IndiaTecOnline remembers an icon of Indian Information Technology
Bangalore July 1 2015: KPP Nambiar, India's Infotech pioneer and the man who created the model -- in Kerala-- of state driven electronics manufacture -- passed away yesterday in Bangalore, at the age of 86.
Like so many highly qualified Indians abroad in the 1960s, KPP Nambiar gave up what might have been a lucrative career in the UK in the nascent technology of semiconductors to return to India a Scientific Pool Officer of the CSIR -- a cadre created by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to motivate Indian talent abroad to work for the country. He taught Electronics at IIT Delhi, then moved to Bharat Electronics Ltd after a brief stint at Philips to head their piezo electrics division. Moving to Tata Electric Companies in 1967, Nambiar set up and for 6 years headed their Electronics R&D Centre, even while he managed the group's consumer electronics, National Radio & Electronics Co. Ltd . As General Manager NELCO he introduced transistor radios for the first time in India in 1968.
An invitation from the farsighted K. Achutha Menon, Chief Minister of Kerala, the state of his birth, to help set up electronics manufacturing was the turning point in Nambiar's life. In 1973, he helped set up the Kerala State Electronics Development Corporation Limited (KELTRON) and took office as its first employee in the post of Chairman and Managing Director. Over the next ten years, the corporation transformed the industrial scene in Kerala, with a string of subsidiary units that brought employment to thousands, even as it paid a key transformative and societal role by harnessing women's cooperatives for the assembly of mass market products like television sets. When the TV boom came in the early 1980s, KELTRON became a key supplier, first to ECIL and then with its own brand -- a model that was replicated in other states, with the birth of MELTRON in Maharashtra,l UPTRON in Uttar Pradesh, WEBEL in West Bengal. Bringing manufacturing muscle to Indian states in high tech areas like electronics was arguably Nambiar's greatest achievements.
A strong proponent of R&D to back up indigenous manufacturing, Nambiar also oversaw the setting up of Electronics Research and Development Centre (ER & DC) in Thiruvananthapuram, in 1980 once again the model for similar research centres upcountry. Taken over by the Government of India in 1988, the ER&DCs are today part of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) chain of institutions.
Briefly moving to head the public sector Indian Telephone Industries ( 1985-87) -- the largest telecom manufacturer in the country-- Nambiar was called to the Central Government and In 1986, was appointed the Secretary, Department of Electronics of Government of India (now the Ministry of IT) by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He retired from Government service in 1989. But in this short stint, here and at the Electronics Commission, he was instrumental in helping to set up CDAC in Pune.
Upon retirement from government service, Nambiar returned to his native Kerala to serve as an honorary adviser to the state government, even as he assumed the chairmanship of KELTRON again for two years. His final stint in the service of Kerala saw Nambiar transform the technology scenario of Kerala yet again --with the establishment in 1991, of Technopark, which remains the country's integrated hardware-software park and a model of its kind in the West Asia region.
Post retirement Nambiar, helped set up an electronics manufacturing unit -- Namtech-- in Bangalore, even as he launched an ambitious project to bring electric power to the Kannur region of Kerala where he was born. These latter day initiatives were mired in minor controversies that seem in hindsight to be mere blips in a 30 year career of service during which Nambiar proved that electronics manufacturing in India could be viable, even profitable.
Now two decades later, a sober assessment will record that the enterprises he inspired like KELTRON and its clones, have not grown as they should have to their full potential -- a commentary on governmental apathy and management rather than the robust vision of the man who first dreamt it and made it happen.
Today as we chant the mantra of Make in India, it is worth recalling the efforts and contributions of a visionary who had much the same idea -- only 40 years ago. - Anand Parthasarathy