Remembering a Technology visionary who reshaped India: A tribute to Rajiv Gandhi on the 23rd death anniversary

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When we remember late Rajiv Gandhi, several scenarios could come to one’s mind. To some, he was a young and charismatic leader who has given great hope to a new generation with dynamic initiatives and for others, he has assured India’s continuing path onwards with its secular politics. However, I remember him more for his bold initiatives in the Telecom and Information Technology areas that have transformed India forever.

If we look back in history, couple of events or initiatives has made some dramatic change to the status quo. India is primarily an agricultural nation. In 1990, nearly 70% of India’s work force was engaged in farming, although agriculture accounts for only 33 % of India’s gross national product (GNP). However, two separate event/initiative catapulted India into being an Information Technology super power of this modern time.

One significant such set of events that took place in 1965 when Hindi became the official language of India. The architects of modern India felt that India needed an official language as a unifying force for such a diverse nation. However, they wanted to give several more years to this effort as they were very conscious of the sentiment of non-Hindi speaking folks particularly in South India. However, some of the ardent Hindi advocates in the north were pressing hard to make that a reality soon although many of their sons are daughters were sent to U.K. or USA for English Education and higher professional studies. Protests and Riots erupted across South India and most of the violent confrontations occurred in Tamil Nadu. Finally, the Central Government relented and made English the sub-official language of the Nation.

If it were not for that particular decision, India would not have fared any better than China or Russia in developing software technology or providing high quality services to multi-national companies in the west. Since most of the advanced computing instructions and training materials were written in English and the project management was conducted using the same, Indians gained a natural advantage over others gaining that expertise and excelling in it. The United States, Japan, and most Western European nations in recent decades have become information societies, countries in which information workers are more numerous than such occupational categories as farmers, industrial workers, or service workers (Rogers, 1986). In an information society, information is the crucial ingredient, much like energy was in the industrial society of an earlier era. The computer is the most important tool in the information society, just as the steam engine was the basic technology in the industrial society.

The second significant initiative that made India an IT super power has happened under Shri. Rajiv Gandhi. As we know, telephones have arrived in India in 1881. Some 100 years later, India reputedly had world’s worst telephone service.The Rajiv Gandhi government, realizing the importance of advanced, widely-accessible telecommunications, announced a new telecommunications policy in 1985. This policy:

Permitted foreign collaboration with the Indian private sector in manufacturing indigenous telecommunications equipment;
Created a Department of Telecommunications by bifurcating the Indian Posts and Telegraph Department; and
Created autonomous telephone corporations to serve Delhi and Bombay (Chowdary, 1986).
These reforms by the visionary Rajiv Gandhi encouraged Non-Resident Indians to participate in the upcoming Telecommunication revolution in India. In 1984, Satyan “Sam” Pitroda, an overseas-returned Indian (formerly an executive of Rockwell, Inc. in Chicago), was invited by Rajiv Gandhi and subsequently he founded the Center for Development of Telematics (CDOT) in New Delhi. Pitroda’s R&D organization has developed state-of-the-art telephone switching equipment to serve India’s special telecommunications needs. Indian telecommunications are characterized by high traffic and low density (as compared to low traffic and high density in most Western countries), and extreme temperature and humidity conditions.

C-DOT accomplished most of its R&D goals, saving $3.5 million of its $29 million budget allocations in the three-year period between 1984 and 1987. C-DOT successfully developed the technology for electronic PABX systems, developed a 128-line rural telephone exchange, and then tested 4,000-line and 16,000-line telephone exchanges. Several government and private companies were then licensed to manufacture C-DOT’s electronic telephone exchanges. A second three year C-DOT mission was announced in 1987 to develop technological prerequisites for a future Integrated Systems Digital Network (ISDN) in India.

If it were not for these reforms by Rajiv Gandhi, there would not have been any IT revolution in India and we would never have become the world’s hub for Call Centers and high-end online software services.

It was the learning of the language English together with the restructuring of the Telecommunication policies by our dynamic and visionary leader Rajiv Gandhi that has catapulted India to the pinnacle of technology supremacy and brought us fame and fortune and probably more respectability around the globe.

George Abraham
Former Chief Technology Officer, United Nations
Chairman, Indian National Overseas Congress (I), USA

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