Architect of India's Telecom Revolution Also Transforms Colleges

Reuben Singh for The Chronicle

Sam Pitroda
July 28, 2010

Sam Pitroda didn't go to school until age 9 and never used a telephone until he was 22. So he seems an unlikely candidate to be the architect of India's telecommunications revolution of the 1980s, the holder of some 50 patents, and the driving force behind big changes in the country's higher-education system.

But from modest beginnings, he became a successful entrepreneur and, since 2005, has helped guide government efforts to rebuild India's universities, championing an overhaul in how they are regulated and advocating the use of technology to increase access.

"He was prepared to go to areas where angels fear to tread," says V. Krishnamurthy, chairman of the Indian government's National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council, who has worked closely with Mr. Pitroda. "His ability to network with people is very high because of the passion he has. He is a great idea generator and a man who can think big."

While he has accomplished a lot in his life, the 68-year-old Mr. Pitroda shows no signs of slowing down. Despite surviving cancer and having undergone two quadruple-bypass surgeries, Mr. Pitroda is youthful, energetic, and appears to always be in a hurry.

On a recent muggy July afternoon here, he spoke to The Chronicle about his past, his present, and, most important, the country's future.

Reflecting on the arc of his life, he prefers to play down his achievements and his rise from humble origins. "I don't look at it as a rise—it's a journey. I don't celebrate success, just move on, because what goes up will come down," says Mr. Pitroda, waving his hand away dismissively.

Mr. Pitroda was born in 1942 in Titilagarh, a small village in the southeastern Indian state of Orissa. "There was no electricity, no running water, no pharmacies, and no medical facilities," he recalls.

Mr. Pitroda was sent to a boarding school in Gujarat and had never been to a formal school before then. "We are by caste, carpenters, which in the Indian system of hierarchy is pretty low. So education was not a priority, but my father had this desire to make all his kids study," he says.

Mr. Pitroda went on to earn a master's degree in physics from the well-regarded Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat. He then decided to go to the United States after reading in the newspaper that President John F. Kennedy had pledged to send a man to the moon. "It sounded romantic and interesting," he says about his aspiration to go America. at the time.

In 1964, with a small grant from the Orissa state government and money he earned by tutoring college students, he made travel plans to go to Illinois, where he had been admitted to the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"I took a boat from Mumbai to Genoa, a train from Genoa to London, then a plane from London to New York, and then a bus to Chicago," he says, adding that all he had was $360 for his first semester's tuition and $40 for living expenses.

'Ignorance Is a Great Asset'

Seeing the disbelief on some visitors' faces, he says, "Yeah, yeah, you have to be stupid. If you think of it today, you say, 'Why the hell would anybody do that?' Ignorance is a great asset."

After earning a master's degree in electrical engineering, he worked at American telecommunications companies, including a 10-year stint at General Telephone & Electric. He struck out on his own in 1974, helping to start Wescom Switching, a company that produced electronic-switching systems. . . The founders sold the company in 1980, and Mr. Pitroda's share of the proceeds was almost $5-million. At just 38 he was a self-made millionaire.

In 1981 he decided to visit New Delhi because he had never been to India's capital city. While staying at a posh hotel, he tried to call his wife in Chicago, but he could not get through. "I said, 'I'm going to fix this damn thing,'" he recalls. "I had a lot of arrogance and a lot of ignorance."

With the backing of then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he persuaded the government to overhaul the failing telecommunications system by installing a digital-switching system, starting public telephone kiosks to allow the millions of Indians who didn't own phones the ability to make cheap calls.

The telecommunications boom Mr. Pitroda helped usher in transformed the country, its economy, and its culture.

Mr. Pitroda says his work in the 1980s was difficult, but he enjoys navigating large technological obstacles.

"I like to solve complex, huge problems," he says. "I don't want to get involved in little things. They don't excite me."

With such a thirst for big challenges, Mr. Pitroda began trying to fix another moribund part of Indian society: its university system.

In 2005 he was made a member of the government's National Advisory Council, with a responsibility to look at education, science, and technology policy. While researching education issues, "I realized that the next big thing is knowledge," he says. "Maybe because the population is so young," he adds, referring to the fact that almost half of India's population is age 25 or younger.

Acting on a suggestion by Mr. Pitroda, the government established the National Knowledge Commission to study ways to improve the quality and infrastructure of India's higher-education system, which comprises mostly public institutions. As chairman of the commission, which was set up in 2005 and disbanded last year, Mr. Pitroda publicly and scathingly criticized Indian higher education.

He called for "a systematic overhaul" of the nation's universities, which he said needed to be more independent of government, while improving the quality of their management and curricula.

Mr. Pitroda also said the Indian government's "rigid organizational structures with territorial mindsets" are hampering the country's higher-education system and that India needs to establish an independent regulatory authority to supersede the present alphabet soup of regulators, several of which are believed to be corrupt, incompetent, or both.

To improve the quality of academic research in India, the commission advised the government to make major changes in graduate and undergraduate education, including running joint doctoral programs with partners in private industry, reducing university regulation but improving governance, and setting up more quality undergraduate teaching institutions across disciplines.

In addition, he said that India needed 1,500 universities to boost its enrollment ratio to 15 percent of the college-age population from 11.6 percent.

'That's Democracy'

For most of the commission's term, Mr. Pitroda had the full support of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but he had to contend with an education minister who he said turned a blind eye and deaf ear to all of his suggestions and criticisms.

In October 2008, Mr. Pitroda publicly criticized the Indian education ministry for dragging its feet on reforms. "We are at a Mexican standoff," he said in December 2008. "Right now we are at a point where I don't expect much to happen."

For a man always in a hurry, it was extremely frustrating that, in his mind, little was getting done. "Yeah, I know, but that's democracy," he says. "What do you do? You do something else. Start thinking about the next big thing."

After elections last year, a new education minister, Kapil Sibal, was put in charge, and now almost all of Mr. Pitroda's recommendations are being acted upon.

For example, Mr. Sibal has introduced bills in Parliament to create an independent higher-education regulatory authority and to allow foreign universities to open campuses in India if they meet certain conditions.

In addition, one of the Mr. Pitroda's major recommendations, the setting up of a $1.33-billion high-speed data-communications network to connect more than 1,500 universities and research institutions in India, is expected to be completed in December 2011.

Mr. Pitroda "really gave a different perspective to the issue than normally would have been possible," says Pawan Agarwal, a senior Indian government official and author of Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future. "That's why the commission has had a great impact."

Today, Mr. Pitroda is an adviser to the prime minister on infrastructure, innovation, and information, charged with integrating information technology into India's public-health work, justice system, and other services. "I want to take 32 million court cases and computerize them," he says. "Cases have to be settled in three years—you can't have justice in 15 years."

While transforming India's notoriously slow court system is a daunting task by itself, Mr. Pitroda expects to continue to shake up other parts of Indian society—and higher education—in the years ahead.

"I'm a man in a hurry. I may have five or 10 years" to live, he says. "I want to get a lot more done."