 10,000-line exchange. Better yet,
the components for all these exchanges were interchangeable for
maximum flexibility in design, installation, and repairs, and all of
it was being manufactured in India to the international standard: a
guaranteed maximum of one hour's downtime in 20 years of service. We
had fallen short on one goal-our large urban exchange was well behind
schedule -- but, overall, C-DOT had proved itself a colossal,
resounding success. In addition to the four exchanges, we had licensed
some 40 public and private companies to manufacture and market C-DOT
products, and more than 100 businesses had sprung up to manufacture
ancillary parts and components.

Moreover, these rural exchanges were small masterpieces of
"appropriate" design.

As I mentioned earlier, even digital switching produces heat, so
switching equipment has to be air-conditioned in order to function
dependably. But in the countryside, the Indian electrical grid is
notoriously undependable, and we couldn't give villages exchanges that
were certain to overheat the first time the electrical system went
down. The solution was simple but ingenious. First, to produce less
heat, we used low-power microprocessors and other devices that made
the exchanges work just slightly slower. Second, we spread out the
circuitry to give it a little more opportunity to "breathe." The
cabinet had to be sealed against dust, of course, but by making the
whole assembly a little larger than necessary, we created an
opportunity for heat to rise internally to the cabinet cover and
dissipate. The final product was a metal container about three feet by
two feet by three feet, costing about $8,000, that required no
air-conditioning and could be installed in a protected space somewhere
in the village and switch phone calls more or less indefinitely in the
heat and dust of an Indian summer as well as through the torrential
Indian monsoon.

Our 512-line exchange was designed for the somewhat larger market town
nearby, where it could handle intervillage and long-distance calls for
a dozen villages or more. What now remained was to disseminate this
new technology through the Indian telecommunications system and
actually reach out to the towns and villages that needed it.

In 1987, I chaired a national conference that proposed the
establishment of a new, streamlined, semiautonomous Telecom Commission
to replace the old, heavily bureaucratic Department of
Telecommunications. Before the government could act on that proposal,
however, Rajiv Gandhi appointed me adviser to the prime minister on
National Technology Missions, with the rank of minister of state. I
had to give up my U.S. passport to take the job, but I couldn't turn
down such a marvelous opportunity. The Technology Missions existed to
marshal, motivate, and manage the efforts of more than ten-million
people and lots of technology involved in meeting six basic human
needs: drinking water, immunization, literacy, oilseeds, dairy
production, and telecommunications.

Our specific goals were straightforward. Make clean, potable water
available to about 100,000 problem villages in the amount of 40 liters
a day per person and 30 liters a day per head of livestock. Immunize
20-million pregnant women and 20-million children every year. Teach
80-million people in the 15 to 35 age group -- about 75% of adult
illiterates -- to read and write at a rate of 10 million each year.
Increase oilseed production by as much as 18-million tons and reduce,
eliminate, or reverse India's annual 10-billion-rupee import bill for
edible oils. In. crease dairy production from 44- to 61-million metric
tons per year over eight years, raise dairy employment and incomes,
and expand the number of dairy cooperatives by 42%. Last but hardly
least, improve service, dependability, and accessibility of
telecommunications all across the country, including rural areas.

The six mission directors worked for different ministries, so my job
was to cheerlead, set agendas, and integrate the activities of
ministries, state governments, national laboratories, and voluntary
agencies. For two years, I traveled the country visiting tribal areas,
villages, towns, cities, and state capitals. Every day I made two or
three speeches, took part in half a dozen meetings, talked to scores
of people, made dozens of phone calls (if a telephone could be found).
I was doing my best to generate ideas, communicate goals and
enthusiasm, fight red tape, clear obstacles, tie up loose ends, assess
progress, mend bureaucratic fences, and bridge bureaucratic ravines.
It became by far the most hectic period of my life, but I got swept up
in the romance of making a difference and began working and traveling
nearly around the clock. I saw enormous commitment from tens of
thousands of people and solid resistance to change from entrenched
interests. I began to sense an unholy alliance among many politicians,
bureaucrats, and businessmen to stop people from taking power into
their own hands through literacy and community-based programs -- and
through communication.

I was learning the ropes of development in action, and everything I
saw strengthened my conviction that telecommunications lies at the
very heart of progress. This is true in the political and social sense
--people must be able to reach out to government, media, institutions,
and allies if they're to make their voices heard-and it is true in the
more practical sense that development depends on communication for
logistical efficiency. Let me give two examples of what I mean.

One of our greatest assets in the oilseed and dairy missions was Dr.
Verghese Kurien, chairman of the National Dairy Development Board and
winner of the World Food Prize in 1989. In the 1950s, Dr. Kurien
started the farm cooperative movement in India and in 30 years built
it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with a membership of
one-million farmers in 50,000 villages. Forgetting for the moment the
added years and extra toil it took to build such an organization by
word of mouth and personal recruitment, aided only by a postal system
famous for incompetence, just imagine the task of galvanizing this
organization into concerted action without the ability to computerize
membership roles or to contact members by phone or telegraph. In spite
of that limitation, Dr. Kurien has succeeded in stabilizing oilseed
prices by buffer-stocking large quantities of oil and in building a
cooperative milk-distribution system that reaches 170-million people.
Telecommunications makes the efforts of men and women like Dr. Kurien
incalculably less onerous and more effective, which is one of the
reasons a dozen agribusiness lobbies in New Delhi oppose the spread of
rural telephones.

Another example comes from the drinking-water mission. One group in
the Rural Development Ministry was pushing for the purchase of 40
imported drilling rigs at a cost of several million dollars.
Unfortunately, there were two vital pieces of information that no one
seemed to possess: first, the number of drilling rigs already in the
country, and second, the length of time it took to drill a well and
how long it took to move i a drill from one village to another.

We found a UNICEF official who was able to tell us that India already
owned 1,200 drilling rigs, and several weeks of research revealed
that, on average, it took about ten hours to drill a well and roughly
ten days to move a rig. These were not ten days of travel time but ten
days of bureaucratic wrangling and communication disarray in picking a
site, negotiating political priorities, and getting the equipment on
the road for a trip of a day or two. If a proper telecommunications
network allowed the ministry to improve its planning and coordination
even enough to cut that time to five days, India would gain the
equivalent of 1,200 new water-drilling rigs without importing a single
one.

Yet many of those who asked such questions and argued in favor of such
solutions were accused of promoting technology at the expense of
development and, to add insult to injury, of not understanding the
plight of the drought-affected poor.

The fact was that no one in India had previously investigated and
articulated the role that information systems play in development.
Once we started, the practice and the insight grew and grew. After two
years at the Technology Missions, I was given a chance to shape that
practice even more directly.

In 1989, after two years of debate and study, the government decided
to reorganize Indian telecommunications and create the Telecom
Commission recommended in our 1987 report. Rajiv Gandhi appointed me
the commission's chairman.

I met for three days with the heads of all telecom companies in the
country: service providers, manufacturers, laboratories, C-DOT, and
others. Then I met with the leaders of 37 telecom unions and the
telephone white-collar bureaucracy. At the moment I took over, Telecom
had 500,000 employees managing five-million lines, and it took me nine
months to get their leaders to buy into my plan to quadruple the lines
by the year 2000 without adding to the work force.

Once the unions were on board, we faced three fundamental challenges:
connectivity, accessibility, and rural expansion.

First, we replaced all our existing electromechanical long-distance
exchanges with digital equipment manufactured in India on license from
a French company. We set up two factories to manufacture fiber optics
and built high-speed fiber-optic highways to connect the four largest
metropolitan areas: Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and Madras. We connected
400 district headquarters to automatic dialing, increased our
population of digital switching exchanges by 50%, expanded the
capacity of switching-system manufacturers, and increased automation
at the operator level. We launched a multimillion-dollar program to
computerize telecommunications operations nationwide. We introduced
international direct dialing to more than 120 countries.

In a country the size of India with only five-million phones, it is
difficult to have a significant impact on telephone density.
Quadrupling the number of lines still means only one telephone for
every 50 people, compared with more than one phone for every two
people in the United States. Accessibility is another matter. By
providing more phones in public places, we could put millions of
people within reach of telecommunications.

In most areas, coin-operated phones seemed a poor idea for any number
of reasons, including the fact that they cost a great deal to
manufacture. Instead, we equip ordinary instruments with small meters,
then put these phones into the hands of entrepreneurs who set them up
on tables in bazaars, on street corners, or in cafes or shops whose
owners feel they attract customers. These telephone "owners,"
frequently the handicapped, take in cash from their customers but are
billed only six times a year, with 20% to 25% discounted as their
commission. The phones are in such constant use that, in most cases,
the revenue is enough to support a family. We launched a drive to
install 200,000 such phones in public places nationwide, creating more
than 100,000 jobs along the way. Today, the small yellow signs
indicating a public telephone can be seen all across India.

The third piece of the program was rural communication, close to my
heart because of my own background, and I now set in motion an
ambitious program that envisioned nothing less than universal
telecommunications accessibility by the year 2000. For us,
accessibility was to mean that every Indian citizen should live within
three or four kilometers of a dependable instrument, a goal that may
strike Westerners as trivial, though I believe it will alter the face
of India.

Several years earlier, C-DOT had run a test in Karnataka state with
hugely encouraging results. In one town of 5,000 people with almost no
previous telephone service, business activity rose many times
following installation of an automatic digital exchange for 100 lines.
Suddenly, it was possible for a truck owner to chase his drivers, line
up goods and labor by telephone, and monitor the movement of his
vehicles. Local farmers could call nearby cities and get real prices
for their produce. Artisans could speak to customers, machine
operators could arrange for service and repairs, shopkeepers could
order goods -- all by phone and in real time. In the six months after
the introduction of service, total bank deposits in the town rose by
an impressive 80%.

There were also social benefits. The townspeople could call doctors
and ambulances, order pumps and textbooks, call newspapers, speak to
politicians, share experiences with colleagues, and organize community
ceremonies and functions. One villager told me that when his father
died seven years earlier, he'd had to send 20 messengers on trains and
buses to inform relatives in nearby villages. More recently when his
mother followed, the villager went to the local tea shop and phoned
all 20 villages -- instant, certain, and far less expensive.

One-hundred phones in a town of 5,000 is a laughable density to an
American and a miracle by Indian standards. Among other surprises, we
found considerable long-distance traffic not just to Delhi and Bombay
but also to London and New York. The villagers, it seems, have
relatives and friends in all four cities.

In 1989, we set a goal of installing one rural exchange a day. By
1993, Telecom was installing 25 rural exchanges every day, and the
rate continues to accelerate. By 1995, 100,000 villages will have
telephone service. By the turn of the century or very shortly after,
almost all of India's 600,000 villages will be covered. Once in place,
the village telephone becomes as critical as water, food, shelter, and
health services. Once exposed, people in rural areas want a village
telephone more than they want any other community service.

Of nearly equal importance for me, the community phone becomes an
instrument of social change, fundamental to the process of
democratization. With telecommunications networks now spreading across
the Second and Third Worlds, I believe that no amount of effort can
put information back in the hands of the few, to be isolated,
concentrated, and controlled.

My own effectiveness with the Indian Telecom Commission ended in 1990.
Rajiv Gandhi was defeated in parliamentary elections in November,
1989, and I came under political attack a short time later. Eventually
I was accused of corruption. Businesses owned by my family in the
United States were said to have profited by contracts I awarded while
at C-DOT. A thorough investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor
General of India turned up no evidence to support this allegation.
Moreover, to my gratification, hundreds of scientists, colleagues,
academics, and thousands of citizens came to my defense. But the
strain was very great. My family moved back to the United States, and
in October, 1990, I had a heart attack. A few months after quadruple
bypass surgery in Delhi, I went back to work as chairman of the
Telecom Commission, with high hopes that Rajiv Gandhi would be
returned to office in the 1991 elections. When Rajiv was assassinated
in May of 1991, I resigned from my job as chairman and rejoined my
wife and children in Illinois. The only post I now held was adviser to
the new prime minister on Technology Missions, the same position I had
held under Rajiv Gandhi but resigned when he left office.

Though I don't think of my telecom work in India as finished, I have
begun to alter my focus somewhat over the last two years.
Specifically, I've been struck by the preconditions that the First
World has set for Third-World development. Europe and North America
built their economies with the help of coercion, work-force
exploitation, child labor, and environmental plunder, but the First
World has announced to the Third that these and other violations of
human and ecological rights are quite unacceptable.

The developed countries are forcing human rights and environmental
sensitivity on the world's poor, setting all kinds of new conditions
and restrictions on economic growth. This is not fair, of course, but
it is an excellent policy.

Still, the First World must understand that it is not likely to
achieve this policy goal except with the help of telecommunications
and other information technologies, for two simple reasons.

First, telecom makes abuses infinitely easier to monitor. It gives
watchdog groups as well as the victims and witnesses of human and
environmental outrage access to one another. Local stories become
international news, and local events become global events. Just as
information technologies helped make totalitarianism impossible in
Eastern Europe, they can help destroy exploitation in the developing
world.

Second, telecom helps to create wealth, and prosperity is everywhere a
force for civilized behavior. Take child labor. It is poverty that
puts children to work, and it is unskilled labor that children are
able to perform. When telecommunications comes to the Third World, it
brings with it new economic activity, new higher-paying jobs for
parents, and new technologies that reduce the utility of unskilled
child labor. Countless towns and villages in India can bear witness to
telecommunications' electrifying effect on entrepreneurialism,
employment, and the overall standard of living. On top of all that, of
course, information technologies create their own skilled jobs.

The dreadful human and physical conditions that the industrial
revolution created in the West are now avoidable. But it is not some
fundamental improvement in human nature that makes such progress
possible. Growth without freedom and responsibility can still take
place. It is technology, and information technology in particular,
that makes humane development feasible.

The fact is, the telecom revolution has hardly begun. In addition to
new products, systems, and integrated services, we will soon have new
information-based relationships with our society and environment. But
if sustainable progress of this kind is not to be limited to the
developed world, then there is one initial hurdle still to clear.

The Third World still lacks adequate investment in telecommunications.
Telecom in the developing world needs about $30 billion a year, of
which only $3 billion is presently available. The World Bank devotes
only 2% of all its funding to telecommunications. Corporations are
attracted by the prospect of immense long-term profit but frightened
by political risk and the certainty of social and economic
experimentation.

Along with a number of fellow telecom engineers and executives, I am
now working to organize a special funding agency, similar to the World
Bank, to support Third-World telecommunications. Without proper
telecom institutions and infrastructure, sustainable development with
freedom will be difficult to achieve. Without telecom development, we
will never deliver 75 % of the world's people to the civilization of
the information age.

By Sam Pitroda


Sam (Satyan) Pitroda was born and educated in India and had a
successful career in digital switching technology in the United States
(where he holds more than 50 patents) before returning to India to
become an adviser to the prime minister of India on National
Technology Missions and eventually chairman of the Indian Telecom
Commission. He is an original member of the World Telecommunication
Advisory Council of the International Telecommunication Union in
Geneva.

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