'Against All Odds' Review: Documenting India’s Information Technology Heritage

'Against All Odds' Review: Documenting India’s Information Technology Heritage

by Anand Parthasarathy - Sunday, November 6, 2022 03:17 PM IST
'Against All Odds' Review: Documenting India’s Information Technology HeritageBook cover of 'Against All Odds: The IT Story of India'
  • The book is based on transcripts of reminiscences by leading players in the Indian IT industry, past and present.

    It knits together the 60-year story of domestic IT developments.

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.

A gathering of Indian IT greats — many featured in the book — at the launch of the Itihaasa project in 2016
A gathering of Indian IT greats — many featured in the book — at the launch of the Itihaasa project in 2016

First-person Narratives

The Itihaasa project has been fortunate to hear the story of these 60 years of an India IT brand from many of those who made it happen. It transforms what could have been a dry narrative into an always-revealing, sometimes-hilarious, never-boring collection of anecdotes.

The authors have skillfully woven extracts from their audio and video archives into the text of this book to lend a smack of authenticity to what is essentially a history of technology.

Serial author, Professor Rajaraman explains why his first book on programming was a somewhat shabby production: He insisted to his publishers, Prentice-Hall, that the cover price had to be no higher than Rs 15. The only way they could achieve this was by using cheap paper and reproducing the electric-typewritten manuscript without new typesetting.

The professor confirms what was for long an apocryphal story — that IIT Kanpur’s first IBM computer made the journey from airport to campus in a bullock cart.

The reason was not that there were no motor cars in 1962, but that a cart with rubber tires was the best way to ensure that the computer arrived undamaged after traversing a very bad and untarred road.

This makes for a second instance when a vital piece of computer hardware made its Indian journey under animal power!

In an earlier book, similarly based on first-person recollections of India’s unsung technology pioneers (Icons of Indian IT, 2018), Professor S Sadagopan (founder-director of IIIT Bangalore) and I had described how the first satellite dish antenna that Texas Instruments (TI) used to connect with its United States headquarters made the journey from Bangalore airport to its Millers Road office in a bullock cart.

I understood from some TI staffers of the time that this was for different reasons — only the government was allowed to own and operate dish antennas for communication and the transit from the airport had to be slow enough for it to be tracked at all times!

Srini Rajam, the India head of TI in the 1990s, went on to set up his own company, Ittiam, that put India on the global map as a source of digital signal processing solutions.

Many of the turning points in the India IT story came as a result of fortuitous happenstance: Azim Premji explains why his decision to diversify from the family business of selling vanaspati led to his turning Wipro into a bellwether technology player.

Infosys co-founders speak of the early challenges they faced before the company earned credibility as a technology services powerhouse.

And when his father gifted Bharat Goenka a computer for his birthday, it inspired him to start a company — Peutronics — that was to create India’s most successful financial accounting software, Tally.

Bored with selling desk calculators for DCM Data Products, Shiv Nadar and five colleagues left to start what became Hindustan Computers Limited (now HCL), a pioneer in the indigenous manufacture of mini computers and desktop personal computers (PCs).

One HCL executive, Rajendra Pawar, in turn left to start NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology) in 1991— a pioneer in computer education.

The authors fill in the gaps where they don’t have first-person narrative to tap into — this ensures that achievements like India’s indigenous supercomputing initiatives like the Param series, helmed by Dr Vijay Bhatkar at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Pune, are not overlooked.

They also recognise the contribution of Indian entrepreneurs like Sridhar Vembu, whose company Zoho has made Chennai a de facto capital for business software-as-a-service and has broken the urban fixation to take development centres to rural reaches in Tamil Nadu, like Tenkasi and Renigunta.

The notes and references are exhaustive and useful, but the lack of an index for what will be for many a book of reference seems an unfortunate lacuna.

The combo of insightful narrative and revealing personal anecdotes helps justify the book’s title. The Indian IT story was indeed a success story that prevailed against all odds to create a globally respected brand.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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