By Anand Parthasarathy
August 5 2023: Bureaucrat and administrator N. Vittal who passed away on August 3 in Chennai at the age of 85, is mostly remembered for his 4-tenure as India’s Central Vigilance Commissioner – the last major post he held from 1998, in a career in the IAS spanning 36 years. His efforts to transform public life and restore probity came at a crucial time in India’s history and was widely lauded for his ‘no fear, no favour’ attitude.
Ironically this has tended to overshadow what is arguably Nagarajan Vittal’s main legacy: His leadership as Secretary, Department of Electronics (DoE) for 6 years from 1990, interrupted by 2 years as Chairman, Telecom Commission, which helped unshackle the nascent Indian electronics and communication industry from the stifling controls of the then- prevalent Permit-Licence Raj.
“I was a Chemistry graduate and knew nothing about electronics, but I learned to appreciate its importance”, he told me during a leisurely conversation spread over three hours in his Chennai home in 2015, when I was researching a book on the “Icons of Indian IT”. *
In his tribute to Vittal Prime Minister Narendra Modi writes: “Shri N. Vittal Ji will be remembered as an outstanding civil servant, who enriched India's growth trajectory across diverse sectors. He also played a pivotal role in Gujarat's development during his career in the state.”
The Prime Minister draws attention to another underrated part of Vittal’s career – his services to Gujarat in multiple roles: as Development Commissioner of Kandla Port, Industries Commissioner, and Food and Civil Supplies Secretary, Additional Chief Secretary for the State and Chairman of the Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizer Company (GNFC).
It was in the last position that Vittal’s education about the potential of electronics began: He pushed GNFC to diversify by manufacturing electronic telephone exchanges for the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) then led by another visionary, Sam Pitroda.
Tenure in Electronics Department
This experience served him well when he was suddenly sent to Delhi as Secretary Department of Electronics -- but he had a rare humility among bureaucrats: “I disagreed with the idea that administrators, especially IAS officers, could do their job by covering ignorance with authority, nor did I believe that wisdom comes merely from the seat one occupies, like Vikramaditya unknowingly sitting on a throne”, he told me.
“In my very first week at DoE, I contacted all the trade bodies in electronics—NASSCOM, Manufacturer’s Association of Information Technology (MAIT), Electronic Industries Association of India (then known as ElCINA), Consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturers Association (CEAMA), and asked them what their problems were. ‘Let us meet once a month and aim to clear these problems,’ I told them.”
In the process he won the trust of the industry that was to play a crucial part in his subsequent achievements: a capital goods scheme for export, a reliable business data network, a tax holiday for electronics exporters, schemes to enhance employability of graduates….
He also had to deal with inherent absurdities especially with regard to Texas Instruments the first MNC that set up a software centre in India:
“The Intelligence Bureau (IB) asserted the right to monitor software that was being exported to ensure that the nation’s security was not being compromised! IB insisted that their representative would scan a sample of the data being sent out. This unenviable task was performed at the TI (Texas Instruments) centre in Bengaluru, by J.H. Chowdhry, who had to download every day, four minutes of their transmissions and scan them to check that there was no violation of national security!”
‘Another absurdity prevailed in the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). It had a monopoly over communications in India as part of the Post and Telegraph department. The railways had their own excellent telecom network but this could not be linked to the postal department’s network except in the event of a railway accident!”
The ultimate absurdity that Vittal had to contend with related to the satellite earth station that TI bought and installed for its work in Bengaluru to communicate with its headquarters in Texas (USA). TI was told, ‘You can’t own your satellite dish in India, but you can provide it and DoT will levy a service charge for your right to use it! This went on for five years, with TI paying through the nose. Said Vittal : “This was like the Tamil proverb which says, make a murthi of Ganesha out of jaggery and give that itself as prasadam!
When other states wanted their own satellite earth stations, DoT’s monopoly charges were too high. Vittal diverted some unused funds which he commanded after setting up the Semiconductor Complex in Mohali to help Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat set up their own state satellite facilities.
Perhaps Vittal’s biggest contribution to the growth of electronics in India was the creation of the national chain which became Software Technology Parks of India (STPI). “The time had come to say: the whole country is a free trade zone for the software industry”, he said -- and credits the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh with the “requisite knowledge and enthusiasm to support liberalization of the industry…. Manmohan Singh was a pure professional. History will one day do justice to him.” He was also helped by another visionary – the late scientist-administrator N. Seshagiri who set up and headed the National Informatics Centre.
Shift to Telecom
A sideways shift to the Telecom Commission as its Chairman in 1993, enabled Vittal to take head-on, an entrenched bureaucracy and 40 trade unions which resisted all change at the DoT. It took just over a year for him to push through a new and liberal Telecom Policy in the teeth of opposition from his own minister, Sukh Ram.
To achieve this Vital recalled the sane advice of then Defence Secretary H C Sareen: “ Napoleon said, ‘an army marches on its stomach’ but Vittal, government marches on paper!”
Recalled Vittal: “For every meeting of the Telecom Commission, I prepared all the papers myself and dictated the minutes of the meeting on the spot. They used to joke about me that ‘he is a bad master who keeps a dog and does the barking himself!’”
But the barking dog had had its day. Vittal was summarily removed from the Telecom Commission in 1994 and shortly before he retired, PM Narasimha Rao compensated him by naming him chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board, apparently to counterbalance the all -powerful Ministry of Industry which controlled 150 PSUs.
Post retirement Vittal was named Central Vigilance Commissioner – a position to which he brought his customary no-nonsense approach for four years till 2002.
Vittal used to quip about his frequent shifts: “Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Nothing is certain except death and taxes’. For a civil servant in India, nothing is certain except death, taxes transfers and retirement.”
For Nagarajan Vittal, his long career and signal achievements recalled Lord Krishna’s saying in the Bhagavad Gita, which he quoted as he showed me out after our last memorable encounter: “Nimmitha maathram bhava savyasaachin’— We are all instruments of a greater force.
Today, India’s booming infotech industry bows its head in fond recollection of a timely, friendly, force that kickstarted its growth all of three decades ago.
* N. Vittal's first-person narratives in this tribute are reproduced from the book "Icons of Indian IT" by Anand Parthasarathy and S Sadagopan, Wisdom Tree Publishers, Delhi; 2018.
This article has appeared in Swarajya