Sam Pitroda is the father of the telecommunications revolution in India. He is
currently Adviser to the Indian Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations.
In the 1980s the son of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv, presented Pitroda with a challenge: to give every Indian access to a telephone.
Speaking to euronews at the LIFT technology conference in France, he explained how he went about democratising communication.
Sam Pitroda said: “In the early 1980s, I had an opportunity to make a presentation to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the potential of IT telecom software for nation building. You can always build a company, but can you build a nation using this as a tool.
“The need in India was to focus on access to telephone and not necessary telephone density. Rural telecom as opposed to urban telecom.
“We had to work in the very hostile Indian environment, very high temperatures, dust, humidity, lack of talent in rural areas, so we really needed our own model.
“So we put together a little young team, without any experience. Bright young people with an average age of 23, and we sort of identified the problem, gave them the challenge, and worked with them to build the right kind of ecosystem.
“India had no major electronic production industry then so we had to build connectors, circuit boards software, hardware. Some of it, some components were imported from abroad. But we had to build a complete ancillary industry. And pretty soon we realised we had 10,000 people working in this area. And that gave us the impetus. The key was really human resource.”
Today the telecoms revolution is at its peak. Virtually everyone has access to a phone. India aims to keep the momentum going and develop and improve access to the internet, which, it is hoped, will lead to improved public services in turn.
Pitroda explained: “Today, for example, we produce 75 billion dollars worth of exports out of software and services every year. That’s probably 200 billion every year, year after year.
“Then we had two million telephones for 750 million people. Today we have 600 million phones and we are adding 15 million new phones every month.
“We believe we’ll have a billion cell phones very soon, which is a huge difference. So today India is well connected. We are a nation of a billion connected people. Five years ago we were a nation of a billion unconnected people. So the question is how do we start again now in terms of development new paradigm once we have achieved this connectivity.”
For Sam Pitroda the priorities today in India are education and health. Between 2005 and 2008 he served as chairman of the National Knowledge Commission. Despite a run-in with the education ministry, almost all of Pitroda’s recommendations for higher education are now being acted upon.
With well over a billion people, India faces some serious challenges.
Sam Pitroda: “How do we lift 400 million poor from poverty into the mainstream? That’s challenge number one. Challenge number two: we are a country of young people. We have 550 million young below age of 25. We need to create 15 million new jobs every year, year after year. How do you do that?
“The third challenge is we need to expedite the process of modernisation, we can’t wait. We need to build, more colleges, more homes, more power plants, more food, more meals, you name it. Everything has to be expedited. So how do you use IT, power of IT, power of connectivity, power of information to really solve these three mega challenges? We don’t have all the answers. Pretty complex!”
Pitroda is working on an outline for a Decade of Innovation in India but is realistic about the country’s failings.
He said: “I’ve been seeing this for many years that the best brains in the world are busy solving the problems of the rich who really don’t have problems to solve. And the result is that we really need intelligent people to solve the problems of the poor. But it’s not being done. So people don’t pay attention. If we don’t solve problems of the poor, who will do it? Such a different way to look at larger responsibilities!”