This week marks the 25th anniversary of C-DOT – the Centre for Development of Telematics -- an institution whose name and fame is inextricably linked with that of its charismatic first head, Satyanarayan (“Sam”) Gangaram Pitroda. If any one institution and one person can be said to have kick-started India’s telecom revolution -- they are C-DOT and Sam.
Indira and Rajiv Gandhi – and their then technology advisers, P.S. (“Aplab”) Deodhar and the Planning Commission’s science member MGK Menon -- had the vision to put their trust in Sam, persuade this whizz kid with dozens patents under his belt, to forsake a promising entrepreneurial path in the US and head an autonomous scientific body whose initial one point agenda was: develop an indigenous, state of the art digital telephone exchange in 36 months – with Rs 36 crores ( Rs 360 million) in the kitty. As Dinesh Sharma says in “The Long Road”, his exhaustive, recently published, history of Information Technology in India, “C-DOT became a resounding success. It not only developed a rural electronic switch tailor made for India but transferred the technology to several private manufacturers… a unique partnership in the technology history of India”.
Subsequent political machinations saw Pitroda sidelined – but happily he is back, doing what he does best – as Chairman of India’s Knowledge Commission. As he recalls this week “ “At that time India had 2 million phones for 750 million people”. Today nearly 500 million Indians ( out of a billion-plus population) have either a mobile phone or a land line connection. The revolution that C-DOT worked, improved and spread the network of fixed lines phones into the vast rural hinterland. The number of fixed lines dwindles every month, while 14 million new mobile connections were sold in the month of July alone. But that does not diminish C-DOT’s achievement or detract from the central role played by this Indian institution in empowering her people.
Ironically, C-DOT was in the headlines only a day before her actual birthday, August 25: Her current Executive Director P.V. Acharya confirmed that the institution would be working with government to help it monitor the telephone and Internet-fuelled communications of citizens. We quote Mr Acharya telling the Press Trust of India : “..Basically, it is about monitoring certain messages or conversations so that we can ensure security of the country….Our technology would provide an interface to ( the) operator of any service or technology and it will give them ( government) access to the messages traversing through their network".
We understand the legitimate anxiety that terrorism triggers off and the need for governments everywhere to arm themselves with the tools to fight it. But it is all too easy take a sledge hammer approach that tramples on the basic freedoms of their citizens.
Almost coincidentally, last week, we received from Panos South Asia, a link to a report from Freedom House, a non partisan, US based think tank, called “Freedom on the Net” a global assessment of Internet and mobile phone freedom in 15 countries . India ranks 6th among the 15 – the first four are rated “ free”, while the next seven are classified as “partly free”, while the last four including Iran and China are “not free”. (http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/specialreports/NetFreedom2009/FreedomOnTheNet_FullReport.pdf ). The interest for us, is that freedom has nothing to do with development or poverty… Brazil and South Africa are rated free.
As C-DOT crosses her silver jubilee, we salute the institution and the people behind her contributions to the nation. But we also add a word of caution: You will always be remembered for the technology you created to empower millions of Indians with the ability to communicate. Please continue along this path – don’t sink to the level of a sarkari spy master.
- Anand Parthasarathy / Aug 25 2009