The road to IT greatness

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurating the electronics research and development centre of Keltron in Thiruvananthapuram. Also seen is Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar (right). A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

An assembly of electronic instruments at ECIL, Hyderabad. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Ashok Parthasarathi. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

1972: India’s first digital computer, made by Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, Hyderabad. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Param, the parallel supercomputer developed indigenously by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

October 3, 1987: At a computerised railway reservation counter in Chennai. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Contrary to popular perception, India began its journey to become an IT superpower much before the reforms of 1991. The roots can be traced as far back as 1972, when Indira Gandhi set up the Electronics Commission to focus on computing and electronics.

THIS article deals with facts little known to today’s policymakers, industry, computer users and the general public about the actual launch and development of our information technology (IT) “industry”. To almost all those categories of persons, this critically important so-called “industry” was coterminous with the launching of the so-called economic reforms of 1991. But, as I shall show in what follows, that is not the case.

The genesis

In February 1971, the Indira Gandhi government set up, directly under the Prime Minister, a unique nodal organisation for the critically important electronics industry called the Electronics Commission (EC) at the policymaking level and the closely coupled Department of Electronics at the executive level. At that time, and even today, there is no equivalent organisation in any other country. The agency was a “czar” with a mandate spanning some 16 Ministries and Departments of the Government of India, from defence to health and education and atomic energy to telecommunications.

The EC was an upto-seven-member body with a full-time Chairman, who was also the Secretary of the Department of Electronics (DoE), a full-time Member (Finance) and up to five part-time Members drawn from users of electronic products, the electronics industry, R&D (research and development) and academia. The founding Chairman was the distinguished physicist Prof. M.G.K. Menon, who had until then been Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), our leading institution in basic and applied R&D and in several areas of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics, which was set up in Mumbai by the builder of our atomic energy programme, Dr Homi Bhabha. Incidentally, Dr Bhabha used to call the electronics industry and electronics technology “the nervous system” of a modern economy and a modern national security system.

I joined the Secretariat of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as her Science and Technology (S&T) Adviser in New Delhi in mid June 1970. For the previous three years (1967-70), I had been Special Assistant to Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the father of our space programme and at that time Chairman of both the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Mumbai.

The first task given to me by Indira ji when I joined the Prime Minister’s Secretariat was to prepare a Cabinet Paper setting up an EC and a DoE. Over the next five to six months, this was my main work under the guidance of that intellectual, political and administrative giant, Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar, who Indira ji had made her Secretary and Head of her Secretariat. Working closely with the then Cabinet Secretary, T. Swaminathan, I completed the draft Cabinet Paper. It was then carefully considered and approved by Indira ji.

After circulation to Ministries/Departments concerned by the Cabinet Secretariat for their comments, the Paper was considered by the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) on November 24, 1970, and approved as proposed. The CCPA also approved Prof. Menon being appointed the first Chairman (EC) and Secretary, DoE.

The EC held its first meeting on March 16, 1971. Three areas were focussed on by the Commission at that meeting: computers and computer-based systems, consumer electronics, and electronics components. This first EC had three part-time Members: C.R. Subramaniam, Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) of Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL); A.S. Rao, Director Electronics Group of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Managing Director of Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL); and Lt General K.S. Grewal, Officer-in-Chief of the Corps of Signals of the Army. ECIL was set up in 1967 as the commercial upscale of Trombay Electronic Instruments (TEI) formed in 1962 to design, develop and manufacture a whole range of electronic systems and equipment needed for the atomic energy and space programmes. As Electronics was directly under the Prime Minister, I also used to attend EC meetings as a Special Invitee.

After dealing with matters concerning consumer electronics and electronic components, the EC spent a few hours on computers. It was decided that a grant of Rs.10 crore (at 1971 prices) should be given to ECIL to design, develop and manufacture a family of advanced third-generation digital computers for business applications (such as banking and insurance), R&D in universities, IITs and government laboratories; and industries for uses such as online/real-time applications.

The grant was transferred to ECIL through a subsidiary of the EC known as the Technology Development Council (TDC). On its part, ECIL agreed to name its computers the TDC family. The two classes of computers to be developed under the grant were the TDC 316 16-bit computer and the TDC 332 32-bit computer.

A Review and Monitoring Committee for the entire programme was also set up. It was chaired by Prof. R. Narasimhan, the doyen of our computer community who had developed the nation’s first digital computer while heading the large computer group at TIFR called TIFRAC as far back as 1958. The Members of the Committee were Dr N. Seshagiri, formerly Prof. Narasimhan’s deputy at TIFR but who had just been appointed by M.G.K. Menon as Director (Planning) in the DoE; Col. N. Balasubramaniam, head of the computer programme of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); and Prof. B. Nag, head of the computer programme at Jadavpur University. Field-proven TDC 316 computers were to be available by 1976 and equivalent TDC 332 machines by 1980. ECIL met both those deadlines.

The Rs.10-crore fund was also meant to build a 300-person core of computer scientists, engineers, technicians and marketing managers at ECIL.

Maintenance challenge

The next milestone event in our computer saga occurred in 1978. It was in that year that IBM, which had been operating in the country since 1956, supplying electric typewriters, unit record machines and the totally obsolete 1401 series of second-generation computers through a 100 per cent foreign-owned branch, decided to exit the country as it could not comply with the provisions of the Foreign Exchange Regulations Act of 1973, wherein it had to convert its branch into a subsidiary incorporated in India and, since the overwhelming bulk of its activities consisted of trading, to reduce its foreign equity to 40 per cent.

This meant that, suddenly, we had to take on the hardware and software maintenance and servicing of some 1,000 systems and equipment distributed all over the country. This was a massive challenge the country never had to face before.

This challenge was met by the EC and the DoE by setting up a new public sector company under the DoE, called Computer Maintenance Corporation (CMC). Dr P.P. Gupta, a fine computer engineer who had done a wonderful job as the marketing director of the British company, International Computers India Ltd (ICIL), was inducted as the managing director of CMC, with Prof. Narasimhan as the part-time Chairman. Again, Seshagiri, Balasubramaniam and Nag were inducted as part-time directors. As in the case of the EC, I was made a Special Invitee to all CMC board meetings.

Under the leadership of the Gupta-Narasimhan duo, several managers and engineers who were in the employ of the erstwhile IBM and ICL joined CMC. The spares bank of IBM was also bought over by CMC. New contracts were entered into by CMC with all the 520 users of IBM computers. As a result, by early 1980, the transition from the IBM-ICL duo to a wholly nationally run programme was complete. The maintenance of ECIL’s TDC 316 and 332 and all IBM machines was done by CMC.

With its original/primary objective accomplished, CMC moved into the area of offering customers completely new, state-of-the-art computer systems. The country continued to have a severe foreign exchange shortage. So, the EC decided that the IBM-compatible RIYAD series of computers be imported from the USSR as they were available for rupee payment.

The problem with these computers was that while their central processing units (CPUs) were excellent and fully comparable to their Western counterparts, the peripheral units such as visual display units (VDUs), high-speed line printers and magnetic disc drives were inferior. What CMC did was a beautiful jugaad. It purchased only the CPUs of the best Russian computers of the RIYAD series and coupled them with Western peripherals. This integrated system was called the INTEGRA series of computers.

Launch of Integra

Using its superb software workforce, CMC then developed a whole range of modern software packages, covering business applications, S&T applications, and real-time/online applications. After extensive testing, the first INTEGRA computer system was commissioned at CMC’s R&D centre in Hyderabad in mid 1981. Satisfied that it had a viable and cost effective system, CMC started offering INTEGRAs to customers from the end of 1981.

The computer user market responded enthusiastically to CMC’s launch of INTEGRA as CMC demonstrated that INTEGRA was capable of providing versatile computers equivalent to IBM mid-range machines with a wide range of excellent software and backed up by CMC’s by now proven support maintenance services, including extensive customer training, all at a price 20-30 per cent less than Western machines. Soon, orders for INTEGRA started pouring in. By end 1982 some 65 INTEGRAs were in operations with business, scientific and real-time users, who were very happy.

By early 1983, CMC had also been able to export INTEGRAs to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia and Brazil, making huge profits and earning substantial foreign exchange.

CMC next moved to online real-time systems. Working closely with the Railways, it designed and developed a state-of-the-art passenger reservation system (PRS) for the Railways. As it was wholly domestically designed, it was easily able to cater to all the distinctively Indian needs of the Railways. The design and development effort by a 40-person strong CMC-Railways team was launched in September 1981 and completed in 18 months at a cost of Rs.30 crore, which was equally shared by the Railways and the DoE. In April 1983, a full-fledged PRS for the northern zone of the Railways was ready. After some teething troubles, it began to function well after three months of real-life online testing by the Railways.

Meanwhile, Tata Burroughs, a 50:50 venture between the Tatas and Burroughs Corporation of the United States, formally put in an offer to K.V. Raghavan, the Railway Board Chairman, offering to set up a PRS across all seven zones of the Railways for just $1.

Raghavan sent for the Managing Director and asked him to make a detailed technical presentation of his company’s PRS to the joint Railways-CMC team. When the presentation was made, the CMC-Railways team tore it apart. Raghavan then asked Tata Burroughs to make a proper commercial offer. The so-called competing offer from Tata Burroughs came to Rs.120 crore.

Electronic voting machines

The next example I would like to cite is the microprocessor-based electronic voting machine (CEVM). This innovative equipment was first designed and developed by ECIL to the specifications laid down by the Election Commission of India. At the time this was done, there was no CEVM anywhere in the world. ECIL launched its design and development effort for CEVMs in early 1981. By end 1982 it had a full prototype CEVM working. After six months of rigorous in-house testing, the CEVM was cleared by ECIL and offered to the Election Commission for testing and evaluation. After three months of rigorous testing, the Commission cleared ECIL’s CEVM for bulk production and supply to it. The Commission also placed its first bulk order of 5,000 CEVMs meant for 5,000 Lok Sabha polling booths.

While ECIL was working on the CEVM order, BEL, learning from the Election Commission that its annual requirement of CEVMs would be around 50,000, entered this product area.

For this, BEL took the Election Commission-cleared CEVM technology and started production. From 1982 to 1992, ECIL and BEL supplied a million CEVMs to the Election Commission. They also exported around two lakh CEVMs to other Commonwealth countries, earning accolades and foreign exchange for the country.

In a recent interview of Sundar Pichai, the Indian-born CEO of Google, Prannoy Roy, chairman of NDTV, erroneously attributed the design and development of the CEVMs to “an IITian”. No single or group of IITians, however brilliant they may have been, could have developed the highly complex and sophisticated CEVM of ECIL-BEL.

Data handling for defence

I would like to conclude this article with five more instances.

The first was the highly rugged TDC 316 computer-based systems designed, developed, engineered, manufactured and supplied by ECIL to meet the data handling needs of the air defence systems stretching from Leh in Ladakh down to Pune. Such systems were totally embargoed to India by the U.S. and other NATO countries and the Russian systems were not up to the mark.

The second was the fact that by 1980, almost 1,000 small, medium and large companies were active in the area of advanced computer hardware and software. These included the Kerala and Uttar Pradesh State electronics development corporations of Keltron and Uptron. This was happening a full decade before the emergence and growth to maturity of Infosys, Wipro and TCS. So it was not Finance Minister Manmohan Singh who “discovered” our international competitive advantage in software. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had done it two decades earlier.

Freight system

The third relates to the super-large computer-based system for managing the largest revenue-earning element of the Railways, namely freight.

By early 1984, it became clear not only to the Railways but also to the Planning Commission, the Finance Ministry and Indira ji’s office that the Railways, the fourth largest railway system in the world, could not move towards the 21st century unless its huge capital assets—400,000 wagons, 11,000 locomotives and an equal number of trains operating daily—were managed by a large, fully integrated computer- and telecommunications-linked real-time system to manage freight.

This was called the freight operating information system, or FOIS. It was a completely real–time, online system. It was estimated by a high-level Railways-DoE-Planning Commission team that such a system would involve a total investment of around Rs.5,000 crore at 1984 prices. It was, therefore, decided that a team of senior officers from the Railways, the DoE and CMC led by me should go to Washington, D.C., to try and secure a soft line of credit for the purpose from the World Bank.

The negotiation with the bank involved an equally high-level team led by David Hopper, one of the two senior vice presidents of the Bank. I had known David since 1975 when he was CEO of the International Development Research Centre, the Canadian international S&T aid agency.

I opened the meeting by giving a presentation on the kind of FOIS the Government of India visualised. Our preliminary estimate of the cost of the system was Rs.5,000 crore. David responded by saying that the bank agreed with the Government of India that such an FOIS was urgently needed by the Indian Railways. He then went on to say that the bank felt that the Indian FOIS should be patterned on the FOIS set up on the U.S. Southern Pacific Railway system. The system had been set up for Southern Pacific by IBM on a turnkey basis as far back as 1968.

He went on to say that he had spoken on the matter to “his good friend” Robert Morely, Chairman and CEO of IBM, and that the latter had indicated that IBM would be “very happy”, in principle, to undertake such a project for the Indian Railways. David concluded that the World Bank was of the same view and would be willing to provide $200,000 as a grant to the Government of India to cover IBM’s cost of preparing a feasibility report for the FOIS jointly with the Indian Railways.

Instead of responding myself to David’s proposal, I asked the representative of the Railways on our delegation, the Member (Traffic) of the Railway Board, to do so. That Member, Navin Singhal, at the time, gave a detailed response. To begin with, he pointed out that the Indian Railways was a very large system, the fourth largest in the world, while Southern Pacific was only the 12th largest. Secondly, the Indian Railways was organised in the form of seven zones, the largest of which, Northern Railways, was itself equal in size to Southern Pacific.

Thirdly, Southern Pacific and all other railways in the U.S. and Canada used the general telecommunication network of the county concerned. However in India’s case, the Railways themselves as also the DoE and the Planning Commission had already decided that the telecom system to support the computer segment would be a dedicated system called RailNet.

Fourthly, as India had its own domestic earth satellite, called INSAT, all the agencies, including the Department of Space, had decided that the telecom segment of our FOIS would be INSAT. Such a satellite-based telecom segment had several technical, operational and economic advantages over the land-based Microwave Radio Relay System of Southern Pacific. Fifthly, the Southern Pacific FOIS was based on the 25-year-old machine language based software, whereas we had decided that we should go in for the current fifth generation software, which was far more efficient, effective and fast. Both the DOE and the Planning Commission representatives fully agreed with what Singhal had laid out so neatly.

I then came in and said in summary: “David, what we need from the World Bank is only funding.” David replied that bank funding was centrally coupled to the technology to be used and so it would be difficult for him to agree to our approach.

The meeting ended on that decisive note.

Designing the FOIS

When we returned to Delhi at the end of February 1984, the delegation prepared a detailed 30-page report on our discussions with the World Bank. For my part, I prepared a five-page Executive Summary (ES) of the report for Indira ji and sent it to her. After giving her two days to read the ES, I went to her and briefed her orally in detail. When I met her she said: “Ashok, as usual you have done the correct thing.” She then asked me what the next step should be. I told her that what was needed was her approval of the team’s approach to designing and setting up our own FOIS on the basis of the team’s final recommendation. She promptly took up her famous green pen and recorded her decision accordingly. She then marked copies to the Finance, Planning and Railway Ministers, with the remark: “All necessary funds including the full amount of free foreign exchange needed should be provided throughout the duration of the FOIS project.” The meeting ended with that characteristic remark of hers which I had heard so often: “Ashok, keep me continuously informed of the progress of FOIS.” But she then said something I knew, but which I had not quite expected: “FOIS is not only a crucial development project of our Railways. It has major national security implications. So, involvement of foreigners and foreign organisations must be kept to the absolute minimum.”

When I met R.N. Kao, the conceiver and builder of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), our external security agency, and Chief Security Adviser to the Government of India, a few days later to brief him on FOIS, he said: “As usual, Ashok, you have hit the bull’s eye.” I then went to the Railway Minister, Madhavrao Scindia, to brief him. He was fully in support of what DoE and Railways were doing.

He then said: “Ashok, the needs of the Railways for computer and telecommunication system are vast. PRS and FOIS are only starters. So, I want to set up a Centre for Railway Information System, or CRIS, to act as the nodal agency for all electronics-based systems in the Railways. I want to give more autonomy than even C-DOT [Centre for Development of Telematics] has. While I will chair its governing body, I would like you to be the Vice Chairman.” I thanked him and readily agreed. For my part, I suggested that Madhavrao appoint N.C. Gupta, the senior railway engineer-cum-manager of hi-tech railway projects like PRS, as the Executive Director of CRIS. Madhavrao, who knew Gupta well, immediately agreed.

Setting up CRIS

It was thus that as early as September 1984, CRIS had been set up and had become operational after inducting some 100 IT engineers from the Railways and another 100 from CMC and ECIL.

The first task Gupta took up was to get a detailed feasibility report on FOIS prepared with as detailed a costing and time framing as was possible at the time. The project cost came to Rs.4,820 crore and the timetable for project completion was eight years, all taking the approach of self-reliance. We cannot undress in public, as Kao said to me, i.e., allow foreigners to be involved in CRIS.

The first meeting of the board of governors of CRIS was called in the first week of October to consider the detailed feasibility report (DFR) for approval. The board also included the Member (Traffic) and Finance Member of the Railway Board and the Director of the Indian Satellite Centre (ISAC) from the Department of Space. The board unanimously approved the report as proposed and released Rs.500 crore to CRIS for the first year (1984-85) for FOIS.

I went to Indira ji on October 10 and reported the development to her and she was delighted.

I then did an unusual thing: I went to Kao and requested him to screen all the personnel in CRIS from the security angle. Kao got this done post-haste. As a result of such screening three employees were sacked.

According to the DFR, the architecture of FOIS was to be as follows:

A massive supercomputer, the IBM 3800, was to be at the apex of the hierarchy and located at CRIS in Delhi; ECIL’s TDC 332 high-end mainframe computers were to be located at the headquarters of each of the seven zonal Railways. A number of TDC 316 systems were to be located at the giant marshalling yard at Mughal Sarai, the largest yard not only in the country but in the whole of Asia and Europe. The TDC 316s were also to be located at all the six Railway workshops; co-located with the computers were to be satellite communication terminals connected to INSAT. Slowly but surely, FOIS came into being. The Department of Space gave us excellent support.

CRIS then put out a global tender for the main supercomputer at Delhi. Bids were received from IBM, the Japanese giant Fujitsu and the largest computer maker in France. A high-level techno-commercial bid evaluation committee was set up by CRIS to evaluate the bids. The committee was chaired by Prof. Narasimhan of the TIFR. Dr Seshagiri, Director General of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), P.C. Balasubramaniam of the DRDO, and Prof. Nag of Jadavpur University were the members.

An important aspect of the tender was that it required the bids to contain a specific section, indicating if, on selection, the concerned bidder would be able to secure a valid export licence from the government of its country. Since this was a multimillion dollar procurement, all the three bidders put in excellent bids.

After several rounds of negotiations, the IBM offer was selected. But the other two were kept in the race to put pressure on IBM. After six months of negotiations, the IBM offer was selected. A Letter of Intent (LoI) was placed on IBM with the specific condition that the LoI would be converted into a firm order only if IBM submitted a copy of the export licence that they had been denied. It was, therefore, decided by Scindia that I and N.C. Gupta should go to Washington and lobby the U.S. Department of Commerce along with our embassy in the U.S. to get the licence. We stayed in Washington for three weeks doing little else. Finally, on October 16, 1984, the licence was issued.

IBM’s top management was sent for and each and every clause of the supply contract with CRIS was minutely scrutinised and cleared.

The contract provided for large amounts of two types of training:

(a) To 15 of CMC’s best hardware and software specialists so that they were fully in a position to maintain and service the computer; and

(b) To 30 CRIS software scientists and engineers to be able to fully operate and use the monster.

IBM was also required to maintain at its cost a large and comprehensive spares bank at CRIS.

With all these and many other provisions incorporated in it, the contract was finally and formally signed on October 24, 1984.

I went to Indira ji that very day to give her the news. She was delighted and again said: “Ashok, I knew you would do it.” That was the last time I saw her alive as she was tragically assassinated on October 31, 1984.

Development work

FOIS engineers then got down to their design and development work on the various segments of FOIS.

Madhavrao then set up a Review Monitoring and Promotion Committee under my Chairmanship with Narasimhan, Balasubramaniam, Seshagiri and Nag as Members and N.C. Gupta as Member Secretary. The strategy adopted by the FOIS team was to have three sets of design and development teams.

The first would work on a dedicated basis on the apex node of the total FOIS, the IBM 3800, in Delhi. The second team would work on the TDC 332 systems at the Railways’ zonal headquarters, with work on two such systems to run simultaneously. The third would work on the TDC 316 systems at the Railways’ workshops and marshalling yards.

To meet the 1994 deadline for operationalising the total FOIS, monitoring committees were set up at each level. The zonal systems were to be cut in one by one and then connected to the apex IBM machine and thoroughly tested. Likewise with the TDC 332s at the zonal headquarters and the TDC 316s at the marshalling yards and workshops.

Following Indira ji’s direction to all the Ministers that funds should be provided exactly when they were required, finance was not a problem. As work progressed, one milestone after the other was satisfactorily crossed on time. Meanwhile, a Department of Space-ECIL team was setting up the satellite communication earth stations, with work progressing smoothly.

Soon after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister on January 1, 1985, the board of governors of CRIS gave him a detailed presentation. Despite being a computer buff, Rajiv was incredulous and overawed by FOIS. Addressing the FOIS family, ECIL and the Department of Space scientists and engineers on February 10, 1985, he praised their work and assured one and all that his government would support FOIS as strongly and as his mother’s government had. Between 1985 and his tragic assassination in 1991, Rajiv made an annual visit to CRIS to update himself on the status of FOIS.

As the deadline of June 30, 1994, for end-to-end completion of FOIS approached, work became more and more frenetic. Numerous problems and roadblocks were overcome through fiery dedication and superb competence.

Then came the D-Day: June 30, 1994. Much was planned for that. But I was deeply moved when a few days before D-Day, N.C. Gupta came to me and said that it was the desire of the entire FOIS family that I should throw a switch at FOIS headquarters and energise the entire massive system. I agreed to do so but with one condition: that the button would be pressed by me and the youngest female member of the FOIS design and development team and that is what happened. The entire massive “system of systems” came alive and worked perfectly end to end.

What is the epilogue? On November 19, 1994, Indira ji’s birth anniversary, the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, dedicated FOIS to the nation. He complimented the FOIS team for not only having met all technical and customer (Railways) goals but the overall cost and time goals as well. But there is a footnote to that epilogue. In later years, CRIS set up similar but smaller FOIS systems on the Indonesian, South Korean, Thai, Brazilian and Argentine railways.


The fourth major example relates to the vast and highly skilled organisation that Dr N. Seshagiri conceived, designed, developed and nurtured to maturity over the 1975-1985 period—the National Informatics Centre (NIC).

Launched as the result of a major initiative taken by Indira Gandhi and M.G.K. Menon in 1975, the NIC was set up to provide advanced computing services to the whole of the Government of India to begin with and then to the State governments. The NIC provided a plethora of software packages and computer services to all government departments from its inception in 1975; by 2015 it had trained around 10,000 government officials to use computers to steeply increase their productivity and comprehensively meet their computational needs.

The NIC not only is the largest and most comprehensive organisation of its kind anywhere in the developing world but is in the same class as equivalent organisations in much of western Europe.

The next example I would like to give is an instance which is at the other end of the scale in terms of apparent simplicity, but was huge in terms of its societal impact. This was the design and development by CMC of the small, simple computers needed for imparting computer education in schools. These systems, designed and developed by CMC and produced by external vendors, were used in a massive, nationwide 10,000-school programme called CLASS, or Computer Learning and Studies in Schools. This programme was a great success, even Unesco did a highly positive case study on it.

Software exports

Another example I would like to cite is the software export programme. It was launched by the EC and the DoE as far back as 1974. Although “marketers” had roundly criticised the supposedly “inward looking”, regulatory and restrictive policies of the EC and the DoE, the 100 per cent software export programme contained a number of liberal provisions such as permitting 100 per cent foreign equity for 100 per cent exports and ultra soft loans to entrepreneurs coming into the programme. As a result, by 1990 we were exporting $10 billion gross ($8 billion net) worth of computer and video software a year.

A criticism of the EC-DoE policy and programmes has been that the drive for self-reliance had been at the cost of rapid growth of the industry. (A key objective, desired and laid down not only by the EC but also in the Government Resolution of February 1971, in setting up the EC and the DOE, was to achieve self-reliance in the strategic electronics industry “in the shortest possible time”.)

That this criticism was totally erroneous was borne out by the facts contained in the annual reports of the DoE during the 1970s, when the industry grew steadily at an average annual compounded growth rate of 25 per cent—from Rs.3,000 crore in 1970-77 to Rs.10,000 crore in 1979-80, and from Rs.12,000 crore in 1981-92 to Rs.30,000 crore in 1989-90. In the 1980s it grew at a rate of 35 per cent.

This compares very well with the growth rates of the so-called “outward looking” economies of the “East Asian Tigers” such as Taiwan and South Korea.

What is more, the growth’s coverage was broad-based and comprehensive—from CLASS computers for schools to complete electronics systems for core sector industries of power, oil, telecommunications and defence.

This led to the technological level of our electronics industry being much higher than the level of the Taiwanese and South Korean industries.

IT in power sector

The final area in which IT was applied with great effectiveness was the power sector. The main application area was load despatch centres (LDCs), which manage the flow of power in defined geographical areas. The total national power system consisted of a national LDC at Delhi and regional LDCs in Delhi, Vadodara, Bengaluru and Kolkata.

“Below” these four regional LDCs in the overall hierarchy were State LDCs. Each of these had a powerful computer system and telecommunication links connecting each regional LDC “upwards” in the overall system hierarchy to the national LDC and “downwards” to the State LDCs. As this whole system was “electronics intensive”, the DoE was deeply involved in its design, engineering, construction and operationalisation. A Joint Committee, comprising me from the DoE and the Member (Power Systems) from the Central Electricity Authority, was set up to plan, coordinate, promote and oversee the realisation of the whole networked system.

The setting up of these LDCs was largely financed by loans from the World Bank. When I got involved in the programme in late 1981, global tenders had already been floated by the Ministry of Power for the Northern and Western RLDCs. In parallel, and with no coordination with the Ministry of Power at the Centre, the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB) had also floated a similar global tender for the procurement of computer and telecommunications systems for its State LDC.

As may be expected, the Techno-Economic Committee set up jointly by the Ministry of Power and the DoE to evaluate the bids received against those global tenders chose different suppliers. The Western RLDC Committee chose the system offered by the Swiss firm Brown Boveri, while the Maharashtra SLDC Committee chose a system offered by the German firm Siemens.

The consequence of such uncoordinated procurement was that the Brown Boveri offer was based on the VAX780 computers made by the U.S. firm Digital Equipment Corporation, while the Siemens offer was based on Siemens’ own proprietary R-30 computers.

What were the implications of this? The Western RLDC could not “talk” to the Maharashtra State LDC.

A confused and worried Power Ministry requested the DoE to sort out the matter. So I called a large meeting of the Member (Power Systems), his senior staff, executives of both Siemens and Brown Boveri, and the Chairman and Managing Director of ECIL and the head of ECIL’s computer division.

The problem to be solved was self-evident but complex. We needed the hardware and software combination of a “matching transformer”. At the meeting, the head of ECIL’s computer division made a presentation of how they would go about developing and producing such a “firmware” unit. ECIL indicated that it needed external funding of Rs.1 crore to undertake the task. I promptly said that the DOE would provide such funding.

The ECIL team indicated that they would need nine months to complete the task. But to do so, ECIL needed complete details of the system software of the Siemens and Digital Equipment Corporation computers. Initially, both companies flatly refused to provide such proprietary software. Thereupon the Power Ministry representative said that, in that case, the tender would be cancelled. Faced with joint pressure, the companies caved in and agreed to provide ECIL with their software.

A team of 10 engineers was set up in ECIL to undertake this hi-tech project. As promised, ECIL offered its elaborately factory tested and cleared complex firmware unit in nine months. The unit was integrated into the Western RLDC-MSEB Network and the power was switched on. The unit performed perfectly on the first attempt.

The Member (Power Systems) CEA and the Secretary, Ministry of Power, were delighted. The Ministry of Power immediately placed an order on ECIL for 30 such firmware units at just Rs.80 lakh a piece. These would be used in other places in the overall national load despatch system, where such mismatched computers abound. ECIL patented the special firmware unit worldwide.

In conclusion, it was not in the early 1990s that we launched ourselves on the road to become an IT superpower. That was done as far back as 1972, by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her Principal Secretary, P.N. Haksar and Prof. M.G.K. Menon, the first Chairman, Electronics Commission, and Secretary, DoE.

Ashok Parthasarathi was Science and Technology Adviser to Indira Gandhi and later Secretary, Electronics, Government of India.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor