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FC Kohli: A Lifetime of Repaying Gratitude to India
The Government of India awarded Dr Kohli a scholarship for his higher education abroad, and he kept insisting throughout his career that all he did in his life was an attempt to repay that debt to the country.
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Anybody who has anything to do with the Indian IT-ITeS industry and understands its genesis owes a deep gratitude to Dr Faqir Chand Kohli, the Founder CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), who is widely known as the Father of the Indian IT Industry. In the forties, the Government of India awarded Dr Kohli a full scholarship for his higher education abroad, and he kept insisting throughout his career that all he did in his life was an attempt to repay that debt to the country.
The Indian IT-ITeS sector contributes 10% to the country’s GDP and has captured almost half of the global IT-ITeS outsourcing market. However, but for Kohli, there would have been either no Indian IT-ITeS industry at all or it would have lost its early-mover advantage by a couple of decades. Prof. Clayton Christensen once told me at Harvard Business School that the only time there has been a disruptive innovation in the Indian software industry was when TCS became the crucible to successfully test the onsite-offshore model, heralding the physical separation of the customer from the software engineer.
For several years FCK would depute almost 20% of TCS engineers on domestic projects that amounted to less than 10% to the revenue, since he always believed that it would be a shame if Indian software professionals do cutting-edge work for global multinationals while our own country is deprived of their services. He always regretted that despite his best efforts, the Government of India did not pay heed to setting up a world class semi-conductor industry which was the prime reason that India could never develop an indigenous hardware industry. Another lament of Dr Kohli was the country’s failure to develop software in vernacular languages which became the reason for its digital divide.
Post-retirement, Kohli’s iconic work on adult literacy could also have made India fully literate 15 years ago if the successive governments had embraced it whole-heartedly with the passion the idea deserved. As a matter of fact, if India had around a dozen more people like FCK in different walks of life, we would have become a fully developed nation perhaps a few decades earlier. The Padma Bhushan, honorary doctorates, international recognitions and lifetime achievement awards came his way, but he remained largely indifferent to such felicitations.
As a young management consultant in my early days at Tata Group in 1994, I had gone to discuss a power sector restructuring project with the formidable FCK. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he had in fact cut his teeth in the Indian power industry before moving to IT. As can be expected, he told me quite simply in his characteristic style, “Young man, be better prepared next time if you wish to be better received.” On another occasion, I heard barely a few minutes before a meeting with him that he always expected his associates to be prim and proper, dressed in a blazer without exception. I quickly borrowed one from a colleague, although this didn’t escape FCK’s keen eye. Once the meeting ended, he remarked, “Well, gentleman, that blazer doesn’t appear to be yours!”
I have always felt blessed to have received so much love and affection from Dr Kohli and his consumer-rights lawyer wife Swarn. I have travelled with FCK extensively in the UK and in India for long distances; with him sharing countless anecdotal experiences with me, reflective of his immense wisdom and foresight. I once remember that while he was buying a belt at a leather store at an airport, I bought a wallet but he insisted on a composite invoice, paid the entire amount himself and did not let me pay for my purchase. He remarked, "You are just like my son".
For years, he used to send a European music magazine to my son Ujjwal when he told FCK that he was learning piano. Once when they were having dinner at our home, he learnt about my son's forthcoming birthday and he sent a cheque for Rs 1,000/- from Mumbai on the day of his birthday. There are so many memories like these which now stand fossilized. He retired from TCS 24 years ago and I left TCS almost 5 years back, but we still get a basket of mangoes grown in Dr Kohli’s Alipore home orchard, every year - without fail. Well, one rarely gets such genuinely caring leaders and life-long mentors like him in today’s world.
All these years, none of my Mumbai visits would be complete without meeting Dr Kohli. Just before the pandemic, it was such a pleasure spending a couple of hours with Dr Kohli in the same room in the Air India Building in Nariman Point- overlooking the Marine Drive- from where he ran TCS as its longest-serving CEO. Meeting him every time was like a pilgrimage and I felt like drinking deep from the fountainhead of knowledge. At the age of 96, he worked and read voraciously in his office for a few hours every day, until just before the Covid19 hit us.
During the Partition of India, his family migrated from Pakistan to settle down in Lucknow. Since Kohli was studying abroad, he never lived in Lucknow except in vacations but always felt the gratitude since the city gave his family, which had been rendered homeless, a shelter. He completed his BSc (Hons) in Electrical Engineering from Queen's University, Canada in 1948. He then worked for a year at the Canadian General Electric Company and subsequently received his MS in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950.
FCK was later trained in power system operations in the US. He returned to India in early August 1951 and joined the Tata Electric Companies where he helped set up India’s first load dispatching system to manage system operations. Spotting Dr Kohli’s brilliance, JRD Tata picked him to set up TCS in the late sixties. Kohli’s obsession for technology, focus on training, customer centricity and emphasis on process rigour became truly legendary - and the rest is history. I never really understood why the Government of India never conferred the Bharat Ratna on Dr Kohli given his unparalleled contribution to the nation. Anyway, it was an opportunity lost for the Government since Dr Kohli had risen above accolades and recognitions; and was in a different league of self-actualised leaders in the same league as JRD Tata, APJ Abdul Kalam, Verghese Kurien, MS Swaminathan, E Sreedharan and Mother Teresa.
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