Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Idea of Sam Pitroda

Twenty-five years ago, before we had Azim Premji and Narayanamurthy to inspire us; before Abdul Kalam fired our imaginations and became a household name; there was Sam Pitroda to provide leadership in advanced technologies to an emergent India. Pitroda grew up in a humble Gujarati family in Orissa and after moving to the US, made it big as an telecom entrepreneur, eventually becoming a US citizen. He was invited by then newly anointed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to help navigate India into the 21st century on a technology platform. Pitroda was reputed to have turned in his US citizenship in order to serve as an advisor to Rajiv Gandhi.

In the end, the Idea of Sam Pitroda was more successful and enduring than any initiatives he got going. He served as a beacon of inspiration to a whole generation of Indian engineers, many of whom have gone on to set up their own projects. And indirectly, he likely revolutionized telecommunications in India.

Eventually, Rajiv Gandhi -- a technology champion who was India's first Prime Minister to visibly use a desktop computer in his office -- was voted out of office, and Pitroda lost his key champion in the Indian government. A disappointed Pitroda returned to the US, where he continues to be based, but his desire to help transform India through technology has not lost any of its intensity.

Flipping through banal TV programs, I managed to catch snatches of an interview with him on NDTV Profit. In that part of the interview, Pitroda was asked to address the problem of government money and resources meant for villages rarely reaching them because of the manifold layers of middlemen who took their cut, leaving next to nothing for the intended recipients. He responded that technology could eliminate all the layers of middlemen and ensure that the losses and inefficiencies of transfer were minimal.

I agree with him on this: as various governmental operations get computerized, paper files get eliminated, and with that, the tendency of said files to gather dust, lose documents, or vanish completely -- unless the various public intermediaries are propitiated with monetary benefits. I am pleasantly surprised at some of dramatic changes in the past 25 years.

But let's address another, more structural problem: why did we end up with so many layers in the first place? It has been remarked that India lives in her villages and that is true in many ways including in an especially important manner: India has long had a decentralized society and culture made up of autonomous self-governing villages and cultures rooted in local geography and history. Over the millenia, kingdoms and empires have come and gone, but these powers have been only loosely coupled to the fate of the villages, where life proceeded quite independently of the transient powers that would stop by to collect tribute. The idea of centralization: be it of culture (and religion) or of society is an alien, western one. Centralized societies demand a homogeneity of belief and practice that is unsuited to India's diversity. Centralization has its advantages -- it is centralization that permits the creation of large organizations and even empires, such as the British Empire, which eventually came to rule over a significant fraction of the world. But when centralized empires collapse, it leads to chaos as new leaders emerge. Autonomous villages are limited in size and power, but if any one village (or the reigning regional empire) collapses, there are few shocks, if any, to the social system as a whole. This is how the culture of India has survived with little change for many centuries. Loosely-coupled systems and societies are stable and long-lasting, and permit a degree of diversity that cannot be imagined in large, monolithic societies and systems.

When the British took over India, they imposed their centralized, monolithic organization and processes on a diverse, loosely coupled society. This has never worked well. After Independence, India was bitten by the Socialism bug, which, since it came from the West, was cut from the same cloth; it emphasized centralization and elimination of diversity. The many layers of bureaucracy are the result of having to create a centralized administrative structure for this vast land.

First, let's kick out the virus of socialism; apart from a few ideas that could easily have been derived from humanism, socialism has done far more harm than good. The additional baggage of centralization that came with socialism has done even more harm. There needs to be centralization of law and order enforcement -- we need to have uniform laws and rights for all, in theory as well as practice. And we also need to ensure that Indian citizens are permitted to move and settle freely throughout the land without fear or favor. Beyond this, administration needs to devolve to local units. The long arm of the Central Government needs to be shrunk by several orders of magnitude. We need more autonomy throughout India to reflect a diversity of culture and heritage that has withstood the test of time.

So I agree with Pitroda: we can and should use more technology to reduce corruption, but we also need to dismantle, redesign and reconstruct the adminstrative policies and processes in the country.

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