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Laureate 2011
Statement by Telecommunication innovator Sam Pitroda

 
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It is indeed a great privilege and honour for me to be sharing my thoughts with this distinguished audience. At the outset, I would like to say that I am humbled that ITU has decided to felicitate me with the Telecommunication and Information Society Award 2011. I would also like to congratulate my fellow recipients of the award – President Tarja Halonen, and Ms. Kristin Peterson – and laud them for the excellent and inspiring work that they have done in this field.

I strongly believe that technology is a great social leveller and has the potential to bridge barriers across domains, enhance access and enable a move towards a more participative and open society. In the present information society, ICT can play an unparalleled role in linking people, communities, driving collaborations and improving service delivery to the poorest of the poor. In a country such as India where we are still grappling with challenges in access to health, education, energy, housing, innovative use of ICT can really be a game changer. It can also radically change the governance paradigm by bringing accountability, transparency and efficiency. To share my experiences in this field, I would like to give a brief overview of my journey in telecom in India and the impact it has had on the development discourse of the country, the current opportunities in the sector and our plan moving forward.

In the 1980s when I decided to work in India on building India’s telecom infrastructure, I was greeted by a fair degree of scepticism. It was unheard of in the development paradigm of the time to bring state-of-the-art technology to a third world country. India’s needs, I was told, relate to more pressing things such as health, hygiene, literacy, power etc. However, I saw in technological development an opportunity for radical social transformation, enhancing capacity and delivering benefits and opportunities which would allow people to cross the threshold of development.

The realities of the telecommunication industry at that time, to my dismay, were widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in India. Information technology was an urban luxury and access to telephones was dismal, with only 2 million telephones; and 7 per cent of the country’s population had 55 per cent of the telephones. The country had only 12,000 public telephones for 700,000,000 people and 97 per cent of India’s villages had no phones at all. As we started working in this space, we were clearly focused on the need for developing indigenous electronic industry, building local talent, developing rural telecommunications and enhancing access to telephone vs. density. I felt indigenous development was crucial if India was to compete economically in the coming century and also for local development. Also, I felt that this infrastructure would indirectly lead to many other tacit benefits related to openness, accountability, transparency, accessibility, which would be critical for effecting social, political and economic development. In short, we knew that telecommunications was a critical piece in India’s nation building exercise and a tool for strengthening our democracy due to its potential for networking people, ideas and resources.

In the 1960s I had been involved in the invention and evolution of digital electronic switching equipment and I was sure that this was the need of the hour in India. I convinced the political establishment that India needs to abandon electromagnetic switching which was ill-suited to the Indian climate and conditions and move towards digital systems for switching and transmissions. This would also help build indigenous industry in electronics, software and related fields. India could also offer to the developing world a small rural telecom exchange which would be more suited to the usage pattern in Indian villages and would be a more efficient and economical option. For execution of this massive task, with the will of the Prime Minister of India, we set up the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) with young talent and very flexible organisational structure as well as a fresh mindset.

By 1987, within the three year target that we had set for ourselves, we had delivered a 128-line rural exchange, a 128-line private automatic branch exchange for businesses, a small central exchange with a capacity of 512 lines and all of this was being manufactured in India. In the process we had also licensed 40 public and private companies to manufacture and market C-DoT products and created a talented and confident young workforce for the country. This was the beginning of India’s IT journey and since then we have not looked back. In this endeavour, the political will and support of the then Prime Minister Mr Rajiv Gandhi was very critical and we could not have undertaken this task without his significant backing.

My next challenge was to carve a larger vision for leveraging technology for development which culminated in the six Technology Missions that I headed in areas such as drinking water, immunization, oilseeds, dairy production, literacy and telecommunications. The idea was to galvanise and motivate the resources of many people and use technology to meet these needs in a better manner. As part of these Missions, I travelled across the country to enable communities, motivate people, generate ideas and assess progress. The overwhelming commitment that I saw from people and communities for me was a living example of development in action. These Missions also allowed me to articulate the role that information systems could play in development.

After that I chaired India’s first Telecom Commission where we created a framework to address three fundamental challenges of connectivity, accessibility, and rural expansion. Many interventions were part of this effort: replacing existing exchanges with digital equipment manufactured in India, setting up factories to manufacture fibre optics, building fibre optic highways to connect our metropolitan cities etc. We also launched a multimillion dollar programme to computerise telecommunications operations nationwide and also introduced international direct dialling to more than 120 countries. To increase accessibility, we decided to provide more phones in public places, where many more people could be put into the reach of telecommunications as opposed to a focus on density. These STD PCO booths not only enhanced access significantly but also created huge employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. For rural expansion of telecommunications, in 1989, we set an ambitious goal of setting up one rural exchange a day. By 1993, 25 rural exchanges were being installed everyday and the growth was exponential.

By the wheels we had set in motion in the 1980s, India was firmly on the path towards becoming a knowledge and information society. Today, we are recognised globally as world leaders in IT and we have created our own multinational companies, and our IT entrepreneurs have placed the country on the world map in a big way. This has given us significant confidence, and allowed us to dream bigger and better. From 2 million phones, today we are a nation of 700 million phones, and adding more, month after month. We will soon be a nation of 1 billion connected people! This nation of a connected billion people challenges us to think differently and innovatively.

In my current role I am now involved in shaping India’s Public Information infrastructure vision which I feel will be critical to guide our country’s future over the next two decades and deliver benefits to a billion connected people. We want to build information infrastructure in the country to change the governance paradigm through greater accessibility and transparency as well as improved service delivery.

I feel access to information will be the fundamental pillar of this new governance paradigm to challenge the current power equations premised on denial of information or limiting access to information. For the rural community to be truly empowered, information has to be placed in their hands to create a sense of ownership, awareness of rights and the ability to question the system for inefficient delivery. The key hence, is to democratise Information and make it freely and easily available to the people at large to improve transparency, accountability, collaboration, cooperation, productivity and efficiency.

While India has laid a strong foundation in voice-based telephony, it is time to leverage this base to leapfrog to the next stage of telecom development. Our robust telecom and IT industry, as well as the associated infrastructure, provides the ideal platform to chart a move from voice to data. This move will be enabled by next generation networks such as the National Knowledge Network (NKN) and high speed Broadband connectivity. India is already building NKN which is a high speed multi gigabit network to connect all our educational institutes, R&D labs, hospitals, and libraries to enable collaborative and multidisciplinary research. Further, for creating Broadband infrastructure in the country, a plan is being devised to connect 250,000 Panchayats (local centres of governance) to optical fiber cable which will enhance service delivery and create applications, opportunities and infrastructure for rural communities and also take Broadband to 100 million homes. This will enable democratisation of information at the grassroots level and create a participative and informed citizenry. These networks will be the backbone of Public Information Infrastructure and will enable applications in areas such as health, agriculture, housing, education etc. especially targeted at grassroots empowerment.

PII will also enable many other platforms to ride on it. For efficient delivery of multiple government services Government’s Unique Identification project (Aadhar programme) will have to be plugged into the Public Information Infrastructure. By providing a unique ID for every Indian resident, Aadhar will be able to aptly leverage Public Information Infrastructure to create accurate identification databases which will ensure increased efficiency and improved delivery of government services and schemes. A national GIS will be another core platform of Public Information Infrastructure which will enable a system for shared applications and data sets among multiple government departments. By making information available, integrated and consistent through remote sensing, surveying, census etc., a national GIS system will ensure improved planning, coordination and monitoring and have an impact in areas such as health, rural and urban development, disaster management and environment.

Further, a robust Information Infrastructure will require a single, unified, secure and cyberspace at multiple levels for privacy protection. Systems will have to be put into place for network, client, and server security. This is crucial for creating secure and stable channels for information and data sharing.

The ultimate aim of Public Information Infrastructure is to deliver services and benefits to the citizens. This requires creation of multiple applications in areas such as agriculture, health, education, housing, energy etc. These applications and related institutional infrastructure at the grassroots level will enable information sharing, collaboration, accountability and improved policy planning. This will also enable creation of accompanying institutional infrastructure in terms of hardware/ software and human resources which will unleash the growth potential in rural areas.

A payment platform will have to be integrated into Public Information Infrastructure which will enable greater financial inclusion and real time transactions. This will play a significant role in plugging leakages and mitigating delays in several social sectors schemes of the government as well as generating easy access for citizens.

Al the above is our long-term plan for creating the ICT infrastructures in the country for improving governance, service delivery and for unleashing the innovation potential in our country.

I would like to end by briefly touching upon my association with ITU. ITU is one of the oldest and most vibrant intergovernmental organisations and India has been a member of successive ITU Councils since 1952. I have personally been involved with ITU since 1974 through conferences, lecture, meetings, discussions, debates and various other forums. I also had the opportunity to lead World Tel and the Advisory Committee to the ITU Secretary General in the mid-90s. I have always benefitted tremendously from my association with ITU and it is indeed a privilege to be recognised by a body such as ITU. I look forward to continuing my interactions with this significant organisation.

Finally, I would once again like to thank ITU and the Secretary General Hamadoun Touré for honouring me with this award and would like to sincerely thank all the Indian telecom entrepreneurs, the IT Community, the engineers, businessmen, policy makers, and the talented young people who helped us in this exciting and rewarding journey to transform India’s telecom landscape.

Thank you.

 

 


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Updated : 2011-05-17