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Sam Pitroda - Game Changer?
By K. A. Ravi

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Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda, better known as Dr Sam Pitroda is widely regarded as the harbinger of the IT revolution as well as the "mission-mode approach" in Government of India ministries. Oh - and of course - also as one of the most abrasive of power-wielders in governmental lore - though he has had stiff competition on that!

Twenty five years ago Sam was one of the "chosen few" of Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, entrusted with the task of beating the Indian bureaucracy's deadening inertia and propelling the country towards a proud destiny. Sam Pitroda did this in substance and style - most visible in his 'yellow revolution' of ubiquitous yellow STD booths.

His much vaunted Technology Missions however did not all succeed - and some of them ending up in the giant governmental garbage bin - called variously as - committees, plans, proposals, files etc. Sam disappeared…so to say.

The polity saw Sam again in the UPA's first reign - as chairman of the ambitiously named Knowledge Commission - which ended in some sort of a scramble amongst the commission members for media access and then - for the nearest exit. No one is sure exactly what this mighty commission has accomplished…

Cut to the very present. Sam Pitroda the IT lion roars again! In the last couple of fortnights Sam Pitroda has really hit the headlines speaking out on a number of visionary objectives related to ICT and Development (Mischievous gossip has it that this was provoked by the limelight reception accorded to Nandan Nilekani -of Infosys fame).

Here we saw vintage Pitroda:

Education to the masses, not to ourselves
Aug 21: " Lamenting that teachers and institutions were not prepared to handle changes in the education system, former National Knowledge Commission Chairman Sam Pitroda today advocated the need for taking education to masses through Internet.

He said free accessibility of maximum course material on the Internet is the need of the hour. Addressing a symposium on 'Open Educational Resources for Network enabled Education' organised by the IGNOU here, Pitroda said open course ware must be available to all.

"For this purpose at least 100 million broadband connections are required in the next 5 years. Generational changes are required in India and teachers and institutions are not prepared for these changes. It's time to take education to the masses and not to ourselves."

Use the wasted optical fibre network of Railways
Aug 24: With its vast optical fibre cable network virtually lying unused for a decade, Sam Pitroda, who is to head a Railway expert committee, on Monday suggested that Railways employ it to meet its logistical requirements and provide broadband connectivity to its customers.

"We have huge amount of asset in our fibre. This asset needs to be unlocked in the form of broadband connectivity to people or perhaps first in the form of ICT applications for Railways," Pitroda, who will lead the Railway panel on optimum use of its vast optical fibre cable network, told reporters here.

Railways have mainly used (about) 10 per cent of its actual capacity, officials said. "It can be used for ticketing, freight management, modernisation of stations and vendor services which require IT capabilities," Pitroda said on the sidelines of an international conference on Railways.

Telecom to build a great society
Aug 25: Sam Pitroda, founder member of C-DoT and Chairman of Knowledge Commission, recalled his journey at the occasion and the immense political support that he got from Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in setting up of C-DoT, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of C-DOT.

Pitroda put forward an unfinished agenda for C-DOT of concentrating and connecting the bottomline (sic). "Telecom has created wealth for only a few. There is unfinished agenda which is a bigger issue. We have to talk of bottomline," he said.

"We have to deliver services like health care, education, agriculture using technology to people at the bottom of the pyramid. There is need to develop application and in local languages. People take pride in building industry but I look for India as an example of building great society," said Pitroda.

Pitroda to head NIHA
Aug 11: After constituting the Unique Identification Database Authority of India with former Infosys co-chairman Nandan Nilekani at the helm, the UPA government is setting up a National Information Highway Authority (NIHA) on similar lines. The new body-which would synergise the government's various e-activities such as e-governance, e-learning and e-health-will be headed by Sam Pitroda.

Knowledgeable government sources say that Pitroda would have Cabinet rank, similar to Nilekani. Through NIHA, the Centre proposes to promote various e-activities, whose penetration has so far been restricted, partly because different ministries and departments currently oversee them. As the apex body for such initiatives, NIHA would clear and monitor all future projects and budgets.

"There's immense scope to synergise activities in the telecom and IT space, which currently languish either because of the lack of initiative and focus or due to inter-ministerial differences. Once NIHA is in place with someone like Pitroda to head it, it would become an ideal vehicle to promote such initiatives effectively in a time-bound manner," an official said

Don't follow the US, but do your own
Aug 27: India should not follow the United States as far as technology is concerned but should invent its own model, Chairman of the Knowledge Commission Sam Pitroda said here today.

"Though India has seen lots of development in science and technology in the last 60 years, we have not achieved as much as we have spent on it," the top technocrat said at a function organised by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) here this afternoon.

After the World War II, the US decided to set up more universities and infrastructure, Pitroda said.

"Technology is a powerful tool in the journey to growth and prosperity," he said.

The Japanese tried to copy the Silicon Valley in the US but failed, he said, adding that 'we should also develop our own concepts.' "We must spend more on higher education," Pitroda said.

So what is the mighty trailblazer out to accomplish? Is it going to be just a move to regain old glory, or is it going to be even more of a game changer than his first run?

Whatever the outcome, with Sam Pitroda around, you can be sure the times, they're going to be exciting again!

(Mr Pitroda's contributions in India's development through effective usage of technologies have not been without controversies. If you want to say more about his achievements or non-achievements, please do send us an email at: editor@d-sector.org - Ed.)

K. A. Ravi

K. A. Ravi is a development solutions specialist.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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