Computing, Libraries, Tennis, India & other interests of Vikas Kamat
A Revolution Slightly Ahead of its Time
by Vikas Kamat
I want to share with you my experiences of introducing technology to the rural areas of India in the late 1980s -- much before the emergence of Web and the percolation of Internet.
Soon after I graduated from college (1988, SJCE, Mysore), I served as the Secretary of The Academy of Rural Development and Computer Technology in India under Jeppu Satish Rao.
Mr. Rao, a prominent community leader, and a civil servant at that time, was at the peak of his career, having advocated such great solutions to India as co-operative housing, and tax reform. As a devout man, he enjoyed the support of the politically and financially important holy-men of India (the Swamijis of various sects). He attracted many a great minds to work with him on this new vision that he had of heralding India to the leadership of the information age that he saw was coming, and I must say that I was privileged to work with him.
We started a series of computer literacy institutes in interior Karnataka and Goa (and of course in Bangalore, where we were based), and coordinated several large projects to use those students -- upon completion of their courses -- to become what are known today as the knowledge workers. Of course, Mr. Rao was the visionary, but I got to do all the fascinating nitty-gritty.
I worked very hard -- 80 hours a week and more, (I was 21 then) advocating such concepts as software, automation, and information technology. Even though I grew up in rural India, this experience opened my eyes to the deeply rooted Indian ethos, and the impossible problems India was facing. I came across many a local leaders -- some of them of great character and ideas, and the notoriously depressing Indian red tape. I traveled to the remotest corners (places where there's no water or electricity) and sang the glory of Information Technology. People ridiculed, opposed, and yet some of them accepted the ideas we were propagating.
I will tell you why I admire Mr. Rao. He didn't try to establish call centers or open sweatshops to fix Y2K bugs for customers outside of India. He wanted to solve India's problems by introducing automation, and by improving the quality of Indian products and services. Creation of jobs was only a side-benefit. We discussed how to restart closed industries, how to build computer applications in Indian languages, and use of computers in educational institutions. These ideas were radical for the time.
I was met with stunning success early on. The unemployed masses gave us money to teach them how to use a word processor -- in the hope that they can find a job later on, and local businesses --small but prosperous businesses-- sought our help in managing their accounting, payroll, banking, and other business needs. Obviously, there was a big void of business applications in the Indian environment.
But the initiative, being private in nature (people in India expect everything to be done by the Government) lacked beaurocratic support. I spent about six months (believe it or not, six months) filling up forms and running pillar to post to secure a loan of $20,000 that would have laid solid foundations for the project, but the loan officers found joy in harassing me and the funds didn't arrive in time to sustain the project. When I took a computer (an IBM PC compatible) from our Bangalore office to our office in Sirsi, the district magistrate harassed me that I didn't have adequate papers to move the computer to his district. In one town, a businessman who bought a computer from us didn't complete the transaction because he couldn't obtain a "No-Objection-Certificate" from the town authorities about the "sound pollution" the new machinery would create in the town. During one demonstration in the town of Mundgod, a politician opposed introduction of computers in schools because "they made the students dumb".
We did automate a distillery, a hotel, and a wholesaler, but due to the customizations, the cost overran what the customers could pay us, and eventually brought us bad repute. "We don't need computers, do something so the train service can come to this town" I was told repeatedly.
Throughout, people would ask me why India, being a poor country needed
computers. They would argue that automating human tasks would cost jobs, when
keeping people employed was a top priority for the nation. They were right, but
I would tell them to view automation as a tool to improve quality, reduce
errors, and as an emerging area of new opportunity. They teach you this
principle when you receive a
Looking back I think that Rao started a revolution, slightly ahead of its time. The infrastructure wasn't there (it still isn't there, year 2002) for what he wanted to do. The project disintegrated due to lack of secondary leadership, and also partly because of Mr. Rao's own superstitions (he wanted to unveil the secret mathematical formulae contained in the Vedas and smritis -- Indian codes of conduct, and spent quite a bit of the money on the research without tangible results). We also moved ahead single handedly, instead of building a coalition of stake holders. I honestly think that the project enjoyed tremendous popular support -- you know people thought that this change was good for them, and were willing to accept the changes that came with it -- in the hope of improved opportunities for their children, but the Indian system saturated with inept beaurocracy, archaic legal and licensing structure, and rampant corruption, failed us.
In the fall of 1990 I resigned from the project to go to graduate school at Arizona State University. In 1992 I was told that the project had run out of money and had closed down.
When I see successes of some of the companies that were started in India at the same time, with whom I had interacted, I am reminded of the painful truth that all of their success, like my own, has come because they looked outside of India for opportunity.
FYI: Rao's projects did much more than computing. They involved projects in domestic tourism development, mentorship for self-employment of fresh graduates, and development of inexpensive toys for children. While Rao's ideas of computing business didn't succeed, I take great satisfaction in the fact that numerous youngsters took inspiration from our initiative and started many small businesses, and we helped Unix take roots in many financial institutions and the colleges of India.
|Kamat's Potpourri Kamat Weblogs AnthoBLOGy|