'Digital India Doesn't Mean A Damn Thing': A Conversation With Sam Pitroda

02/11/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Sam Pitroda_Prabha Chandran

If you were born after 1985 chances are you don't know much about Sam Pitroda. And that got him writing a tale of such improbable highs and lows it's hard to believe he actually lived it. At 73, the man who rose from a village in Odisha to become a telecom multimillionaire in the US, says in Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India (published by Penguin Books India), "The purpose of my life has been to connect people. It is a fundamental human need now as it the basis for economic development and social transformation."

Sam's journey to make "India a land of a connected billion" began with the creation of thousands of phone booths in the 1980s connecting rural India to the world for the first time and the development of thousands of kilometres of fibre optics to connect all of India's 250,000 gram panchayats, a task that is slated to be completed by 2017.

In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post, Sam talks about Modi's Digital India and why "it doesn't mean a damn thing," the future of connectivity, what it means for India and how it's changing our world.

On the transformative power of a billion smart phones

Thirty years ago there were two million phones in India. Today we have a billion phones but we don't know how to use their transformative power. Transformation starts with the individual for whom the cellphone can be a great self-learning tool. I want to be a plumber or a printer -- why should I wait for the government to provide an education?

"India's first challenge is to improve productivity and efficiency in the agricultural sector...I would like to Uberize agriculture."

[It is important to] move to the community level where platforms can be created for self taught entrepreneurs to find work, access financial services, relevant markets, entertainment etc and then on to the national level where governance, security, large-scale development projects can all benefit greatly from net-based technologies to boost inclusive growth. Very soon, every Indian will have a cheap smart phone and we will be, in effect, a nation of a billion laptops.

On the "Uberization" of assets

India's first challenge is to improve productivity and efficiency in the agricultural sector. With the world's largest youth population, we need to create lots more jobs. I would like to Uberize agriculture. Say there is one person who has a tractor in the community and I order that tractor to plough my field ,as I can't afford to buy one. A farmer now is more of a businessman. Manual work can be done by machines but I can't afford them -- but through Uberization of assets I can. Similarly, can I get services to water my land and harvest produce through the same system?

On Digital India

Modi's trip to Silicon Valley brought big promises from Microsoft, Google etc. to invest in India but it doesn't mean a damn thing. Its fine for their business but I can't turn over my government data centres, which are all obsolete now due to cloud computing, to these companies.

We have four main data centres -- in Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai. All the states connect to them. So does institutional data created by the police, courts, driving license authorities, passport, Aadhaar etc... all of this information rides on this grid.

Facebook and Microsoft have their commercial data centres but modernizing national data centres cannot be given to commercial entities.

Because every organisation developed independently, they use different software and can't communicate across states, sectors and different software. It costs billions to re-engineer this but we have to bite the bullet. All countries have the same problem. The US has 12,000 data centres with an investment of US$70 billion whereas ours maybe US$2 billion -- we can afford to throw it out.

On his net worth: "Zero"

Lots of my patents (he has a hundred) are to do with digital switches, mobile wallets -- which I sold to MasterCard -- and I'm filing new patents related to warranty, digital vaults etc.. .But I have zero net worth, It's all owned by my children. I don't need money. I don't ever shop, I don't go to parties, no club memberships, don't play golf or watch movies. I don't attend family or religious functions. I have outsourced God to Anu (his wife). My needs are minimum, my only expense is travel.

I worked for a decade in India on a salary of Re 1 a month. I have no regret that I bankrupted myself by working free for India and losing out when Rajiv's government fell. His death set India back 10 years. But you can't always live in your comfort zone. I've had two heart attacks, cancer, that's life. You can't get upset, you have to find yourself again. That's the beauty of life.

"If I can convince a billion people to get educated through their cellphones, I don't need to do anything more."

On the Next Big Thing

The quality of IT services will increase dramatically with bigger bandwidth very soon and multimedia communications will be the norm. In two or three years, I will be able to project the contents of my cellphone on to a wall or screen, and if I wear virtual reality glasses I can talk to my granddaughter in America as if we were in the same room.

The second big thing is improved and relevant content in local languages. Content for farmers, kids, cooking ... there's a huge need for restructuring content. Today, there is almost zero content of Indian value on the net... it's all about stock markets, the Western world. If I want to take a virtual tour of the Konarak temple, I can't do it. There's huge business potential in creating good local content.

On the future of work

People who say the accelerated pace of life, being connected 24X7 is having a negative impact on human health and society must realize we are in a period of transition. There will be no permanent 9 to 5 jobs in future or pensions and benefits. People will come together and work on a project for say, three weeks and then have four weeks off. You decide your work. The concept of work is going to change. There will be no labour unions, everyone will be an entrepreneur. Multinationals will not be able to compete with billions of independent empowered individuals. We have economies of scale today but next we will have economies of scope and then economies of preference.

Your brain and my brain are wired differently. This technology came to us at a time when our brains were already mature. So it's hard for us to keep up with this. But take a two year old today and give them laptops, they know intuitively what to do. My granddaughter, who is 4 years old, Skypes me every day and complains when the bandwidth is not good. These kids know exactly what to do. Their brains are being wired differently, they have 500 toys and a whole range of information available as soon as they can talk.

On the obsolescence of everything

We have globalized but we can't be citizens of the world. We have 19th-century minds, 20th-century laws and needs of the 21st century. My next book is about the fact that the world we designed after WWII is obsolete, given the reality of the internet. Today's paradigm is democracy, human rights, free market economy, and consumption. I suggest we need to replace these.

"We have economies of scale today but next we will have economies of scope and then economies of preference."

Practice inclusion instead of democracy. I'm not talking about India's poor, look at the US -- it is built on exclusion. A small fraction of the super-rich own 80% of the wealth. I cannot have the north side of Chicago so rich while the south side is poor; I cannot have a country where 70% of the prison population is African. You have to create inclusion all over the world. Today the crisis in the Middle East is also about lack of inclusion.

Today's emphasis on human rights must be changed to basic human needs. What is the value of rights without food? We must change consumption to conservation and free market economy to environment. I look forward to the day when we become global citizens with a global constitution.

On accelerating the development of a knowledge-based economy

Once you have connectivity, you need to empower people to self -learn, give them a certificate on entry to a course, not on completion. They have to wait five years to be certified today. I think the world's education system is obsolete. We need domain expertise, niche knowledge. If I can convince a billion people to get educated through their cellphones, I don't need to do anything more. They'll find their way in life, without being instructed.

"Rahul is the glue that holds the party together, so the real Rahul Gandhi will have to rise."

Step two: We need outlets to use that knowledge. Don't wait for government jobs. We should educate people to create their own jobs, be entrepreneurs. Use the net to create knowledge platforms.

Step three is knowledge application and services: Create a database of say 50,000 craftsmen, transfer new technologies to improve their furnaces, looms, implements, whatever. India has 200 major clusters of specialised crafts and industries in different areas so the scope is enormous.

On the three things needed to boost growth in India

I say in the book we need:

Massive administrative reforms. Every process needs to be simplified to the reality of 21st century. We continue to cling to colonial laws. Give people freedom and independence. You want to start a company? You don't need 70 licenses, just fill a form and in 10 minutes start a company. I don't need to have five copies of your birth certificate to do this.

Judiciary reform. There are some 40 million cases pending in India court today, many lingering for decades. We must settle every court case within 60 days. This will increase national GDP by 2%.

Creating new jobs. India has a burgeoning pool of talent at home and 25 million NRIs. This brain bank is a brain gain and brain chain for India. We need to capitalize much more on this. We need to focus on technology and talent in agriculture, food processing, water management, rural development and construction to create large number of jobs.

On Rahul Gandhi

He has not been projected properly. Others have defined who Rahul Gandhi is but he has not defined who he is. You say that Rajiv had a vision for India and he connected with people in a way that Rahul does not. I would say that Rahul is the glue that holds the party together, so the real Rahul Gandhi will have to rise. He has been living in that ecosystem all his life. His destiny is locked in. He can't be a normal human being, he just can't.

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