Sam Pitroda can be considered as the father of Telecommunications Technology in India, also, one of the policy makers of Indian National Congress. As the country is on the verge of a very crucial Lok Sabha Election, Sam Pitroda shares his political views with us. He talks about the credibility of electronic voting machines, India and her space in the fourth Industrial Revolution and the nation’s future post-Lok Sabha Elections.
Words of Sam Pitroda are of immense importance in an age when governments are largely controlled by a bureaucracy built on technology. What makes him special is not just that he is one of the best technocrats in the world today, but, the presence of Satyanarayanan Pitroda as a ‘policymaker’ in the corridors of power centres in India for over the last three decades. He is also a member of the committee that is engaged in the drafting of the election manifesto of the Indian National Congress led by Rahul Gandhi. We can say that his words would be decisive in the formation of a new policy for an anti-Modi front. It is in this context, Madhyam New Year Edition conducts a special interview with him. Here, he talks about the controversial electronic voting machine credibility, India in the age of Industrial Revolution and the future of India after the Lok Sabha elections.
Sam Pitroda was born on 4 May 1942 in a Gujarati family in Titlagarh, Odisha. His parents were firm believers of Gandhian ideals. Maybe due to this, they sent the young Pitroda to Gujarat to learn Gandhian philosophy. His primary education was at Vallabh Vidyanagar School. Later, he secured Masters in Physics from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Then, he received a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Illinois University, USA. Pitroda started his research in telecommunication technology in the ‘70s and rose to fame after he developed an electronic diary. Now, he has several patents including ones on transaction technology.
It was in ‘80s Sam Pitroda became a part of the Telecommunications Technology of India. Through that, he entered national politics. Actually, it was Indira Gandhi who invited Pitroda to India. However, it was Rajiv Gandhi who made maximum use of his potential. Immunization, literacy, and telecom- in various fields he worked as the technical advisor of the Prime Minister. It was during this time that India achieved massive progress in Telecom Technology. To the extent the nation is grateful to Abdul Kalam for rocket science, it is also grateful to Sam Pitroda with the history of Telecommunication Technology in India. He was the first Chairman of Telecom Commission. When the world shifted from Telecom technology to Information Technology in recent times, he became the torch-bearer of the change in India. That was how National Innovation Council and Central Information Commission were designed during his term as advisor to the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. In between, he also served as an advisor to the United Nations.
Usually, technocrats change their political affiliations depending on the change of government. Nonetheless, he was not ready to go with the government when Modi came into power in 2014. He even became a severe critic of the government. He openly spoke against the Modi government on their various policies including demonetisation. Sam Pitroda who once lent strength to the hands of Rajiv Gandhi is today immersed in the work of drafting a new manifesto for Rahul Gandhi.
In a world that is changing so drastically, how will technology, a prime leading force deciding the future of India?
Not just India, but the whole of human race’s future is going to be decided by the innovative changes that will happen in the field of technology. Even though people have been connected like never before, they are yet to get used to the changes that have happened in the last two decades. It is not through the shift from the silk routes to the tarred roads, or railway lines, or telephone cables that human beings got connected. It was through the democratisation of knowledge. Through that, each one of them was empowered. It is now going to influence our routine democratic practices. Due to the advancements in technical fields like nanotechnology and biotechnology, lifespan is going to increase. Education, transportation facilities, almost all sectors will undergo renovation. The world will move towards a financial development by being able to produce in surplus what is needed for the world population. These changes coming with the advent of technology will be of great benefit for India as forother countries. It would indeed be a reason for a major spearheading in development like never before. Better education, good roads, and great healthcare facilities, service sectors, even in the transmission of knowledge things are going to get speedy. However, the governance in India is still in a pathetic state. Our governance methods are yet to move in accordance with the new technological advancements. There is hardly any renovation happening in the governance sector. It is really sad that not only the changes happened as a result of technology are not reflected in governance, but also we are still following a pattern that is around fifty years old. In order to bring changes in the functioning of a government, what should change is the traditional mindset. For that, it is necessary to build up a team of leadership, quality-ingrained architects at the state and district levels who are capable of remodelling old structures and using technology. It is also high time we change the age-old practices running in our courtrooms with the help of technology. Today, around three and a half crore cases are stuck in our courts and denied justice. By upgrading court practices through technology, we will be able to dispose off these cases. Through the use of technology services like Video filing, Information Technology, Big Data, Analytics, and Machine Learning, we will be able to clear the cases within a year. Taking the case of India, there are still several fields that need to be remodelled through technology.
As you said it is the old mindset that hinders governance and other development processes in India. How can we get rid of this?
Mindset can only be changed by devoting space for debates and discussions. What happens today in our public sphere are unhealthy debates. They have become spaces for accusing the other, discussiona returning to the traditional era, fights on caste, hatred, cow slaughter and religious institutions. They seldom talk about the present or the future. It is sad that even our youth does not talk about these new ideas. Half of them live in a world of unwanted feuds while the other half leads a worldly life caring about oneself, his/her beauty and luxuries, thinking about how to make their girlfriends happy. You can only mentally prosper when you start thinking of a world that includes everyone free of conservative cobwebs.
As a strong proponent of inclusive democracy, how do you look at the various threats faced by Indian democracy?
Indian democracy today is hijacked. The recent reports about the malfunctioning of electronic voting machines and concentration of power support my argument. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, vendetta - everything is now in chains. If anyone dares criticise the government, various revenge measures like CBI-Income tax raids are imposed upon them. Democracy can only strengthen when media freedom becomes free of hidden interests, in a transparent government, in a judiciary that stands on the consciousness of justice and a government that works for everyone and not along the interests of a specific political party function in a safe and secure environment. In a democratic space, everyone should be given space and avenues for fulfilling their responsibilities. These avenues should be provided for everyone -from regional sectors, women, men, tribes and backward classes to other minorities. But, today these spaces are wiped off in India. I am extremely disturbed about the present condition of India.
You have mentioned discrepancy in electronic voting machines. Why isn’t it considered a serious issue and immediate solution not taken?
For a pretty long time, this issue has been widely in the discussion. In the recent elections, the images and news reports of electronic voting machines being misused in hotel rooms, have been widely circulated all around the globe. Two major doubts are born out of this. One regarding the whole process of distribution of services and materials related to elections, and the other, the technical issue that voting machines are not free of discrepancies. These two doubts need to be largely analysed and discussed in the public sphere. The “Everything-is-fine-and-good” response from the Election Commissioner when asked about the integrity of the voting machine, put a full stop to all the allegations raised against it. Even from the side of the Supreme Court, the response was similar. Both the judiciary and the Election Commissioner have to take this matter into consideration and should look into bringing in transparency and ensuring the trust of the people.
When the world is moving towards the fourth Industrial revolution, it is problems about artificial intelligence that is widely discussed. When Mark Zuckerberg and Michio Kaku opine that artificial intelligence makes life simpler, people like Elon Musk are of the opinion that man-made artificial intelligence can become the killer of the human race. What are your views on artificial intelligence?
The ones whom you have mentioned speaking about Artificial Intelligence are ones who see the world through the Western perspective. But, I see this topic from an Indian perspective. Both of these perspectives have a lot of differences. If their idea of development is from top to bottom, then mine is from bottom to the top. I have disagreements with many of the arguments proposed by many of them. If they are trying to find solutions for the problems of the rich, we are thinking of eradicating the difficulties of the poor and the commoner. Both our and their perspectives have big differences. For them, their perspective would be right. I am not in any way ready to argue with them. People with great brains should be ones who give ample importance to solving the problems of the poor. Sadly, many of them are interested in building a world of the rich with technological advancements. None among the Zuckerbergs thinks of the threats faced by the world. Only people with a Gandhian school of thought can think like that. The basic life science of people like Zuckerberg is to increase the income. They always think of increasing the share values in the stock exchange. The Gandhian principles are exactly opposite of these. What I wish to embrace are these values. Staying with truth, having the heart to love everybody, taking care of everyone around me, being considerate towards the problems faced by the backward classes and the minorities, starting developmental projects from the grass root level- these are the values I believe in. The Gandhian principle will help us view the world from an altogether new angle and face the various challenges in our own way. Likewise, on what standards you construct the artificial intelligence, they will perform as per the standards either for the benefit of the human race or for its destruction.
Revolutionary changes are happening in the Telecommunications sector. The world is changing from 4G to 5G. How do you see these changes?
India is indeed growing in the field of IT and Telecom. What I wish to say to the people in these fields is that they should be kind enough to use the technology to reach the poor and provide more service for them. Never go behind Western models. Western countries sought help from information technology to spread lies in society. Today, India is also moving along these lines. Facebook and Twitter should not become platforms to spread fake news and hatred. On the other hand, they should be used to preach love and truth. They should be able to successfully incorporate Indian model into information technology to achieve progress and development. Social media should be used to preach Gandhian values, upliftment of minorities and other backward classes and against the segregation of Dalits. New ideas like how robots can be used to clean washrooms and how street sweepers can be helped with technology, should be employed. Hence, India should be able to construct a new model with the help of technology.
Could you please explain with us the theme discussed in your upcoming book 'Redesign the World'which says it is time to redesign the world in a new model?
The last time the world was designed was after the Second World War, around seventy years back. The United Nations, IMF, World Bank, WTO- all major institutions came into being as America modelled them. Since then the world moved based on these Western-modelled organisations. What Redesign the World proposes is that it is time to break the existing models and structures and we need a new world according to the need of the times, , new practices and new developmental strategies. The Western model constructed years back is totally outdated now. The model was purely based on worldly profits and wealth accumulation. From now on, we have to focus on man’s needs rather than his rights. Diversity and variation is the beauty of the world. Each country, its geography, people, culture, and customs- everything is different. We have to celebrate this diversity. Nations like America, China, and even India have not completely recognised this diversity. If it is Latin America and African Americans that bother America, in India it is the Dalits, Muslims and Christians who face the same situation. A new financial system also needs to be established in the world. We cannot measure the greatness of a nation with the benchmarks of GDP, per capita or the capital in the stock exchange. How can we count the family values in India, our great heritage and historical monuments like Taj Mahal? How much money is wasted in the world for military expenses? We need to design the world in a new model by changing all those existing practices, by giving attention to a violence-free environment.
A unique job culture was formulated under your guidance in the Indian public sector with over 500 young engineers working day and night for around 36 months making India march towards a Telecom Revolution in 1984. It was an only one of its kind in the whole history of the nation. If we were able to bring this sort of dedication to various fields, India would have been able to surpass other nations. But why is it not happening?
The major reason for this is the lack of leadership in the public sector. Yet another reason is the feudalist autocratic nature of the senior officers in the workspace. During those days, the young engineers were given a comfortable working environment. We have to implement employment rules, employment values, job culture and behavioural norms in tune with each region. That was what we established in C-DOT (Centre for Development of Telematics). Those 500 dedicated and sincere employees who worked with us are currently working in major positions in various companies in and around the world. Many of them are still working in companies in India, as the others in America, Australia and Europe. Indian youth can still give birth to revolutions like what happened in the Telecommunications industry before. Our aim should not be to make India a superpower. We should work to provide what is needed for the people of our land. We should be able to uplift around 40 crore people in India lying below the poverty line. They should be given better living conditions. Other countries have admiration for India, the largest democracy in the world. We should be able to utilise that tag and arrange and bring order to all employment sectors in the country.
With a lesser number of job opportunities in America, Europe and the Gulf countries, migrant Indians are returning to their homeland. How can the country manage this issue of ‘reverse migration’?
If the Indians who come back work hard, they can easily find opportunities in various spheres in
India and can convert new possibilities as opportunities. Many among them are highly experienced and have a worldly vision. If we can provide friendly workspace, they can become entrepreneurs.They can select areas like distribution of purified water, waste management, agriculture and restaurant.
Farmers in India are currently passing through a pitiable condition. How can we find solutions for their travails?
The issues faced by farmers are far worse than what we see from outside. The lands that they have at present have been handed down from generations from their forefathers who owned acres of agricultural lands. Therefore, the amount of land each has is less than what is recorded in the government documents. Not just that, they are not receiving any financial profits that can let them use advanced machinery for better yield. Basic facilities like seeds, fertilizers, water and energy are not provided at minimum rates. With the advent of industrial urbanisation, business minded middlemen are grabbing a larger chunk of their profits. To solve this issue at once, we have to ensure that they receive the basic facilities at a favourable rate. The financial help, subsidy, insurance and other assistance for the same should be offered by the Government. We have to also make sure that they receive a market gain and no middlemen come in the picture. Today in each district in India, you have around 12 lakh people residing. It is the duty of the district committee to look into the matters of the farmers in each district, study and solve their problems. Now It is in the hands of the District Collectors to introduce agricultural norms. Even in this, they are not getting enough time. By providing more power and responsibilities to the district committees, they should be made to formulate regional agricultural norms. The general policy made by the Central government or the State government is not apt for the regional environment. Only by reconstructing the existing system and practising power distribution can we accomplish any goal; be it the crisis of farmers or the city development.
How do you see those years when you worked along with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as chief organiser of National Technology Mission and yourself as the Father of Telecom Revolution in India?
Rajiv Gandhi was an audacious young man. He had lots of dreams about a new India. He wished to bring changes according to that. He was a man with an open mind who maintained transparency in his decisions. He gave me a chance to utilise my talents in my field. He also gave me enough political strength to implement them fruitfully. Rajiv had full faith in me. For that, I still remember him with gratitude. I would not have been able to do anything without Rajiv Gandhi’s firm support. India needs leaders like him. Since the day I started working with him, there started a bond of friendship. Personally, I miss him so dearly and believe his departure as the biggest loss in my life.
It is known that the rejuvenation package you submitted to the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi was indeed fruitful in providing spirit and enthusiasm for bringing Congress back to power in 2004. At this critical stage, as Global Chairman of Indian Overseas Congress, what is the vision strategy you put forth?
As the Chairman of Indian Overseas Congress, the main responsibility upon me is getting to know the opinions of the Indians residing in foreign countries, who believe in the ideals of the Congress party, to energise them in democratic ideals, inclusiveness and freedom upheld by the Congress. Along with this, I am also working in the Congress Election Manifesto Committee. Connecting with people from diverse walks of life, we are planning to come up with a peoples Manifesto for 2019.
Communal fascism and growing intolerance are the two main obstacles currently India is facing. There is no one like Rahul Gandhi who strongly speaks up against these. A political scientist can easily see a Gandhi and a Nehru simultaneously in his body language and interactions. As a person who knows him closer, what do you think- which of the two is the actual Rahul Gandhi?
No doubt, I can firmly say that Rahul Gandhi’s activities and actions carry semblance with Mahatma Gandhi. You can say that Rahul Gandhi is more a Gandhian than a Nehruvian. Many have not understood Rahul Gandhi properly. As someone who knows him pretty well, I can say that he is someone who deeply believes in Gandhian way of living. Truthfulness, simplicity, love-someone with all these values, you can easily read this from his body language when he interacts with the poor.
Starting from a rural village somewhere in Orissa to Gujarat and then Chicago. In between over hundreds of technology plants, then those days with Rajiv Gandhi, Knowledge Commission Chairman with Dr Manmohan Singh, Digital India...When one reads all these in your book 'Dreaming Big', one feels like watching a beautiful movie. The roads you have travelled will definitely inspire any young man. What is the greatest challenge that you have faced in your journey so far?
I have never seen anything as an obstacle in life. I have started my life from the very bottom. As far as I am concerned, each step I have taken was a gain for me. Every experience was new. Life has moved forth like a romance. Along with that, I always enjoyed the thrill of an adventure. However, many of the people knew nothing much about me. The only thing they knew about me was that I was a friend of Rajiv Gandhi. I was born and brought up in a rich family, I am Christian...people carried several false assumptions about me. Maybe it is because they felt it all like a film, when the book was published, a team from Hollywood approached me with the intention of making a film on it!
What is your response on the state election results?
This election result is a message given by the people of the Hindi region to the entire citizens of the nation, the message that “It is time for a change”. They realised that none of the promises made by the leaders has been kept. Due to this, the people of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh jointly decided to return power to the hands of the Congress. They also firmly believe that Congress will be able to show good governance after coming to know of the sincerity of Rahul Gandhi who sees the masses as his fellow beings and of an efficient team working with him. Congress should be able to go ahead as per the faith reposed in them by the people. This election result is a turning point both for the Congress and the nation.
How will this result affect the upcoming elections?
The Congress followers all over the nation are delighted about this victory. This will inspire them more. Their expectations about 2019 have now gone up. If they could keep up the expectations, if they are capable of performing in a way to strengthen the democracy and accept the diversity of the land, then definitely winds of change will blow all over India in 2019.
In order to choose the Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi used technology to directly interact with thousands of followers regarding their opinion. Is this showing times of change within the Congress?
The things Rahul Gandhi mentioned during the Plenary Session are what are being implemented now. What he said then was that instead of Congress leaders, the Congress followers should be brought to the mainstream. He was openly declaring his readiness to hear the common people. This is what has happened now. Nominating many names for various posts is a healthy practice in a democracy. Calling the practice of coming up with multiple names for posts of Chief Ministers and others as confusion is just a part of media sensationalism. Rahul Gandhi is trying to listen to the suggestions of the people because he believes that a decision should not be taken from within a group or by one person alone. However, after hearing all these suggestions, the ultimate decision will eventually be of the leadership.