Documenting the Information Technology Heritage of India

Against All Odds: The IT History of India. Kris Gopalakrishnan, N Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan. penguin shop. 2022. Pages 322. Rs 799.

Six years ago, Infosys co-founder ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan ran a non-profit organization called “Itihaasa” to research and document the development of technology and business areas in India.

His main project was to chronicle 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 around 40 hours of video recordings, as well as hundreds of images and articles.

Along with Gopalakrishnan, the project was led by two former Infosys experts – N Dayasindhu, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Itihaasa Research and Digital, and Krishnan Narayanan, President of Itihaasa.

The three have now come together to edit many of the recordings at Itihaasa and add bridging material to create a useful and somewhat unusual story 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 later reinvented himself as an economic chronicler, lays out the key signposts on India’s Infotech roadmap (Infotech is short for information technology).

It begins with the landing of the country’s first computer, the British-made HEC-2M, at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta in 1955, where Professor PC Mahalanobis used it to process data that shaped India’s Second Five Year Plan.

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

This points to the irony that Mahalanobis (and the Nehruvian government of the time) belonged to the classic school of socialism, based on public sector enterprise and a controlled private sector, with little use for the proliferation of computing devices outside of government.

This set back technological development by nearly a decade until visionaries at two institutions changed things:

– Professors PVS Rao and R Narasimhan at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai – encouraged by Dr. Homi Bhabha – made the first Indian-made computer called TIFRAC around 1962. He was one of 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 such as HN Mahabala (he died on June 27 of that year at the age of 87) and V Rajaraman took advantage of 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 license Raj continued to throttle all IT-driven development in the country and imposed tariffs of 140 percent and more on imported computers. There were just 1,000 computers in India in 1978.

However, individual entrepreneurs overcame systemic obstacles and set up companies such as HCL (formerly Hindustan Computers Limited) and TCS (Tata Consultancy Services).

TCS, led by its charismatic General Manager, the late FC Kohli, has streamlined its role from pure consulting to active computing.

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

In the 1980s, India’s burgeoning software industry organized itself, with its flagship, the flamboyant Dewang Mehta, who led the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) in its early years.

The Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) were in place and provided a valuable infrastructure backbone for an industry clinging to the bit – until finally the era of liberalization arrived with the Manmohan Singh budget of 1991.

Tasked with redesigning an ailing telecommunications infrastructure, Sam Pitroda led the Center for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) and helped build a native switchboard suitable for her rural upstate, ushering in the “STD booths” era , which provided subscribers with office dialing across the country.

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

Before that, India was suddenly seen as the back office of the world thanks to the windfall of updating everyone’s business software in 2000 or 2000.

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

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