Documenting India’s Information Technology Legacy

Against All Odds: The History of Computing in India. Kris Gopalakrishnan, N Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan. Penguin business. 2022. 322 pages. Rs 799.

Six years ago, Infosys co-founder “Kris” Gopalakrishnan led a non-profit entity named “Itihaasa” to study and document developments in technology and business fields in India.

Its anchor project was to record an oral history of information technology (IT) in India through the words of its pioneers and leading practitioners.

The archive has grown to over 600 videos and interviews and some 40 hours of video recordings, as well as hundreds of images and articles.

Along with Gopalakrishnan, the project was spearheaded by two former Infosys professionals – N Dayasindhu, CEO of Itihaasa Research and Digital, and Krishnan Narayanan, President of Itihaasa.

The three have now come together to edit numerous records at Itihaasa, adding transitional material to create a useful and somewhat offbeat history of the growth and development of computing in India over six decades.

In a helpful introduction, Gurcharan Das, former CEO of Procter and Gamble (India), who later reinvented himself as a business columnist, lays out the major milestones of India’s infotech roadmap (infotech is the abbreviation for information technology).

It begins with the landing of the country’s first computer, the UK-made HEC-2M, at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, in 1955, where Professor PC Mahalanobis harnessed it to process the data that shaped India’s second five-year plan. .

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

Das points out the irony that Mahalanobis (and the Nehruvian government of the time) belonged to the classical school of socialism, which was rooted in public sector enterprise and a controlled private sector and had little utility for the proliferation of computing devices outside of government. .

This set back technological developments for nearly a decade until visionaries at two institutions turned things around:

– Professors PVS Rao and R Narasimhan of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai – encouraged by Dr Homi Bhabha – made the first computer made in India called TIFRAC around 1962. It was among 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) in Kanpur acquired an imported mainframe, the IBM 1620. Teachers like HN Mahabala (he died on June 27 of that year at the age of 87) and V Rajaraman operated the machine and structured India’s first computer hardware and programming courses around it, creating India’s first generation of computer engineers.

The so-called permit-license Raj continued to strangle any IT-driven development in the country, imposing duties of 140% and more on imported computers. In all of India, there were only 1000 computers in 1978.

However, individual entrepreneurs have overcome systemic obstacles by establishing companies like HCL (formerly Hindustan Computers Limited) and TCS (Tata Consultancy Services).

TCS, led by its charismatic general manager, the late FC Kohli, changed its role from mere advice to active computerization.

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

The 1980s saw India’s nascent software industry organize itself, with its standard-bearer, the flamboyant Dewang Mehta, heading the National Association of Software and Services Companies, or NASSCOM, in its years of training.

The Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) were in place, providing valuable infrastructure to an industry that was chomping at the bit – until the era of liberalization finally began with the Manmohan Singh budget of 1991.

Empowered to reshape a moribund telecommunications infrastructure, Sam Pitroda led the Center for Telematics Development (C-DOT) and helped create an indigenous telephone exchange, suited to his rural hinterland, and launched the era of “STD booths”, providing subscribers with long distance dialing across the country.

In retrospect, this is such a significant turning point as the universal Aadhaar identification system, ably led by Nandan Nilekani, was to become a decade later.

Before that, India suddenly found itself seen as the global back office, thanks to the boon of updating everyone’s business software to “Y2K” or the year 2000.

In recent years, the challenge of Covid-19 has been overcome 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.