EML by Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda, 17 October 2012
by Akshyah Kumar and Aravindabharathi R
We often hear that India has more mobile phones than toilets. If this boom in telecommunications can be attributed to any one person, it is Dr. Sam Pitroda, who is also the chairman of the National Innovation Council and Adviser to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations. Although the lecture was arranged as a part of the course ‘Modern Science in India’ conducted by Dr. John Bosco Lourdusamy of the HSS department, it attracted students from all branches and years.
Joining in via video-conferencing from Chicago, he began with an account of his childhood and the series of events which made him want to establish state-of-the-art telecommunication facilities in a country where they were practically non-existent. Born into a large Gujarati family in Titlagarh, Orissa, he studied physics and electronics in Vadodara after attending a boarding school in Gujarat. While in college, he met the woman whom he would later marry. Following the ‘custom’ of his time, he went to the USA for a PhD in Physics. Not wanting to be separated from his girlfriend back in India, he decided to get a Masters in electrical engineering which involved just nine months of work.
After marriage, he worked as an engineer in the USA for two decades, after which he sold off his company and decided to spend more time in his native country. On his first trip to New Delhi, he was unable to make a call to his wife from the Taj hotel. He recalled the Gandhian ideal of selfless service from his childhood and resolved to establish a modern telecommunication system in the country. He admitted to being naive about the amount of red tape that would hinder him. “Had I known how the Indian bureaucracy and government worked, I wouldn’t have tried what I did,” he quipped, drawing laughter from the audience. Through some contacts, he managed to secure an hour-long meeting with Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India. He presented his ideas to revolutionize the telecommunications in the country and established a good rapport with Rajiv Gandhi.
He began his revolution by starting Center for Development of Telematics ( C-DOT) which brought together 400 engineers from the top schools across the country in an environment unhindered by bureaucracy. They developed telecommunication equipment which formed the backbone of India’s communication networks as we know it today. This set the stage for India to emerge as a major player in the software industry.
With the fall of the Congress government came allegations of corruption against both Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda, and he returned, broke, to the USA. Looking for a way to make money, he decided to sue companies using his patents on the Electronic Diary. After four coronary bypass surgeries and a battle against cancer, he was invited by the prime minister to head the national knowledge commission in 2004. He expressed his disappointment in the fact that most young students especially IITians were ignorant of the existence of such a commission and its report. He believes that India has huge potential because of its demographic dividend — “Sheer number gives us the power”, he said, alluding to this fact.
Talking about the way forward, he said that we need to expand equity and improve quality in the realm of education. “We must seek to bring villages to the high corridors of knowledge and power. Nothing inhibits progress more than our refusal to look inward for solutions to our problems; we instead choose to blame those around us,” he said, advising students to be more auto-didactic and use all available resources for improving their knowledge in multiple disciplines. “We need engineers who know music, philosophy, economics, politics, and anthropology in addition to their field of expertise,” he said, adding that since the lifespan of the current generation will be around 135 years compared to the 65 short years of life that someone from his generation would enjoy, we must be prepared to change careers as more exciting opportunities cross our paths. “Do you really want to be an electrical engineer for a hundred years?” he questioned.