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Book Extract: Shifting Base

How a ‘funeral procession’ for dead phones in Delhi in the 1980s prompted Pitroda to bring in a sea change in the sector

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Shortly after we sold Wesom in 1980, I had taken a trip to India. I realized that I had gone through substantial change in my life in the last decade. From being a foreign student from India, I had become an American citizen by 1977, with a wealth of experience in technology and management. I had learned new ways of doing things, acquired new tools and behaviours and, in the process, my mindset and manners had changed completely.

I decided to go to Delhi, the capital. I’d never been there, except for two days. During my first year of college, at the age of fifteen, I led a tour of India for about thirty students from our university. In Delhi, we had an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru and see the Red Fort and other Mughal-era monuments. ...As soon as I was settled in, I tried to call Anu to tell her I had arrived safely. But the call wouldn’t go through; there seemed to be something wrong with the line. I tried a couple of times. No luck.

When I called the desk to complain, they sent somebody up. But the call still wouldn’t go through. So I went to sleep.

This reminded me of the fact that I had never made a telephone call before leaving for America in 1964. We had no phone at home. Neither did any of my relatives. If someone had a phone he was generally deemed too rich to be my friend. Our family didn’t need a phone. Similarly, we had never owned a television. However, I knew how to design one on paper.

The next morning I looked out of my window and saw a large funeral procession passing on the street below. But it looked a little odd — a funeral, but not an ordinary funeral. I went downstairs to see, and it turned out that this was a funeral for dead telephones. People were carrying a funeral litter, but instead of a body, the litter was piled with dead, old, non-functioning telephones.

That was intriguing. A dead telephone demonstration. Telephones, my speciality, being paraded through the streets. When I asked the doorman what was going on, he said, ‘Oh, it’s just the phone problem. It takes ten years to get one, and then they never work. People get upset.’ The next day in the newspaper I saw a big article on the deadphone demonstration. My parents arrived the following day... It was quite wonderful taking my parents to see the famous sights, but the whole time I was thinking about those dead phones. I couldn’t get it out of my head — the idea that this phone situation needed to be fixed. And with a lot of arrogance and even more ignorance I thought, who better to fix it than me? This is something I need to do. I am going to fix it! I was, of course, working for Rockwell, but over time this idea became a fixation. When I told Don Beall, he said, ‘That’s fine. Whatever you want to do, we’ll support you. You want to go back and forth to India, don’t worry about it. Take time off. I’d like you to stay with us when your contract’s over, though. Maybe we can do something with Rockwell in India.’

I was moved by Beall’s generosity. Rockwell had treated me well right from the beginning. But his interest was in developing a business in India, which wasn’t what I had had in mind. ‘Don,’ I said, ‘I’m grateful. But I think I need to do my own thing over there.’ At home I told Anu about what I had decided. ‘We’ve got more than enough money now,’ I said. ‘I don’t really need to work any more. I’m going to spend the next ten years fixing India’s telephones.’ I don’t think it came as a surprise to her. She had been hearing about India’s phones ever since I came back from that first trip to Delhi.

Then I told the India Forum members. They thought that if I was serious about it I ought to first talk with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, a leading Indian think tank. Some of our friends were key people there — Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy, Dhirubhai Sheth, Bashir Ahmad — distinguished sociologists and political scientists, deeply engaged in thinking about ways to modernize Indian society.

On my next trip to India I met up with them. ‘I have this idea,’ I said. ‘I’d like to see if it is possible to fix India’s telephones.’ These were people who understood Indian society in depth. And they were interested; they questioned me in detail about what I had in mind. They told me how difficult such a thing would be, the level of bureaucratic resistance I would have to face, the bottlenecks that would hinder any effort at changing the system that was already in place.

...I had now started going to India at intervals of every few weeks, exploring the possibilities for my telecom idea and reading everything I could on the Indian telephone system. And every time I was there, I felt this compulsion to fix things. If I was in a cab, I’d find myself trying to fix the doorknob that was falling apart. Every time I landed in Delhi I would realize I had entered a different world. Everywhere I looked I’d think, This has to be changed. That has to be changed. This needs to be cleaned. That thing is too crooked. This other thing is put together all wrong. It went on and on in my mind. I was supposed to worry only about telecom, but I was seeing this vast array of non-functioning or poorly functioning things that I just wanted to repair. It was making me obsessive. For instance, I’d be talking to someone — an intelligent, interesting person — but would notice that his socks were down around his ankles and that his shirt needed cleaning; in other words, he needed to be fixed.

Later on, when I was starting to become a public figure in India, a critic wrote something along the lines of: ‘Who does this Sam Pitroda person think he is? He’s constantly finding things in India that he says are wrong. He thinks he needs to fix everything.’ The critic wasn’t saying this as a compliment, but I can’t say it was that far from the truth.

Still, I loved spending time in India, travelling, meeting people, soaking up the country. I’d think endlessly about the contrasts. America — with its individualism, its opportunities, its direct talk, the way people didn’t dance around problems but confronted them, and the American sense of equality that meant so much to me. But at the same time I understood more about India. I began to feel the essence of India, what India stood for. Diversity. Complexity. Chaos. Confusion. Contradiction. Love. Affection. Tolerance. Joy with family and friends. All of those things I had absorbed back there in my youth, but had never understood properly. It all started to make sense to me.

Rediscovering India after living abroad is a time-honoured tradition. Gandhi and Nehru both did so, along with many others. And I followed in their footsteps.
But while I loved re-finding the India I had left behind in 1964, I wasn’t getting very far with my telephone endeavour. My idea had been to first get an in-depth understanding of the system and its problems and, second, to figure out how I might be able to bring about a fundamental transformation. After a year’s worth of meetings with engineers, industrialists, politicians, academics, and others, I had accomplished my first goal. I had a clear grasp of how the telephone system worked and the different levels of its problems. I had also developed a plan for transforming it. I thought I knew what had to be done and how to do it. But I had made almost no progress in finding a way forward. The Indian political and technological landscape was a Gordian knot I couldn’t untie and had no way to cut through. I was a single individual, an outsider with no particular weight behind me.

I had, in fact, made some interesting contacts. Early on, I had even spoken with a committee, set up by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to explore the restructuring of telecommunications, which was headed by H.C. Sarin, an officer in the administrative service. A friend, Damodar Bhartia, had sent a newspaper clipping to me in Chicago about the committee, so I wrote to Mr Sarin requesting a chat with him. ...My meeting with Sarin’s committee went well. I was bubbling with enthusiasm, I spoke forcefully. Sarin and the others were receptive. Sarin said, ‘You have some good ideas. I’ll support you. I like what you’re saying.’ I felt as though I had won an important victory. But there had been no follow-up from the Sarin committee.

For over a year now I had been travelling to India and back every two weeks or so. Since there were no direct flights from Chicago, I’d take Air India out of New York. Always Air India. On the flight I could listen to music, look at people, hear the languages of India. Air India allowed me to start easing into an Indian frame of mind. But as time went by I’d find myself standing in the boarding line at JFK wondering if it was worth it.

...I often thought to myself while standing in line there: Don’t you think it’s time to shut this down and start living like a normal person? On the other hand, how could I shut it down? Everywhere I went people would tell me, ‘Yes, telephones. That’s the most important thing. The telephones just don’t work. They’re miserable. It drives you crazy. You can’t even get one installed.’ One friend, who had a Ph.D from Oxford, told me, ‘When I was younger, my parents decided I should get married. So they showed me all these girls. But after a while they all began to look the same. So I decided that I was going to marry a girl with a telephone, because then I won’t have to wait ten years.’

Then, at one of my meetings in India, someone said, ‘The only possible way for you to get your plan going would be to meet with Mrs Gandhi.’

Okay, I thought. Right. But how am I supposed to meet Mrs Gandhi, the prime minister of the country?

Back in Chicago I discussed this with Anu’s father. He was a highranking official, then a judge. Maybe he would have an idea. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I know a member of Parliament, a very decent guy. Why don’t you meet him next time you go?’ And he gave me this person’s number. Anu’s father’s parliamentary friend turned out to be the hereditary Maharaja of Baria, the tiny remnant of a princely state in Gujarat. I called him—his phone worked. I introduced myself. ‘Hari Bhai Chhaya is my father-in-law, sir. He told me I should come see you.’

‘Come, come, come,’ said the Maharaja. ‘Come right away. We’ll have gin and tonic.’ So I went to Baria and presented myself at the Maharaja’s home in Delhi. In the reception hall he was sitting on a big chair, surrounded by twenty or thirty dogs. He was the Maharaja, and his hobby was dogs.

The Maharaja beamed at me. ‘You’ll come every day. Yes? We’ll have gin and tonic. But tell me, why did my friend Hari Bhai Chhaya send you here? What do you want to do?’ I explained what my plans were and how I had been advised to meet Mrs Gandhi to further said plans. ‘That’s not a problem,’ he said. ‘I’ll arrange it.’
I sat with him for most of the afternoon, then met with him several more times. As visitors came to see him, he introduced me: ‘This is Hari Bhai Chhaya’s son-in-law. He wants to fix India’s telephones.’ ‘Aaaah,’ they said, ‘that’s not possible. That is so extremely difficult.’ Everyone I saw had a negative attitude.

Everyone talked about why it couldn’t be done. Bureaucracy. Corruption. Incomprehensible delays. It was as if they took great pride in talking about why things couldn’t get done in India. Back in America, I don’t think I had ever, even once, in my entire working life heard, It can’t be done. Sometimes people would say, I don’t know. how to do it, but never It can’t be done. Here, it was exactly the opposite.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)

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