Tuesday, June 23, 2015

From Consumers to Producers - The Indian Story - Part 7 - Blame it on Sam Pitroda

Blame it on Sam Pitroda

We have all become isolated, independent units, hiding behind the cool, smooth glass surface of our monitors and mobile phones. We are connected to the society only when these devices are connected to a network. Otherwise, we are alone, lost in our own world, concerned with only the self, becoming narcissists. We are prone to exposing our thoughts, feelings, life events, loves, hates, and joys online, on social media sites. We measure our quality of living on how many 'likes' our Facebook status acquires, or how many 'hits' our websites get.We are exposing ourselves to the extreme, to the point of obscenity. We find ecstasy in communication. This is what Jean Baudrillard and other philosophers say. Neil Postman also says that we have become 'technophiles' and overdependent on technology to point of thinking that our day cannot start without reading whats on WhatsApp or other social media. Robin Jefferey call us the 'mobile nation'. Technology has deprived us of any sort of semblance of social capital, so necessary for a successful society.

Personally, I think we need not be so pessimistic. Please read my earlier post. But then, who is responsible for all this, especially in India? Well, let's go back a little in history.

The McBride Report, generated from the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), a study sponsored by UNESCO failed to change the way the world communicates. That was because the two biggest sponsoring nations, US and UK backed out citing commercial reasons. Around the same time (1980s), several changes took place in the political and economic scenario in India.

Immediately after the Emergency, imposed by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was lifted in 1997, the Janata Government came into power, but lasted only for two years. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1979. During this period she invited Sam Pitroda to develop the communication network in India. He was also advisor to Rajiv Gandhi following the death of Indira Gandhi. During this period of political turmoil, the country was also going through an economic crisis. 

India’s Economic Policy and the Communication Revolution 

In 1991, a Balance of Payments crisis brought India to the brink of bankruptcy. For obtaining a bailout from the International Monetary Fund or the IMF, India was forced to introduce several economic reforms (Not to take away any credit from Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then Finance Minister). Controls were dismantled, duties, tariffs and taxes were lowered, monopolistic state organizations were dismantled and the economy was opened to trade and investment. The private sector was encouraged by these reforms. As the ‘license raj’ partly ended, there was a surge in the businesses and India quickly entered the globalised world. Two of the biggest beneficiaries of these reforms were the Telecommunications and the Information Technology sectors.

The telecommunications infrastructure, which was wholly owned by the government, was opened to the private sector producing exemplary results. The regulatory constraints were eased in 2004 and now India boasts of the third largest telecommunications network in the world (OECD, 2007).  This was because of the steps taken by Mr. Sam Pitroda, widely known as the architect of the modern, state-of the art, communication telecommunication network that India possesses. The yellow coloured PCO (Public Call Offices) dotting the country are a result of the vision of Sam Pitroda. The electronic, and then the digital telephone exchanges, are a result of Mr. Sam Pitroda's meticulous planning and vision. The mobiles that you use everyday, are also a result of that.

Today, in 2015, India has the second largest population of mobile phone users in the world and has over 100 million Internet users (India Internet Usage). There are several Internet and mobile service providers in the country and their intense competition has resulted in cheaper mobile phone and Internet services. Though there is a difference in the speed of Internet connectivity between India and the western world, it is still much better than it was a decade ago.

During the last decade, India has become a hub for the world for outsourcing software services. This has resulted in faster transfer of not only technology, but manpower, media, and finance, from the western world to the country, creating millions of jobs and earning the country precious foreign exchange and at the same time enabling the country to have communication technology at par with the developed world.

Youth, who form a major chunk of India's population, have embraced the new media and produce content using their computers, laptops or their mobile phones, uploading it on video sharing platforms, blogs and social media networks. They prefer to read content online rather than read a book or newspapers. They prefer to interact with the medium rather than be passive receivers of information. This is the generation of tomorrow's global citizens.

Of course there are problems, but is technology to blame? Marshall McLuhan said that we shaped technology, and now technology is shaping us. Is it wrong? I am sure, we will be able to harness this very technology for the betterment of mankind. But then who is to blame for the problems we are facing? Sam Pitroda?

A footnote: I wonder if Mr. Sam Pitroda will ever read this. If he does, I am sure he will take it in the right spirit. This post is dedicated to him. Thank you, Mr. Pitroda.

Note: This series of posts is by no means a definitive guide about how it all happened. And I have also not resorted to documentation, or references. This is the story from my own eyes, as a witness and a participant in the evolution of communication in India.