Equal parts entrepreneur and technocrat, Sam Pitroda is credited with laying the groundwork for India’s telecom revolution. Born in Titlagarh, Odisha, Pitroda left for the United States for post-graduate studies in 1965. He later became a successful entrepreneur, working on the cutting edge of digital switching technology, and has since created several businesses including the mobile wallet solutions firm C-SAM, which was acquired by MasterCard in 2014. In his recently launched autobiography Dreaming Big: My Journey To Connect India, Pitroda, 73, talks about his journey. It’s a journey that includes creating a multi-million dollar fortune in the US by the age of 37, returning to India, and leading the effort to connect the country through telephones. Prior to the launch of his book, he sat down with Forbes India to discuss, among other things, the Indian economy, his role in bridging the telecom divide and why he doesn’t do business in India. Edited excerpts:
Q. You began with an idea to connect India in the 1980s. Today, there are nearly a billion mobile phone users in India. What role do you believe you played in this transformation?
No one man can do these things. It is the combined effort of a large number of people, not just within India but globally. At the same time you need key people who have a vision and you need them to plant the seeds. Early on, I very strongly felt that telecom and IT would change the face of this country. Now it seems trivial, but, at the time, it was a wild idea. Then the idea was to create an Indian model for development. It needed rural telecom exchanges, PCOs; we needed local production, local design and local industry. We could plant the right seeds, create human capacity and infrastructure but ultimately to reach where we are today, a lot of things had to happen. Someone had to invent the mobile phone, for instance. We didn’t do that. But those early days really set the stage.
Q. Now that the basic idea of connecting India is on track, what else is needed in order to create a digital India?
To create a truly digital India, connectivity is just one piece. You also need IT, you need a Geographical Information System (GIS) and you need platforms for application, like cloud computing, low-cost terminals, etc. While we looked at connectivity, our focus was on telecom, not on broadband. Now for the next stage of development we need to move to the next level of broadband connectivity. Digital India to me means democratising information.
Q. Do you believe it has become easier to do business in India?
No. It’s because lot of the processes are obsolete. For instance, I had to fill a form for a trust that I’m involved with here, and it said: Write the names of all your brothers and sisters (I have eight siblings), their children (about 45 children). Then I was asked how much wealth my daughter-in-law has. I can’t do that. It’s idiotic. But that’s the kind of system we have. So is it easy to do business? No. I have created more than 15 companies in the United States and I’ve never been to a government office.
Q. There’s a lot of positivity about the Indian economy these days. How do you see it?
India has to grow. There’s no way out. When you have 600 million people below 25, you need to clothe them, feed them and provide jobs for them. I believe India will continue to grow at 8 percent, maybe even 10 percent, but the key is what kind of growth is that going to be? Is that growth going to be inclusive or exclusive? Are we going to create more billionaires or are we gong to lift more people out of property. That is the real issue.
Q. In the book, you’ve written about the importance of a top-down approach for reforms. You’ve also extensively quoted Gandhi in it. Isn’t a Gandhian approach incompatible with top-down development?
They are complementary. If I have to do something at the rural level, I need to plan it at the top. Gandhi said India needs to focus on rural communities. The policies for that have to be started at the top, but the impact has to be at the bottom. So there’s no contradiction. If you don’t focus on agriculture, if you don’t focus on creating jobs at that level, not force people to rush to urban centres for jobs, what kind of India do you want to build? It’s going to kill us. Look at what is happening to all our cities. Is that the kind of India you want to build or do you want to use technology to take good jobs into the rural communities? Policies to ensure this will have to be decided at the highest level.
Q. You have praised the AADHAAR initiative. It has been in some trouble lately…
It has not been in trouble. We have already provided 800 million people with an AADHAAR card. The only problem is that it hasn’t been plugged into all the important things yet. Ideally, I’d like the AADHAAR number to be plugged into two main things: One, the mobile phone number and two, the bank account number. If you plug it into these, everything else should fall into place.
Q. In your book, you’ve written extensively about your relationship with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. What was the shared vision that brought you together?
I think the shared vision was the kind of India that we wanted to build in the 21st century. Within this larger vision, my interest and domain expertise were in the technological aspect. For example, you can say you want to connect India, but how do you do that? What kind of technology, time frame, talent… all that was my piece. What he had I couldn’t have, and what I had, he couldn’t have.
Q. You worked on mobile wallets when the technology was at a very nascent stage. How did the idea come about?
My idea then was to really just put a wallet on a cellphone. Later, a lot of big players got into it. So I sold the company (C-SAM) to MasterCard (in 2014) because you need a lot of muscle to survive in that business. I was not 40 years old anymore, or else I would have gone to the market and built a company. I was 70, so I thought the best thing was to sell. If I was 40, I would’ve gone public, I would’ve fought with everybody in court on my patents and I would’ve won. But that’s how life works.