Sam Pitroda’s Convocation Address…

Legendary Indian Bureaucrat, a man who is synonymous to success, Mr Sam Pitroda addressed the students of SSSIHL, delivering the 32nd Annual Convocation Address speaking about the nation, nation building and the need for greater changes to have the India of our vision, in the next one decade…

It is indeed a special privilege and honour for me to be here with you today to deliver 32nd convocation address. I want to thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity. I must say I have delivered probably over twenty five convocation addresses but I never had a setting like this. It is overpowering, inspirational, emotional, peaceful, pleasant and unbelievably quiet.

This is my first visit to this University. I have been reading and hearing about it on and off for many years. But one of my colleagues who works with me, Vikas Bagri who graduated from here with a degree in Business (MBA) in 2008 has been working with us for five years. He is an example of your ambassador-very sincere, honest, hardworking, courageous, committed, disciplined, creative, ethical, with an ability to analyze things and willing to do everything, like I see here.Everything you can ask for- you see in him and you all should be proud of the institution you have.

You have a great Institute with so many distinguished people. Before wearing this gown we all were together and I was amazed to meet some of these distinguished people whom I have known for many many years as part of my work in the eighties and I had no idea that they were all involved with this Institute. So you are indeed lucky to have the right spirit, right talent of advisors and seniors, proper environment, eco system and you are lucky to be graduating today.

My congratulations to all graduating students. I wish you the best of the best in your journey forward and I hope you make a substantial contribution not only to yourself, your family, your community but also the country and the world.

I can’t help but think of the day I graduated looking at all these beautiful young faces. I graduated from college with a BSc in Physics just about 52 years ago. It seems like yesterday. I was out there sitting, not with your kind of discipline, unfortunately. Young, just coming out of the Indian independence movement fervor – I was born in 1942. Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and others were our role models. In those days, telephones were hardly available. In fact, I had never used a telephone in my life before going to America in 1964. I had never seen television in my life before going to America in 1964. Life was pretty simple. Needs were very little and goals were very clear.

I want to tell you a little bit about my journey. To give you an example of how we all take different turns in life and no matter how you plan, the journey turns out to be very different. Exciting, at times challenging, but everything you learn in colleges do add up to lot of good experiences.

I was born and raised in a small little village – a tribal village in Orissa. My parents were Gujaratis settled in Orissa and our heroes were again Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and others while growing up. In this village there were no schools, no water, no electricity, no phone, no doctor or no nurse. My mother delivered eight children – all eight at home – zero cost of delivery. All eight turned out to be mentally healthy, physically healthy and all eight went to America because at that time that was the way to get out of poverty.

My father had fourth grade education – he was a carpenter and his dream was to make sure, like every Indian parent, that his children do get good education. I must tell you nowhere else in the world do parents spend so much time, energy, money and resources to educate their children than in India.

So I got my BSc, then I got my Masters in Physics and then read in the newspaper that President Kennedy has decided to send man to the moon. I was young, energetic, little bit stupid, and I decided to go to America. I had no money, no support, didn’t know anybody. So I found some money, borrowed some, and then took a boat from Mumbai to Genova through Karachi, Aden, Port Said, Alexandria, Naples, Genova. Took a train from Genova to London, took a plane from London to New York and took a bus from New York to Chicago. I had never been there, had never seen snow, didn’t know what cold meant and all of a sudden realised that ignorance is going to help. I went to a college to study for a Ph.D. in Physics when my professor told me that it takes seven years to get a Ph.D.

My priorities changed and I did a Masters in Electrical Engineering because I could get that in one year. Then I spent many years calling my family one by one to America, putting them through college, working hard, built a business in 1974, sold the business in 1979 and then came to Delhi in 1980. I had never been to Delhi before. I tried to make a phone call to my wife and I tried and I tried and I couldn’t make a phone call.

So, with a fair amount of arrogance and lot of ignorance I said, ‘I am going to fix this.’ If I had known everything I know today about India, I would have never even tried it. I learned that ignorance is a great asset. If you know too much, sometimes you back off. I went back to Chicago told my wife that I am going to spend ten years fixing India’s telephones. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know with whom.

Finally I had a chance to meet Mrs. (Indira) Gandhi and that is when I met Rajiv Gandhi for the first time. I could convince Mrs. Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi that telecom would change the face of this country.  I told them, “Information Technology will give us the resource we never had but it will take 10-15 years. We know we can do it, give us a chance to do it.” Mrs. Gandhi believed in technology.

Rajiv was just about my age and we made a good team. But I needed young people like you to get it done because without five hundred young engineers, I couldn’t have done anything. So it required the right kind of combination of political will, domain expertise and young talent. At that time, we had two million telephones. It used to take ten years to get telephone connection. Today we have nine hundred million telephones and we are a nation of a connected billion. This complex country with all its diversity is now connected for the first time in history. Anyone can pick up phone from any corner of the country and talk to anybody else. It is a very powerful fabric that we have created for the unity of this country. It is for development of this country in a very different way. It cuts across all barriers – religion, languages, physical location and customs. This powerful tool now is going to be an instrument to build a new India. Very few really understand the power of connectivity. The first phase of the telecom revolution is over but the second phase of the telecom revolution is about to begin.

Then I had a heart attack, I had a quadruple bypass and I ran out of money. I had worked for ten years and had spent all my money. When Rajiv Gandhi died, I lost my heart and went back to the US to pay for my children’s tuition. I went on a tourist visa as I had given up my US nationality, but I could not work there on a tourist visa. So I spent lot of time restructuring my life. My mother was there, my father had died there and no one in the family knew that I was completely broken in terms of the heart, had lost my friend. Because everyone assumed that I was powerful and had all that was needed. No one could deal with the fact that it was all gone. But you need an inner strength to build again. So I always tell my friends – my highs are very high and my lows are very low. My roller coaster ride is unbelievable.

I came back and worked on the National Knowledge Commission and then decided to focus on building public information infrastructure to really democratize information because I am convinced that the poverty today is the poverty of information. If we can empower our people with knowledge, education, information – they will figure out the rest on their own. Don’t under estimate the power of people in rural India. Don’t under estimate the knowledge of our young. We have not been able to give them tools. To an extent Gandhiji’s dream of Rama Rajya was not possible because we didn’t have the tools and the Internet.

India has taken long strides in development – the fact that we can feed 1.3 billion people today on our own is a great accomplishment by our agricultural scientists. We are a nuclear power, we have just sent a mission to Mars, we are the largest producer of milk in the world, we have eradicated polio, we don’t have guinea worm and millions and millions of our children can go to colleges and schools.

Internet and web has changed everything. It has changed business models, delivery systems, it is changing governance, education, health, agriculture and banking. Almost everything we do today is basically obsolete. Everything we do needs to be done differently keeping in mind Internet, keeping in mind new technology. So when the government introduced right to information, I believe that was the biggest decision in the history of India. Very few people understand the power of right to information. By introducing right to information we said – we are going to empower every human being in this country. It will take time. It will take probably ten or twenty years but the process is on. Whenever we introduce an instrument like that it takes time to settle. It creates confusion. People misuse, people abuse. We have right to information but we don’t have information organised in a manner that it can be used. So our job is to really organize information.

We are creating two major networks – one called knowledge network to connect all our Universities and R & D institutions, libraries and others, with 40 GB bandwidth to transfer large amounts of information so that our scientists can collaborate better, share resources and expedite research and development.

The second network is to connect 250,000 local panchayats through optical fiber. When that happens, all our villages would have huge amount of broadband capacity. These two networks will cost us about 50,000 crores. The first one is already built, the second one will be built in next eighteen months. In addition, we are creating platforms for ID (Aadhar) that Nandan Nilekani is working on; GIS (Geographic Information Systems) – Dr. Kasturirangan, Dr. Ramaswamy, Dr. Nayak are working on; Dr. Gairola in NeGP (National e-Governance Plan) where information on food distribution, driver’s license, passport, income tax – all would be organised. We are computerizing 32 million court cases because it takes fifteen years to get justice today. We need to organise and computerize the police, CBI and prisons.

Indian conversation today is rubbish. It is all about cricket, bollywood and political gossip. We need to change that conversation. We need to really take the lead forward to talk about Indian values, Indian customs and indigenous development. A nation of 1.3 billion can’t be doing nothing. There are lots of good people in this country doing lots of good work. They don’t get any recognition. It is time to change the conversation in this country and young can do that and you need to take the lead.

I get disappointed when the young in India don’t demand change. You are the constituency who should be demanding change. But you are not demanding change! You put up with the way things are.

So, when this public information infrastructure is built, in may be two or three years at the cost of about 100,000 crores – education will change completely and lot of education institutions don’t want to recognize that. We really don’t need teachers to deliver content and create content. Content is already created by best of the best in the world. It is available on the net. Today we need teachers to be mentors. But none of our teachers are trained to be mentors.

Similarly, the delivery of health services, delivery of government services – all of this is going to change drastically in a very short period of time and you need to be the agent of change. You need to innovate, you need to think differently, recognizing that information brings about openness, accessibility, connectivity, networking, democratization, decentralization and as a result, social transformation.

We are at a tipping point in India, believe me. If we don’t take care of next ten years we are headed for disaster. The next ten years are going to be the most critical years in the history of India mainly because of the potential of technology and the energy in our youth. Technology today, not just IT but like biotech, nanotechnology, stem cell research and alternate energy gives you different ways of doing things. That requires young talent and new minds. Because today in India systems are basically designed to promote perk, privilege and patronage. It is not designed for productivity, performance and processes. We need to change that. We cannot go on protecting the old system with the old guard. That phase is over. They did a great job, with great respect to them, we need to move on.

It is good to look at history to gain strength and perspective. But it is wrong to get stuck in the past. It is time to look forward and not look backward. The world is looking to India to provide leadership because the western models, based on consumption, are not scalable, sustainable, desirable, workable. India needs to provide a new model of development to the world. India needs to really lead the growth. We must continue to grow at the rate of eight to ten percent and we must focus on the bottom of the economic pyramid. We must lift 400 million who are below poverty line and build an inclusive society. A Society where everyone has a place, everyone is equal, everyone is respected. We have been living like this for centuries and we cannot come up with ideas that divide our system. This is where the young have to play an important role.

So, we need to innovate. How do we innovate in a system like this? So, we created the National innovation councils, sectorial councils, state level councils. We are creating a billion dollar fund. We are going into clusters. But then the innovation is not about products, markets, services. It is not just about a globally competitive market place. It is about innovations in governance, innovations in life style, innovations in education, innovations in health. Everywhere I look around, I see a great need to change the paradigm.

I get upset when people don’t welcome change. Everyone in India tells you why it can’t be done. Everyone takes great pride in identifying a problem. You don’t need talent to identify a problem nor do you need talent to suggest solutions. You really need courage and talent to go and get it done against all the odds. Dr. Kurien when he started work on milk didn’t wait for anybody. He just went and did it. It took him forty years. All of these things that focus on nation building require long commitment. Nothing happens in less than twenty years.

Building a nation is very complex, very different. It requires different kinds of parameters, a different mindset. Building a company is easy. Productivity, efficiency, cost reductions, rules and regulations and so on and you can do it.

Our collective task is very complex. When I say our task, I mean you all need to build a very strong, secular, united nation which gives direction not only to India but to the world. The world is looking and the world is interested in India’s development. How do we get everybody to rally? If we can’t put our own house in order how do we get everybody to rally? When you look at the media, you feel that everything is falling apart. Morals are going down, work ethics are going bad, and everybody is stealing everything. The rich are becoming richer and the poor are not being paid attention to and it is chaos, confusion and contradictions.

But when you look at the young, at the tools and technology, you see great hope. You feel we can change the face of this country in twenty years, if we just turn it over to the young and that is the requirement of the day.

So when I see these graduate students my message to them is – Build a very strong self. Build a self that is going to serve people. But first you have to serve yourself. If you can’t serve yourself, you can’t serve anybody. So get a good job, work hard – there is no substitute for hard work. Look beyond your personal interest – to community interests and really create hope.

This morning I had an interesting opportunity to meet Prof. Jaware Gowda, father of your Vice Chancellor, who is 100 years old. He came to have breakfast with us. Full of energy, he could hear, talk, think, discuss and he said, “Mr. Pitroda, I read your report from the National Knowledge Commission. And when you recommended mission on translation, I was thrilled.” A hundred year old man talking not about the past but talking about the future!

This is the India we need to recognize and celebrate. He has no complaints, was not negative and he gave me joy. He made me feel that there is hope. I think there are lessons to learn from so many different interesting people in our society. But they don’t get the kind of exposure in the public.

Some actor will get an exposure. Some cricket player will get an exposure. These are the heroes of India.

So once again I want to wish you all graduating students the best of the best. I want to thank all the parents for encouraging their children to go to this institute and want to thank you for your support to your children. I want to thank all of the teachers and professors and members of the board for giving support and direction to this institute and finally really genuinely thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me this opportunity and this great platform to have a conversation.

II Samastha Lokah Sukhino Bhavantu II