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ET Awards 2012: Sam Pitroda is the Policy change agent of the year

Source: The Economic Times, 19, September, 2012

Policy Change Agent of the Year: Sam Pitroda
The award seeks to honour pursuit of work that forces legislative and regulatory reforms

A phone call to his wife three decades ago helped Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda find his 'life's mission'. In 1981, Pitroda, a millionaire after selling his Wescom Switching — a company he founded in the early 70s — called his wife while staying in a five-star hotel in Delhi. The call never went through.

And Pitroda made it his mission to get India's phones (landlines) to work! Not knowing where to start was no hurdle. He went directly to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv Gandhi, and introduced himself; in 1986, he got the job of technology advisor to the government. Much has changed since then. Pitroda is now advisor to the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations.

But, even today, he is widely known for his achievements during his first stint in India, when he got the landlines working by modernising the telecom infrastructure.

Sam Pitroda, as he's popularly known, however, thinks his current initiative — Bharat Broadband — is equally, if not more, important, as it can transform the lives of millions. The idea of Bharat Broadband — laying 5,00,000 km of optic fibre to connect over 2,50,000 panchayats that can be used by mobile operators to carry their data — had been doing the rounds for a while, but it never really took off till Pitroda took charge of the National Innovation Council (NIC) and concluded that Bharat Broadband was the answer to his quest. The ultimate aim is to link all social initiatives, and Pitroda is convinced that e-platform can go a long way in removing corruption and establishing transparency.

"We want to add applications, cyber security and payment. When all of these open source platforms are lined up, we will create a public information infrastructure to transform governance, education, health, agriculture... everything," he told ET in a recent interview. "The idea is to reach out to people and deliver public services without intermediaries. This will bring about transparency and accountability."

Under the UPA regime, he served as chairman of the National Knowledge Commission (2005-2009), a highlevel advisory body to the prime minister set up to give policy recommendations for improving knowledgerelated institutions and infrastructure. The NKC submitted around 300 recommendations on 27 focus areas, which are currently being implemented.

Pitroda is convinced that technology and connectivity at the grassroots will be key to implementing NKC's recommendations, and explains this is where Bharat Broadband comes into play, as it can remove unnecessary human interference — be it land records, tax returns, birth and death certificates, school and college records — and form the backbone for local governance.

Pitroda went to the US with a Masters in Physics and Electronics from Vadodara. His dream of going to the US was inspired by President Kennedy's statement of sending man to the moon. After MIT, he joined the telecom sector 'accidentally', and five years later, his partners and he sold their firm to Rockwell International.

It was Rajiv who convinced Pitroda to return to India permanently. With Rajiv's backing, Pitroda started the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT), an autonomous R&D organisation that made BSNL landlines accessible to millions of Indians. Rajiv also made him the head of five missions: water, immunisation, literacy, dairy and oilseeds. Fifteen years later, when he returned to head the National Knowledge Commission, the mobile revolution was well on its way in India.

Pitroda says the telecom miracle everyone talks about has so far been restricted to numbers, where the masses have a cellphone connection for voice. The real revolution, or the second phase of the telecom miracle, will happen when a nation of a "connected billion take advantage of this". "Broadband is the key driver to the second phase of the telecom and IT revolution. We've democratised voice, but it's going to take a fair amount of time to democratise information," Pitroda said, when asked on his pet Rs 30,000-crore project, which is among the largest social initiatives of the UPA regime.

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