Documenting India’s Information Technology Heritage

Against All Odds: The IT Story of India. Kris Gopalakrishnan, N Dayasindhu, and Krishnan Narayanan. Penguin Business. 2022. Pages 322. Rs 799.

Six years ago, Infosys co-founder ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan spearheaded a non-profit entity named “Itihaasa” to study and document the evolution of technology and business domains in India.

Its anchor project was to record an oral history of information technology (IT) in India through the words of its pioneers and leading practitioners.

The archive grew to over 600 videos and interviews and some 40 hours of video recordings, as well as hundreds of images and articles.

Along with Gopalakrishnan, the project was steered by two former Infosys professionals — N Dayasindhu, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Itihaasa Research and Digital, and Krishnan Narayanan, Itihaasa’s president.

The three have now come together to edit many of the recordings in Itihaasa, adding bridging material to create a useful and somewhat offbeat history of the growth and development of IT in India over six decades.

In a useful introduction, Gurcharan Das, former CEO of Procter and Gamble (India), who subsequently reinvented himself as a business chronicler, lays out the key signposts on India’s infotech roadmap (infotech is short for information technology).

He begins with the landing of the country’s first computer, the United-Kingdom-made HEC-2M, at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, in 1955, where Professor P C Mahalanobis harnessed it to process data that went to shape India’s Second Five Year Plan.

The computer cost Rs 2 lakh and had all of 1 kilobyte, or 1024 bytes, of memory.

Das points to the irony that Mahalanobis (and the Nehruvian government of the day) belonged to the classical school of socialism, which rooted for public-sector enterprise and a controlled private sector and had little use for the proliferation of computing devices outside of the government.

This set back technological developments by almost a decade until visionaries in two institutions changed things:

– Professors P V S Rao and R Narasimhan at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai — encouraged by Dr Homi Bhabha — fabricated the first made-in-India computer called TIFRAC around 1962. It was among the first in the world to use a cathode-ray tube as a visual display.

– A year later, in 1963, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, acquired an imported mainframe computer, the IBM 1620. Teachers like H N Mahabala (he passed away on 27 June this year, aged 87) and V Rajaraman harnessed the machine and structured India’s first hardware and programming courses around it, creating the first generation of Indian computer engineers.

The so-called permit-licence raj continued to throttle all IT-driven development in the country, imposing duties of 140 per cent and more on imported computers. In all of India, there were just 1000 computers in 1978.

However, individual entrepreneurs overcame systemic roadblocks, creating companies like HCL (formerly Hindustan Computers Limited) and TCS (Tata Consultancy Services).

TCS, led by its charismatic general manager, the late F C Kohli, tweaked its role from mere consulting to active computerisation.

It took the arrival of Rajiv Gandhi on the political scene and his then-derided “computer cowboys” to unshackle the Indian industry, a movement led by bureaucrats like N Seshagiri and N Vittal.

The 1980s saw the nascent Indian software industry organise itself, with its poster boy, the flamboyant Dewang Mehta leading the National Association of Software and Service Companies, or NASSCOM, in its formative years.

The Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) were in place, providing a valuable infrastructure backbone to an industry that was champing at the bit — till the era of liberalisation finally dawned with the Manmohan Singh budget of 1991.

Empowered to re-fashion a moribund telecommunications infrastructure, Sam Pitroda helmed the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) and helped craft an indigenous telephone exchange, suited for her rural hinterland, and launched the era of “STD booths,” providing subscriber trunk dialing across the nation.

In retrospect, it is as significant a turning point as the universal identification system Aadhaar, skillfully led by Nandan Nilekani, was to become a decade later.

Before that, India suddenly found itself billed as the world’s back office, thanks to the windfall business of updating everyone’s business software at “Y2K” or Year 2000.

In recent years, the challenge of Covid-19 was overcome to create an opportunity for a truly national software platform called Arogya Setu, with 176 million users, many of whom graduated to the Co-WIN app.


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