Sam Pitroda’s India: Lifting 500 million out of poverty should be top priority

Telecom visionary, innovator and entrepreneur. Sam Pitroda, widely considered the father of India’s telecom revolution, wears many hats. India’s telecom revolution began with an organisation called Centre for Development of Telematics (C Dot) established in 1984. He has been deeply involved with India’s several telecom and digital policy initiatives. A close friend of India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, he had held crucial positions in the government, ranging from the Knowledge Commission to the National Advisory Council.  

Sam Pitroda

In this wide-ranging conversation, Sam Pitroda unfolds his vision for India in response to questions by Mr Surendra Kumar, a former ambassador of India to a host of African countries. A commentator on diplomatic and political issues, Mr Kumar served as India’s High Commissioner of India to Kenya, Swaziland and Malta.

 Amb Surendra Kumar

Q: Taking a close and dispassionate look at India of today and keeping in mind all its strengths & weakness, where do you see her in the next 20 years?

A: I see India growing at 8% or more for the next 20 years. This growth is predominantly going to come from the needs of the younger population. Our challenge is to provide food, nutrition, water, sanitation, housing, education, health, and appropriate infrastructure to over 600 million people below the age of 25 today. However, the key question from my perspective is all about, what kind of growth? And who would benefit from this growth? Is it going to be export-driven growth, or growth that focuses on local markets? An Indian model of development with Indian solutions?

If this growth does not benefit people at the bottom of the economic pyramid and help to lift 400 million below the poverty line, and merely creates more billionaires, we will have serious problems. The real challenge is to reduce disparity between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, and the educated and the uneducated in the next 20 years. In all of this, technology, innovation, and agricultural development must play a key role. Without focus on agriculture and associated productivity, distribution, delivery, storage, etc. we will not be able to feed our hungry and provide the right nutrition to our future workforce. Only through focus on agriculture, we will be able to improve the income of our farmers and provide sustainable growth to our rural communities. India cannot ignore the large number of farmers and rural poor in the development process. Indian growth cannot be about satellites, software, pharmaceuticals, and auto industry only. We need substantial investments to bring our agricultural growth also to 8%. I see, in the next 20 years, substantial improvement in the quality of life of millions more.

In the last 20 years, China has been able to lift almost 400-500 million people from poverty. In the next 20 years, India must focus on lifting at least 500 million out of poverty. India doesn’t need to be a superpower or a leading technology nation; she just needs to focus on basic human needs, poverty, and employment. Without focus on agriculture and other basic needs, how do you provide 10-15 million new jobs every year? These jobs cannot come from IT or smart cities alone.



Education: Building world-class universities

 Q: Not a single Indian university figures in the list of top 200 universities in the world. How can Indian universities become world class?

A: It would be nice to be in the list of top 200 universities in the world. A few of our leading institutions and universities like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, different Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, and a few well-recognised universities should focus on being in the list of the top 200 universities in the world. For this, we need our institutions to have more autonomy, freedom, flexibility, leadership, a substantial R&D budget, better quality of faculty and students, and a serious commitment to university research. If we put our mind to it, I am confident that in the next decade, we could be on the list. However, it would require political will and commitment of serious financial resources along with autonomy and trust in our education experts and research scientists.

However, as a nation, I would not get carried away and devote and divert a huge amount of talent and financial resources just to be on the list. The criteria, by which the top ranking 200 is decided, is cued in favor of rich universities with huge infrastructures, high-powered faculties, expensive education, and best of the best talent from the global market. With the introduction of Internet, Web, open courseware, MOOCs, and new technology and tools, education is about to go through a major overhaul.

I strongly believe that the university model of the past several hundred years is going to be obsolete in the next 20 years. Today, learning models are very different. We essentially don’t need a teacher to create and deliver content. We really need teachers to be mentors. However, very few of our teachers are trained to be mentors. If Henry Ford landed up today, one of the few places where he would find the production line still in existence is basically in our universities. This model of universities where it takes four years to get a bachelor’s degree, and two more to get a master’s degree, does not make sense anymore.

Today, to learn, you really need three things: motivation, time, and content. In the future, we may not need to give a certificate when you exit the university, but may reward one when you enter a job market. Today’s education has also become too theoretical and at times, irrelevant for many. There is a disconnect between the job market and the kind of people universities produce. Of course, we do need a few to create new knowledge, do research, think freely, but the bulk needs to find employment to make a living in industry, business, government, etc.

It is difficult to build world-class universities without world-class primary education, world-class teachers, and world-class faculty and infrastructure. We do have an advantage because of our large numbers. In a country of one billion people, you are bound to have ten million smart ones, irrespective of where they are, who they are, and what they study. The real challenge is to find them, nurture them, and give them the right environment to flourish. Education is empowering and we need to empower our young with the right motivation and dreams to be global leaders.

Q: Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen often points out to the dismal state of primary education in India: hundreds of schools don’t have a roof over their heads or a library, or a computer or a toilette or facilities for games & sports &teachers who actually teach. How can this rot be stopped?

A: Primary education is very critical for the future of the country. Fortunately now we have the Right to Education, a bill passed during the UPA However, we do not have enough resources to meet all of our primary education needs. Where we have resources we do not have infrastructure and dedicated people with proper ethics to provide quality education to our children. I strongly believe that local communities must take responsibility for their primary education of their children.

When I was young in the early 1950’s, local leaders from business, religion, non-profits, etc. hired and fired teachers, collected donations, built school buildings, provided sports facilities, libraries, and a lot more. They supervised local schools through independent boards and took a great deal of interest in the education of their children. How did we lose all that?

Today we expect the central and state governments to take care of all our primary education needs. Hiring of the teacher, upkeep of the facility, etc. all gets decided not by locals but by people in distant government offices.

I hope technology can play an important role in primary education as well. Children today adapt to new technologies like smart phones and television remotes better than anyone else. With cloud computing, open source software, and low-cost terminals, such as tablets and smart phones, the need for libraries and fancy school buildings may look very different in the future. To me, primary education is also a family responsibility. No matter how poor you are, if you focus and tighten your belt, it is possible to provide a reasonably good education to your children in India.

I can say this from my personal experiences. I was born in a small little tribal village in Orissa, where there was no electricity, no running water, and almost no schools. Local leaders and community provided the building, paid the teacher, and took interest in their children’s education. I got my education at home up to fourth grade and through a private teacher. Then I went to a boarding school where the monthly expense including fee was 30 rupees/month. Thereafter, I went to Mahraj Sayajirao University in Baroda to get my bachelor’s and master’s in Physics, all for less than 1,000 rupees. Where in the world can you get education opportunities like this for very little money? If you want to complain, there are lots of problems. If you want to achieve something, there are lots of opportunities in India for a reasonable quality primary education. The key challenge is motivation.



Making India an innovation hub

 Q: The US has remained ahead of her competitors for so long, besides other factors, largely on account of her innovations. Is enough being done in India to make it an innovation hub by using its unique innovative talent & reservoir?

A: A great deal was initiated during the Manmohan Singh government on innovation. Knowing that India has had a long history and heritage in innovation and knowing that innovation is on everyone’s agenda and recognized and accepted as the key driver for growth, UPA government declared 2010-2020 as the decade of innovation. Innovation is essential to build new products, provide better services, access new markets, and be globally competitive. However, innovation involves thinking differently, creatively, and insightfully to have impact on social and economic values. People, culture, diversity, ecosystems, and opportunities drive innovation. Knowing that India is at a tipping point where forces of technology, modernization, urbanization, and the unique demographic dividends will shape the future course of the country paving the way for unprecedented growth and development, UPA government appointed an advisor to the Prime Minister with the rank of a cabinet minister on innovation.

With Dr. Manmohan Singh’s declaration, innovation had entered the national conversation. Simultaneously, we decided to setup a National Innovation Council, with around 15 distinguished, well-accomplished leaders from all walks of life: businessmen, scientists, engineers, government, academicians, etc. The main objective of the council was to formulate a roadmap for innovation and create a framework for evolving an Indian model of innovation with focus on inclusive growth. Defining policy initiatives, developing new attitudes and approaches, creating appropriate ecosystems, encouraging center and state governments to innovate, facilitating innovation at small and medium scale industries, and encouraging innovations in public sectors and service deliveries. A great deal was accomplished in the last four years through the National Innovation Council. We established state-level councils, sectoral councils, worked with national laboratories like CISR to help small entrepreneurs at industrial clusters like brassware in Moradabad, bamboo in Agartala, furniture in Kerala, pharmaceuticals in Ahmedabad, mangoes in South, etc. We also initiated building innovation space at all national science museums and launched Tod Fod Jod activities at schools to learn how things work. Similarly, we announced thousands of scholarships on innovations and invited 30-40 countries every year to initiate dialog and exchange ideas on inclusive innovations in the form of a Global Innovation Roundtable.

I believe because of many of these initiatives, the innovation landscape in India has changed substantially. Take for example, Startup Village in Kerala where hundreds of bright young engineers are innovating and starting new companies in large numbers. In the process, angel investors and venture capitalists have also increased in number to support innovators and provide badly needed risk capital. Innovation is a process and not a product. We need innovations not just for industries; we need innovations in processes, government, judiciary, police, education, health, agriculture, and everywhere. Innovation is a platform that affects almost everything we do. However at the end of the day, people innovate. And our challenge is to build innovative young talent to bring about generational change in almost everything we do.

Web and Internet have been a great enabler for innovation. Because of Web and Internet almost everything we do today is essentially obsolete. This provides a unique opportunity for young talent to do things differently and at the same time do different things. I am happy to see our young on the road to change the innovation agenda in the country. However innovation is not about just IT, telecom, software, and smart phones, it is also about biotech, nanotech, materials, water, energy, genetics, and a lot more. I am confident that in the next decade India would be on the global innovation agenda.


Demographic Dividend: Skilling India

Q: Our leaders always talk of demographic dividend. But unless skill development is undertaken at massive scale & made affordable, the demographic dividend has the risk of becoming demographic disaster?

A: Vocational education is the key to meeting manpower needs for current growth in India. If India is to grow at 8% for the next 20 years, we need appropriate manpower at all levels. We need more managers, scientists, engineers, and also people trained in carpentry, plumbing, welding, and hundreds of other disciplines. Our traditional approach to vocational education has not delivered desired results. To give focus to this, the UPA government launched a National Knowledge Commission to provide a blueprint for knowledge institutions and infrastructure that India would need for the next 20 years. The Commission, consisting of prominent domain experts, spent 3 years focused on 27 different subjects and provided 300 different recommendations to the government. One of the key areas included was vocational education. As a result of the Knowledge Commission and concerns from the industry and academicians, UPA government substantially increased funding for education to respond to the growing demand for trained manpower to fuel growth. As a follow up of the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission the government decided to launch a National Skill Development Mission with public/private partnership headed by a prominent industry leader Dr. Ramadorai. These are all long-term initiatives and require patience and persistence with long-term vision to deliver results. Vocational education agenda is critical and is being followed up by qualified people.

From my perspective, we really need to focus on vocational education for construction and agriculture as these two industries promise large employment opportunities. Only through clear focus on these two, and appropriate trained manpower, we will be able to create employment opportunities for our young in urban as well as rural areas.


Q: With her bewildering diversity, especially religious, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, social and economic disparities, can India prosper without good governance and become more inclusive, tolerant, equitable, and disciplined and law abiding?

A: No country can prosper without good governance. Good governance is becoming challenging and important all over the world. Every day, you hear about financial crises like in Greece, which reminds us about the importance of good governance, proper fiscal discipline, and a clear developmental agenda to create opportunities. In India, the real challenge is inclusion. Unless and until we focus on lifting people at the bottom of the economic pyramid through good governance, Indian governance will not mean much.

Today, we are fortunate to be living in the best of the best times in human history. Technology developments in the last 50 years have changed our world completely and offer unique opportunities to expedite development. Technology has increased longevity, improved infant mortality, communication, transportation, energy output, and global trade. Governments must restructure to respond to the new organizational architecture required for the technology of today, which brings about openness, transparency, improved access, and networking. Unfortunately, governments are designed with vertical silos and departmental structures to preserve procedures and age-old processes to expedite the delivery of development with clear focus on management, monitoring, deliverables, and measurable milestones.

Good governance requires domain expertise and political will with freedom, flexibility, and autonomy. In recent history in India, there are at least five good examples of good governance through political will and domain expertise: atomic energy, space, agriculture, milk production, and telecom & IT. We need similar success stories with good governance in water, energy, housing, railways, etc. We also need the next green revolution in agriculture to preserve our environment, ecosystem, and produce the right kind of food that the country will need in the 21st century.

Good governance is about delivering on promises and improving access to education, health and basic needs to all. India is a very complex country to govern. It needs decentralization, domain experts, and open and transparent governance at all levels with focus on democratic values and inclusive growth. Good governance in India at this stage is more about massive administrative reforms and judiciary reforms with openness, accountability, process reengineering and new nationwide e- government platform with standards and inter operability to take advantage of UID,GIS, new application, electronic payments etc .

Good governance is also about the change in the mindset to move away from a system based on politicking, perks, privileges and patronage to performance and productivity for growth and inclusion to serve the needs of the people at large.


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