The story of IT

Print edition : October 09, 2009

THE so-called Internet Age we live in imposes what is being called Internet speed. This accelerated lifestyle is exemplified in an extreme form by the saying attributed to Marshall McLuhan, media guru of an earlier, more leisurely era: If it works, its obsolete. Something the lay buyer of personal computing products has come to rue as hardware and software are often outdated even as one decides to acquire them. When events happen at such a frenetic pace, it is difficult to take stock and calmly assess the historic significance of fast-evolving trends such as outsourcing before they are overtaken by events and technology.

That may explain why compiling information technology happenings can be a frustrating exercise, with McLuhan-like obsolescence threatening a publication in the brief time between concept and publication. Yet, for India at least, the story of the countrys rise to become a respected, globally accepted brand in IT is a key component of its wider history, and the task of telling it can be both daunting and challenging. That is reason enough to welcome Dinesh Sharmas contribution to the subject, arguably the most comprehensive treatment so far of the birth pangs, early development, growth and maturity of Indias information technology industry.

For those who are part of the IT-driven business today as well as for lay readers, the book is a timely reminder of how the industry, which has played a large role in transforming India into a trillion-dollar economy, owes its growth to individuals and governments in almost equal measure across a five-decade time span. Indeed, Sharma, a veteran science communicator, who is currently Science Editor of the Delhi-based tabloid daily Mail Today, is the right person to undertake the task bringing a combination of subject knowledge and detachment to bear on his measured yet highly readable account. This is no mean achievement because the rise of Indian IT must necessarily touch on the actions and decisions of a few dozen individuals, in positions of authority, most of whom are still around. It would have been easy, with the advantage of hindsight, either to laud or to trash their actions. Sharma avoids both pitfalls. While many of the protagonists may not agree with his judgments, they will be forced to respect them for a calm and uniform objectivity.

The origins of the India IT story lay in the vision of a few far-sighted academics and technocrats in the mid-1950s, including Professor P.C. Mahalanobis at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Dr Homi Bhabha, who helped set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. The professors zeal saw Indias first general purpose computer the United Kingdom-made Hollerith Electronic Computer (HEC) begin working at the ISI in February 1956; and his far-sighted appreciation of geopolitical realities ensured that the institutes second computer, two years later, was an Ural model from the Soviet Union. The TIFR went in for the American IBM 701 system, rechristened TIFRAC or TIFR Automatic Calculator.

The computing resources at TIFR quickly overtook those at ISI. Sharma also dredges up little-known facts about the earliest Indian efforts, by a trio of engineers, to build indigenous analogue computers: A.S. Rao, just returned from Stanford University and motivated by Bhabha to join TIFR; V. Rajaraman, a young engineering graduate at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who volunteered to join a project headed by a visiting American professor, Vincent Rideout; and Samrendra Mitra at the ISI. Rajaraman went on to become a doyen of computer education in India, joining H.K. Kesavan and H.N. Mahabala to commission the first IBM 1620 computer at the newly created Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur in 1964. Prentice Hall published Rajaramans first textbook, Principles of Computer Programming, in 1969, using cheap paper so that it could, as the author insisted, be affordable for every student at Rs.15. The book remained in print in new editions until 1992. A succession of other books made Rajaraman the most-read Indian author in computer sciences.

Bhabhas ability to recognise talent led him to hire and empower R. Narasimhan, a product of the Government College of Engineering, Guindy (Chennai), who was to become the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian computer science.

The developments in the early 1960s, as a chapter heading suggests, took place in the states shadow. An ad hoc Electronics Committee chaired by Vikram Sarabhai finally morphed into the Electronics Commission in 1971, headed by M.G.K. Menon, Bhabhas successor as head of the TIFR. As his mentor had done with the Atomic Energy Department, M.G.K. Menon prevailed on the government to shift the headquarters of the Electronics Commission to Mumbai. I had no intention of coming to Delhi and sitting like an IAS officer dealing with a regulatory mechanism, he was to say later. Ironically, M.G.K. Menons subsequent career was to see him move to Delhi and become part of the technocratic establishment as the head of the Defence R&D organisation and, briefly, as a Science Minister in the V.P. Singh government. His steering of the Electronics Commission has been seen by some as a period when roadblocks stalled the growth of IT, with the emphasis being more on regulation than on development. Delays of five to seven years became common between applications, by the government and private players alike, for the import of large computer systems and their actual commissioning. Was M.G.K. Menon too conservative at a time when a radical attitude was called for? The author suggests that it was the governments policy that was the main culprit, still formulated by political leaders and their bureaucratic advisers, who had a poor understanding of what they were regulating.

The TATA Institute of Fundamental Research.-

In one high-profile instance though, the governments hunch turned out to be prescient: this was the firm handling of IBM at a time when the United States-based computer giant had acquired a massive foothold in the Indian market but refused to accept larger Indian participation in its business in this country. Sharma documents, with telling detail, the practices of IBM in India in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw customers including key public sector companies such as the Railways, banks and insurance companies being forced to install what were essentially second-hand systems, rendered obsolete in the West, re-conditioned and sold here as new, their highly inflated prices camouflaged by bundling them into service and maintenance contracts. By billing in dollars for computers that were refurbished in its India-based units, IBM was able to rake in even more money when the rupee was devalued in June 1966. In such an environment, the Electronics Commission played a crucial role in strengthening the governments resolve the book recalls one instance in 1975, when the Commission found that Indian customers were being charged $20,000 as the annual rental for systems like the IBM 1401 when similar computers could be bought internationally for $1,200.

In October 1977, IBM left India, unable to agree to the conditions set by the Morarji Desai government, which in essentials remained consistent with the policy of the preceding Indira Gandhi regime. And the companys unspoken stance of after me, the deluge underestimated the resolve in India to ensure that the 100,000 systems that had been installed continued to do business as usual. In a rare instance of public and private enterprise rising to fill the breach, the task of keeping the IBM systems up and running was shared by the private Computer Maintenance Services and the newly created government entity, the Computer Maintenance Corporation, while IBMs non-proprietary business was smoothly taken over by the International Data Management, a company floated by a group of ex-IBM employees. Fifteen years were to pass before IBM returned to do business in India in a joint venture with the Tatas.

In 1999, IBM set up a fully owned Indian entity and was one of the first to send out a signal that India was now a technology powerhouse, not a geography to dump outdated computers. In June 2006, IBM shifted its annual financial analysts meeting from the United States to Bangalore, showcasing in the process the achievements of its 60,000-strong team in India.

Even during his years as a pilot with Indian Airlines, Rajiv Gandhi had a lively interest in gadgets and a mentor in P.S. Deodhar, who was to set up Aplab, one the earliest Indian test and measurement equipment makers. Deodhar briefed Rajiv Gandhi on the labyrinthine laws that hamstrung entrepreneurs in India and Rajiv Gandhi carried this message to his mother, then Prime Minister. Even as he assumed an unofficial role as a computer-friendly facilitator for events like the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, he smoothed the passage for the major liberalisation that finally came to the IT industry as a gift in August 1983. It fell to committed technocrats such as Deodhar, N. Seshagiri and T.H. Chowdary to take forward the Rajiv Gandhi vision once he became Prime Minister after Indira Gandhis assassination in 1984. Soon afterwards, Rajiv Gandhi announced a new computer policy, which among other things also saw the creation of the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT), where Sam Pitroda was to transform and indigenise the massive business of upgrading Indias archaic telephone systems; and the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) where Vijay Bhatkar would make India a supercomputing power.

The link between politicians and technocrats that Rajiv Gandhi presided over faced a strong backlash from the IAS lobby, which finally saw the bureaucracy wrench back almost all the authority in the IT domain by 1990. It was fortunate that the candidate who found himself in the Department of Electronics in June that year was a young IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre, N. Vittal. Within days of taking charge, he reached out to industry associations like NASSCOM and MAIT (Manufacturers Association for Information Technology), apprised himself of their wish lists and proceeded to set in motion liberalisations Second Coming, including the crucial decision to set up State-based Software Technology Parks. Old technology warhorses such as Seshagiri were requisitioned once more to implement the new vision; international IT giants like Texas Instruments, and then Motorola, Bosch and IBM were enabled to harness satellite technology and set up their first development centres in Bangalore. Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) was created to provide such international data umbilicals.

Meanwhile, the India IT story had grown in two more directions: the IITs, each with a different godparent (the U.S. for Kanpur, the Soviets for Mumbai, Germany for Madras) became epicentres of technology excellence though the fruits did not immediately translate into direct national benefit. The academic mindset that set more store by a doctoral dhobi mark rather than practical applications continued to hamper the IITs for decades. Scientists such as S. Ramani, who helped create the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) in Mumbai, set out to repudiate the IIT model and helped train a generation of earthier engineers. The educational arena also saw the rise of far-sighted entrepreneurs such as R.S. Pawar, Vijay Thadani and P. Rajendran who amicably left the nations number one private IT player, HCL, in 1981, to set up NIIT and impart non-formal computer training for the masses. It was to become one of the worlds biggest IT trainers.

Their parent company had played no small part in creating a truly desi computer industry. HCL was born when Shiv Nadar and half a dozen of his colleagues left the first Indian computer maker, DCM Data Systems, in 1975 to start their own outfit. For some years, the two companies joined by ORG and PSI continued to innovate and provide Indian corporate and lay customers the computer muscle that complex import regulations still denied.

The first desktop computer that this reviewer handled, while working as an engineer in a naval laboratory in the early 1980s, was the HCL Workhorse, a personal computer that pre-dated the PCs that IBM hardware and Microsoft software was to launch jointly almost four years later. The Workhorse used a green display monitor and five-inch floppy drives (no hard disk then!) to load software that came free HCLs cleverly developed clone of Wordstar called Secretry (title restricted to eight characters!) , and their own versions of other contemporary database and spreadsheet softwares. Sharma provides fascinating detail of those pioneering years of Indian computer manufacture. Sadly, skewed policies made it unviable to manufacture PCs or printers in India. The lack of a strong indigenous hardware manufacturing base continues to hamper the Indian IT industry.

Software was another story albeit better known. The book covers more familiar ground when it recalls how in 1970 F.C. Kohli, a senior manager at Tata Electric, was asked to help build the groups computing services department into an independent IT house Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Azim Premji steered his family vegetable oil business (Wipro originally stood for Western India Products Ltd) into computers and persuaded an engineer from ECIL, Sridhar Mitta, to quit and become the first employee of the new tech entity in 1980. An Osmania University graduate, Vinay Deshpande gave up a career at Stanford University to start PSI Data Systems in Bangalore. And the drawing room of his home in Pune served as the first office for N.R. Narayana Murthy and five of his colleagues at Patni Computers when they left to start their own IT company in late 1981. They called it Infosys Consultants.

Today, TCS, Infosys and Wipro straddle the Indian IT scene as the three musketeers of the outsourced services business. Deshpande, having sold off PSI to a French company, Bull, now heads a small but innovative outfit called Encore, which has come up with more than its fair share of compelling products.

Also widely documented are the more recent facets in the India IT story: the birth of the offshore customer service business after 1933, pioneered by international customers like British Airways, Swissair, Amex and GE who recognised quite early the potential of India for cost-effective technology services. Sharma rounds off his book by noting the neat symmetry (and small irony) in players like Wipro, HCL and TCS running call centres in places as far apart as Chile and the Philippines. The early international companies such as Texas Instruments, which saw the potential of Indian talent, played one salutary role: their India leaders CEO Srini Rajam, for instance went on to set up their own purely Indian entities.

Dinesh Sharmas treatise underlines one fact: committed people, as much as timely policy, helped turn Indian information technology into a respected global brand.

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