Binit Agrawal speaks with Dr. Sam Pitroda in an exclusive interview for LSPR
Universally hailed as the Father of the Indian IT Revolution, Dr. Sam Pitroda is an eminent technocrat, a doyen in the field of telecommunications, and former advisor to the Prime Minister of India. To this day, he continues to serve on the boards of the International Telecommunications Union, the World Wide Web Foundation, the UN Broadband Commission, the Global Knowledge Initiative, et al.
In this exclusive interview, LSPR asked Dr. Pitroda a wide range of questions on various themes like policymaking, politics, technology, and life in the 21st century.
LSPR – Dr. Pitroda, you have played a very important role in changing India and were a key personality in the introduction and success of the tech revolution. If you are put in a similar policy-making role today, what policy would you introduce to bring about a successful and sustainable fourth revolution in India?
Dr. Pitroda – I would essentially focus on one and only one issue: jobs. We have not been creating enough jobs and have been solely relying on the western model of job creation. Whenever a discussion about job creation begins, immediately everybody talks about services, software, AI and IT. That’s not where jobs are going to be created. Jobs of tomorrow, for a majority of Indians, will be created in three specific sectors: Agriculture, Housing and Infrastructure.
Starting with Agriculture, it’s important to note that we have a long way to go with feeding all our countrymen with the right kind of nutrition and right kind of calories. So food and agriculture pose a grand challenge to India. A policy meant to address this area must aid in the efficient production of the right kind of food, it’s distribution, delivery and storage. A significant business potential exists in the food industry when you need to feed 1.5 billion people. I see reports that say ‘India has a huge potential for the software industry as a majority of its population is yet to come online’. Well, the majority of its population is yet to be fed nutritiously and an even bigger potential exists there. But this cannot be left to poor farmers with say, one or two acres of land. We need massive innovation in the agricultural sector and no one is really paying the kind of attention needed.
I’ll tell you what the problem is: agriculture is not alluring. It’s not glamorous enough. Whenever there is a discussion on jobs, everyone jumps to AI and Robotics. These TV and social media debates are nothing more than an opinionated ignorant group of people talking about nothing of significance. Agricultural innovation, one must understand, will not just create stable jobs but also empower and strengthen our citizenry. For this, we need to bring together domain experts in agriculture, in technology, and in indigenous studies. We need to take biotechnology, nanotechnology to the poorest of the farmers, and then, we will be looking at agriculture in a new light. Because it’s not about producing so many quantities of grain, which the present agricultural policy focuses on, it’s also about what kind of grains and nutrition you are producing. On one hand, we are producing huge amounts of food, on the other, we have two hundred million people hungry, four hundred million farmers penniless and more than a billion people without adequate nutrition. Malnourishment is extremely high in India, even for people who are getting to eat enough food. So, when they say we have brought down poverty by a certain percentage, it’s a sham. Rice and potato alone are not enough to feed you. So, the conclusion is that we need to start looking at agriculture not as a burden but as a creator of jobs. We must also wed it to technology.
The other major sector is that of housing. It is an undeniable fact that more than a billion Indians do not have access to all weather homes. It’s high time we provide housing to our citizens. Actually, many governments have been trying to do this. But they have been failing and this owes to the lack of innovation in creating practical housing architecture and technology. We have been aping the western apartment model to provide housing for poor, which is not only costly but is also not very useful to most Indians. So, we need homes- affordable homes, which meet Indian conditions, are technologically advanced and are useful. Imagine the job potential in construction of these houses, in R&D for new technologies, in manufacturing and deployment of those technologies. Imagine the real wealth creation when people do not need to waste their money and time in securing a place to sleep every night.
Finally, there are jobs to be created in the infrastructure sector. Railways, roads, ports and so on. So, there are countless avenues where we need a lot of people. Job displacement due to AI is the last thing on my mind.
LSPR – You, as an Indian-American, have been a beneficiary of a liberal order which is under considerable strain these days. Many say that one of the key reasons behind this is the rising income inequality and huge displacement of jobs across the western world. Do you think that the march of technology and internet is to be blamed, as many analysts remark, for this?
Dr. Pitroda – No, I don’t think so. The rise of populism is a very complex issue and requires a deep understanding of democracy, freedom, and the design that we created after the second world war. This design was rooted in democracy, human rights, capitalism, consumption and proxy wars, coupled with a democratization of information. But today we are at a point where the world order essentially needs to be redesigned. The former design may or may not have served us well. However, the fact remains that it doesn’t work anymore. The populist movement is a knee-jerk reaction to this fact.
Going forward we must have strong democracy because that’s where human aspirations come alive. We must have freedom, because that’s where human energy gets directed. A restructuring of politics is needed. In most countries, the say of the majority is not getting translated into who actually governs them. We certainly need a new kind of economics, which is not focused on capitalism. Capitalism, and not technology, has created inequality, exclusion, concentration of wealth. What we need now is not the economics of scarcity, on which capitalism is based, but an economics which deals with problems of surplus and distribution. We have enough but are not distributing it well. So, I would say populism is a short lived reaction and technology will only aid in it’s going away.
LSPR – In continuation of what you said, sir, what systemic changes do you think should be brought to the present global order, to make it serve the people?
Dr. Pitroda – One of the great problems with mankind is that those in power are unwilling to bring about change. If you take the case of India, Rajiv Gandhi tried to start liberalization. But it was not easy for him, as most people were completely against it. He, therefore, planted the seeds of liberalization in non-traditional sectors like telecom and software. That is where I personally pitched in. Finally, Manmohan Singh helped liberalization flourish in 1991. But that was a moment of crisis, which necessitated the change. Similarly, today’s global order is facing a crisis, which will only exacerbate. The new design which should replace this, I would say, should be modelled on the ideas and principles of Trusteeship, first proposed by Mahatma Gandhi. In today’s world, privatization, coupled with the capitalist mindset, has created an environment where very few people in each country control wealth and power. Whether it be India, US, China, Turkey or Europe. When you have a handful of people controlling large sums of wealth, then vested interests take over and policies get deflected.
In the present system, capital as against labour has again become the prime source of income, just like in the medieval era. So, we need a new model of corporate structure, based on trusteeship: a model in which everyone has a share of the capital. And this can be done by making employees shareholders of the companies, and not just a handful of them, but all of them. This will also incentivize the workers to give in their best and will effectively redistribute wealth. Undoubtedly, those holding wealth will loathe such a change, but with discussion and debate, support for such a system can, in fact, be garnered.
LSPR – Sir, just like your model, another alternate model that is being intensely debated these days is that of Universal Basic Income. Many say it will be the primary support system for the people, in light of rise of Artificial Intelligence and reduction in jobs. What are your views on these arguments of joblessness?
Dr. Pitroda – You know, you could have asked me the same question a hundred years ago when the sewing machine was introduced. We could have had this very debate when the automatic telephone machine was invented, or when computers were introduced. So, I think it is the nature of this conversation, which frightens the people. And every time the proponents claim, “This time it is different”. They undermine human ingenuity. I can’t sit back doing nothing, whether you give me basic income or a billion dollars. Humans will continue to do things and earn an income. However, ideas of what a job looks like is bound to change. At a point in time it looked like a hard day’s labour in the farm, today, it looks more like fifty hours in a cubicle. These concepts of jobs will change. People will be working from home, for shorter durations, use multidisciplinary approaches, etc. This is how jobs will look in the future.
LSPR – Coming to politics, sir, as the person who brought the Telecom Revolution to India, what are your views on the many corruption scandals which have been rocking the telecom sector since its very early days?
Dr. Pitroda – Not true. There are many ways to skin the cat. You may decide to auction the spectrum or give the spectrum for free and find other ways to compensate. Maybe there were some favours made, but overall these accusations of lakhs of crores being embezzled by those in power are all bogus. In India, without understanding anything, people become experts. People become experts in auctioning, in the science of spectrum and non-domain experts take charge of things. The simple fact was, the telecom sector had to grow and be made more competitive. Auctioning would have made many smaller companies drop out of the race and would have costed the end consumer dearly. So a policy of selling was undertaken.
Instead of looking at the process and the past, one must look at the result. Today, India has one of the largest telecom user bases, connectivity is affordable and easily available. We have moved away from those days when it took years to get a telephone connection. Then why are we debating this at all? In the US we call such people ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacks’: you could have either played the game or skipped it, there’s no point coming back criticizing how the game was played. We should not dissect the past, instead, we should be dissecting the future.
LSPR – Talking about the future, sir, in the coming elections, how do you think the Congress Party should best communicate the message of being the real growth (vikaas) party to both natives and NRIs?
Dr. Pitroda – The Indian National Congress has always stood for freedom, democracy, diversity, inclusion, growth and economy. If you look at India’s history, it was the ideals of the Congress party which have allowed India to hold together as a nation. If not for Congress, there wouldn’t have been one unified India today. So, the party has always supported unity and has been futuristic. What has changed, however, is what people are demanding. Today, we are in an era of instant gratification. But we must remember that Rome was not built overnight.
In the case of India, we have a complex nation and the kind of talents and ideas needed to run it are there only in the Congress party. Many others will come and will fool people with bogus promises of instant change. But when given the power to do so, they replace agendas of growth with the agenda of endless debates: debates on the past, on religion, on personalities and even on factual statistics. However, running a country is not about converting it into a debating society. It’s not about lying to people and giving jumlas. It’s not about creating fear and distrust. It’s not about taking unscientific unilateral decisions. When I look at the conditions today, whether it is truth v. lies, freedom v. fear, trust v. mistrust, inclusion v. majoritarianism or love v. hate, the choices are clear. And people will have to make their choices. There are no discussions, or bots, or PR agencies, or analytic rooms needed to communicate these messages. These are the very fundamentals of the Congress party and that is why I am a Congressman. I have believed in moving forward and not digging up the past. What is the point in criticizing Mughals or Nehru, or Gandhi, today?
LSPR – Sir, you have been associated with the Congress party since the days of Rajivji, and continue to play an important role in the party today. Why do you think the party has failed to capture the imagination of the youth?
Dr. Pitroda – Actually, I have been a Congressman since the day I was born. There were five big pictures donning the entrance to our house. These were the pictures of Gandhiji, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and Netaji Bose. So, I was bred in the culture of these freedom fighters, and hence, found Congress to be the party where I naturally belonged. So, when I had an opportunity to work with Rajiv Gandhi and translate some of my visions into action, it was in consonance with the party’s ideas of openness, inclusion and progress. These ideas are the fundamentals of telecom and information. And telecom is fundamental to these ideas. Telecom is not an antithesis to freedom, it’s a thesis to it. That is why I made telecom and technology my instrument to empower the citizenry and the youth.
But in recent times, I think, our youth has been misled. They have been made to believe in instant gratification and in a model of growth which comes at the cost of freedom, unity and democracy. They are somehow connected more to Bollywood, Cricket and Gossip. They instead need to be connected to the fundamentals of Gandhian Philosophy, of honesty, of hard work and of the meaning and importance of living a life without fear. How many students today read Gandhian economics, carefully deliberated in a real-world model and practice. How many read Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’? It was written in Jail without any access to resources. Do you think today’s leaders can even write four paragraphs? To write basic books they hire entire agencies, a battery of editors, researchers and helpers. And these people criticize Nehru and Gandhi. But today’s leaders and youth are very comfortable doing this. This is because most of them are hollow, not well-read, and extremely opinionated. They have been made to believe that opinions, even ill-informed ones, are important. No one sitting in their air-conditioned offices can do what people like Gandhi and Nehru did for India. They sacrificed their whole lives for the nation.
I would say that today’s youth is disenchanted with the Congress because they are expecting things on a silver platter. That is not possible. Good things take time and energy. No party can instantly make your life better. However, there are parties who are using these sentiments to their benefit, whether it be with promises like depositing 15 lakhs, rooting out corruption in 50 days by using knee-jerk decisions like demonetization, or by coining meaningless slogans. And we are seeing the results are only negative at best. Our youth instead needs to be taught the values of hard work. I am the son of a carpenter and no one gave me any reservation, quota or anything else. I believed in education and there are millions like me, who continue to do so, and they are the Congress’ constituency. Our youth must become more thankful to the country. Many go to IITs, IIMs and many other institutions and get a virtually free education. You know somebody asked me, you have given so much to India, what has your country done for you? I said, “I got my Masters in Physics for 10 Dollars”. No other country gives that to its people. So, I think we need a culture of education and of scientific rationality to be embedded in our youth.
LSPR – What has Dr. Pitroda got to say on life as we lead it today, courtesy the success of his tech revolution?
Dr. Pitroda – It is true that the tech revolution has overall helped India advance. However, its one drawback is that people have based their entire lives on technology as against using technology to better their lives. Tech is about soundbites, instant visuals, one-liners and photo ops. It is merely a show, as many would say. But that is not how life is. Life needs to make sense at the end of the day, it cannot be all show and debate. So, if I were to reflect on my journey and advise today’s youngsters, I would say have a strong character, be truthful and fearless.
LSPR – As a final question, sir, if asked for a suggestion on what should one read, what would Dr. Pitroda recommend?
Dr. Pitroda – [Laughs] Pitroda doesn’t read much these days, age has taken its toll you see. These days he writes, cooks for his grandkids, and paints. On a daily basis, however, I continue to follow The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. But if I were to recommend books, I would suggest that everyone read books on Gandhian Philosophy and Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’.
LSPR would recommend its followers to read ‘Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India’, Dr. Pitroda’s autobiography.
Image Source: sampitroda.com