India’s IT success story
Review by D. S.Cheema

The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India’s IT Industry
By Dinesh C. Sharma.
HarperCollins. Pages 488. Rs 595.

THIS book is a fascinating account of how the tapestry of information technology (IT) in India has been woven by the hand of history in the past four decades. This objective record is a fitting tribute to the industry, which contributes maximum to the Indian economy, and also to the exceptional contribution of men like Mahalanobis, Bhabha, Bhatnagar, Naval B. Tata, M.G.K. Menon, Sam Pitroda, Naren Patni, Azim Premji, Narayna Murthy and many others who nurtured the industry during its formative years. These men looked boldly to the future and peered beyond the common to fight the deep-rooted "license-permit culture" and helped in the ultimate triumph of the Indian IT industry. This romance has not waned a bit; in fact, the industry is scaling new heights, thanks to the solid foundation laid by many visionaries.

The eventful story of Indian IT industry has been told in a cogent manner by the author, a journalist with deep insight into science and technology communication. The foreword by Sam Pitroda, who has played a very significant role in the story and is a witness to the entire saga of IT development in India, rightly sees it emerging as "a great social leveler" from a mere "rationed commodity".

This book traces the history of information technology in India. The emergence of statistics as "a new technology for increasing the efficiency of human effort in the widest sense" and the establishment of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in 1932, which virtually became the national computer centre at the later stage, was the first baby step in the direction of IT development. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), founded in 1942, contributed to early development of computers in a significant manner. Setting up of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and designing of control systems for nuclear reactors gave birth to the first analog computer in 1959. The first digital computer designed and developed at TIFR, which became the centre for future computer progress in India, was commissioned in 1960. Jawaharlal Nehru’s political patronage of science and Rajiv Gandhi’s patronage of technology, helped in the development and growth of IT in the country.

IBM, after setting up its operations in India in 1962, exploited the opportunity to its advantage by leasing out computers and providing maintenance and system engineering services at exorbitant rates. It harmed the interests of computer development in India till IBM was accused of unethical practices and had to shut down its operations in 1978. However, it was back in 1992 after appreciating India’s potential and her need of tapping software export as by now Rajiv’s "computer boys" had allowed the import of computers against the obligation to export software. India had already showcased her strength in software development during the Asian Games held in Delhi, so much so that the organisers of the Seoul Olympic Games approached the Computer Maintenance Corporation to develop a similar system for them.

Though state’s control on the electronics sector is criticised for its dampening effect on the growth of the computer industry, it did help create a huge infrastructure in electronics manufacture in the public sector. The setting up of the Department of Electronics, software technology parks, the Centre of Electronics Design and Technology and Technology Missions contributed immensely to the growth of IT while addressing India’s social sector needs through projects like the Railways passenger reservation system and the computerisation of the banking sector.

India liberalised its electronics policy in 1983, de-licensing the electronics sector and slashing import tariffs. In 1984, a new computer policy was announced which recognised software development as an industry. The year 1986 saw the National Informatics Centre developing an ambitious program to monitor central government’s welfare schemes. The story of emergence of companies like DCM Data Products, Microcomp, PSI, HCL and Wipro makes an interesting reading.

IT has the potential to change the face of India, especially rural India, and its full potential convincingly demonstrated by the figures of software exports post-1991 economic reforms is yet to be realised. Earlier, the "license-permit raj", lack of adequate support to technology as driver of inclusive growth, rivalry of political parties, clash of egos among the key players such as scientists and technocrats and narrow self-serving attitude of some of the bureaucrats stifled the initiative. Otherwise, India’s IT success story could have been unfolded to the world much earlier.

The book is a unique repository of information. Sharma’s style of telling the Indian IT story is both elegant and lucid which makes the book highly readable.