Sam Pitroda relives his journey from the remoteness of dispossession to the world of digital possibilities
For Indians who began reading newspapers and watching television in the mid-1980s, Sam Pitroda is the archetypal technocrat, the first of the breed, then a 40-something brainiac with a French-cut beard who let his hair hang lank and loose over his face. The Odisha-born, Chicago-bred electrical engineer spearheaded India’s second telecom revolution, the digital one, which saw STD/PCO booths spring up across the country, connecting even its most remote villages.
Seated in a plush New Delhi hotel, Pitroda, now 73, is charged up to talk about his autobiography, which, to a large extent, is a testament to the kind of social mobility possible in India. His rise from an impoverished hamlet of Titlagarh, once the hottest place in the country barring desert regions, to one of the hottest jobs as a policymaker who was destined to change how Indians communicated with each other, is a story that has to be not just read, but re-read. Born to a family of Gujarati-speaking carpenters and blacksmiths, the young Pitroda recalls in his book how he used to watch trains (aag gaadis) that plied past his village with great delight, with no expectations of ever travelling on any of them. It was ‘a possibility too remote to enter my mind,’ writes Pitroda, about the days before he took his first train ride along with his brother Manek on a long trip to join the Sharda Mandir Boarding School in Vallabh Vidyanagar near Anand, Gujarat. Some years later, when he was 13, he joined a technical school in Baroda where ‘machinery, carpentry, plumbing and electrical work were taught’. Pitroda says in his autobiography, aptly titled Dreaming Big, that he liked the course there because “being the son of a metal worker and woodsman, I thought that was a good thing for me to do”. But two years on, he found himself “hungry” for more education, he recalls.
It was then that Maharaja Sayajirao University happened. Pitroda, who had high grades in school, chose to study physics, chemistry and mathematics. It was there—in Baroda—that his intellectual life opened up. Around then, back home in Titlagarh, his father was struggling in his business and Manek went back to help the family. Always short of money, Pitroda decided to be financially independent and began teaching juniors mathematics and physics. It was Baroda where Pitroda would meet his future wife, Anjana Chhaya, who was a year junior at the university. As their love blossomed despite opposition from Anjana’s family, the young Sam was also looking at pursuing studies abroad. A bright student, he wanted to learn technology at an American university. He hadn’t heard of Caltech and MIT back then, and so he applied to Oregon University—he had seen an advertisement at the US consulate. He also applied to go to Illinois Institute of Technology because a friend and classmate had got admission there. He got admission to both, but decided to head for Illinois. When he left for the US on a long trip—which was mix of boat, plane, bus and train rides—from the Gateway of India’s south harbour by boat in 1965, he was just 22.
He wanted to study hard, find a good job and get married to the love of his life. Nothing in Pitroda’s life would ever be the same again.
Lately, Pitroda is anxious that in India, despite the technology we have now, the poor don’t stand to gain from it. For someone who broke free from the mould of a typical Indian villager who would otherwise continue in his traditional profession by dint of hard work and ambition, Pitroda is glad that he was instrumental in connecting the countryside with the cities, generating, in the process, rapid growth in communication that helped the poorest of India’s poor to gain access to better education, health care and jobs. “But the education that we are giving now to the poor in our villages is not worthy of the technology that we have now,” he notes, emphasising that the Internet should be tapped more effectively to offer young children in rural areas the best education possible, besides greater access to health care for all.
The man who was the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s friend and technology adviser during the period India leapfrogged into a prominent position in the global telecom segment resents that services aren’t good enough for mobile phone consumers. “Mobile telephony is here now. But corporates are cheating consumers,” Pitroda says to a question about frequent call drops that have long breached acceptable limits and about cell phone operators offering zero compensation to consumers so far. Starting 1 January next year, mobile users will get a compensation of Re 1 for three dropped calls a day, a rule that, again, has attracted criticism for being corporate-friendly.
Neither is he impressed with the ambitious Make in India programme of the Narendra Modi Government. The project is meant to steer the growth of the domestic manufacturing industry, which is expected to contribute 25 per cent to the country’s GDP in 2020 from a mere 16 per cent currently. The key takeaway of the government plan is this: we cannot continue to rely on agriculture, which employs more than 50 per cent of India’s working age population and contributes only 16 per cent to the national output. Pitroda says that he met a Nike executive who works in China some time ago who was excited to shift operations to a democracy like India. Such a relocation offered the executive multiple advantages, Pitroda recalls—he would be closer to his Middle Eastern markets; he would also have access to cheaper labour. But the hurdles abound: bad roads, insufficient power supply and so on. “Infrastructure is one area where we hear a lot of talk and very little action,” says Pitroda, whose claim to being the father of India’s telecom revolution has been contested by a few notwithstanding the achievements of C-DOT (The Centre for Development of Telematics) which he founded with the blessings of Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 to develop telecom technology to suit local needs.
A lot has been written about the story of Pitroda’s epiphany: why he decided to return to work in India to help develop a telecom infrastructure (inspiration came after he tried to contact his family back in Chicago while on a visit to India in the early 1980s). Many readers of Pitroda’s new book would also be familiar with the presentation he made before late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in early 1984 where son Rajiv was also present; a meeting that set the tone of a strong bonding between Rajiv and Pitroda. The book offers details of the meetings with leaders of the time. Pitroda writes about the presentation that envisaged revolutionising the telecom sector through indigenous production:
When Indira Gandhi came in, Rajiv sat next to her. I could half-hear him saying, “Mom, listen to this. This guy has ideas.”
…I don’t think Mrs Gandhi or the others in the room understood everything I was saying in the presentation, especially regarding the specifics of the technology. But what Mrs Gandhi did understand very well was the core of my vision. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Good.” And then she smiled.
…After Mrs Gandhi left the room it was as though the floodgates had opened. All the ministers wanted to talk to me. They had heard ‘Good’ and caught her smile. She had given me an hour—that in itself was a message. She had basically said: This idea has merit, Go ahead with it.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mrs Gandhi was assassinated a few months later, but Pitroda had Rajiv’s unstinted backing, and nothing could stop him from becoming a household name in India.
The honeymoon wouldn’t last long though.
After VP Singh split with the Congress and came to power as prime minister at the head of a rainbow coalition, Pitroda found himself cornered for ‘being a close buddy of Rajiv Gandhi’s’. He had a run-in with the telecom minister KP Unnikrishnan who accused him of corruption. Of course, he was in an enviable position: he was chairman of the Telecom Commission; adviser to C-DOT; Adviser to the PM on the Technology Missions: Secretary to the Department of Telecom and so on. But with Rajiv out of power, he was in a bad spot. The “politically motivated” campaign was too much for his family, which had moved back to India in 1985. The stress took a toll on him too. He had his first heart attack at the age of 49.
He had eight blocked arteries then, but he didn’t know the gravity of the situation and thought he could return to work the next day until renowned cardiac surgeon Dr Naresh Trehan told him rather stubbornly that he couldn’t leave the hospital for thirty days.
Pitroda, who popped at least a dozen medicines in front of this correspondent, says he has nobody to blame for his health condition except himself. Bad eating habits, lack of sleep and a little bit of stress precipitated matters, he suggests. Ironically, he continued to live recklessly and had to go for another multiple bypass surgery years later. “Now I have tremendous faith in modern medicine. I do checkups and take medicines. It helps me work and feel really good,” he tells me, suggesting that he is not ready to make lifestyle changes. In fact, he never hoped to live this long. A year after his first heart attack, his biography was published. He decided then that if he ever lived up to the age of 70 he would write an autobiography.
In 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, Pitroda realised that he had to leave. Not just because there was an emotional vacuum, there were financial constraints as well. His wife and children were back in the US and he needed money after a 10-year one-rupee-a-year salary stint with the government of India. Pitroda tells me that he was asked to stay back by the PV Narasimha Rao government, but he felt that “in India, with Rajiv gone, all I could see was darkness… all I knew was that to put my life in order I needed to be back home with my family in Chicago”.
As he grew fast in his new assignments, he also saw his children make it big in academics. Pitroda says that his future would have been different had he taken up the usual jobs of magna cum laude graduates in the US in the 1970s—perhaps joined a defence company like Lockheed Martin and made hay. “I was against the idea of working in a company that made arms. It went against the teachings of my icon, Mahatma Gandhi,” he points out.
But he is glad that he has chased and lived the American Dream. And he says he felt the pull to return to India after the Congress came to power in 2004. He headed the National Knowledge Commission, a project meant to fast-track “social and economic development”. He says that anywhere else in the world, a programme of that magnitude would be lapped up for its concept. “But not in India,” he says with a tinge of regret.
The man who has great praise for projects like Unique Identification Number (UID) and ‘Digital India’ says that he doesn’t want to “work” any longer in a typical domain. He can’t work with bosses anymore. But he is ready to play an advisory role in the ‘Digital India’ programme—which aims to promote digital literacy and offer all public services through the internet.
Pitroda, extremely amiable and courteous, also hopes to help the Congress party revive its organisational structure. He feels that Rahul Gandhi, Congress vice-president, is more constrained by an organisational crisis than his vision for the party. He finds him very “analytical and well read”. He adds: “Maybe he is overly analytical.”
Immaculately dressed, brandishing a luxury watch, Pitroda may know only too well that assisting the Congress and helping with ‘Digital India’ are two contradictory tasks—while one would need him to work closely with the Modi Government the other would entail taking considerable risks in beating back to shape a political entity that faces its toughest challenge yet.
The telecom poster boy of the 1980s— some of Raghu Rai’s photos of Sam (short for Satyanarayan Gangaram) Pitroda from India’s hinterland laughing his heart out on the phone have had lasting appeal—has other avenues to keep himself busy. Pitroda, who worships Picasso and admires MF Husain, is an avid painter, having exhibited his large, resplendent oil-on-canvas works in the US and Europe. He pauses to zoom in on a portrait of his granddaughter on his smartphone. “I have not sold any of my works. Maybe I will leave them to my grandchildren.”
A rich legacy indeed.