Above: Sam Pitroda/Photo by Anil Shakya
Sam Pitroda, the policy chief of the Congress and one of India’s most respected technocrats, is credited with having ushered in the digital revolution in India in the early 80s. He has served as an adviser with the rank of a cabinet minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government on technology missions related to literacy, immunisation, telecom, water and dairy. He has also served as chairman of the National Knowledge Commission in the UPA government, founded the National Innovation Council in 2010 besides serving as an adviser to the United Nations. Seldom one to make contentious statements, Pitroda found himself in the thick of controversy after his alleged comments questioning the air strikes in Pakistan by the Indian Air Force kicked up a storm on social media. He spoke to India Legal’s Senior Writer Vrinda Agarwal in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Q What are your views on the political climate and discourse in India today?
A There are a large number of people like Rahul Gandhi who are very concerned about the state of the union. We are concerned because we believe that democracy has been undermined, judiciary has been undermined, freedom has been curbed, lies are being spread openly and people have started attacking each other. In the process, real issues don’t get the attention they deserve. Issues get hijacked in the name of security, military, border issues, nationalism, religion, caste, gender. And the real conversation never focuses on fundamental issues. Our institutions are being undermined and systematically captured and it bothers some of us.
I was born in 1942. At the time when I was growing up Gandhian thoughts were very much in the air. The independence movement had given us a whole new hope of democracy, freedom, inclusion, equality, governance, and the government had a lot of work cut out. The idea of India was rooted in those ideals and that idea is being challenged now. This election is more about the idea of India. This election is more about what kind of a nation we want to build going forward. So when you look at India today and how different it is from those ideals, you are in one camp. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in the idea of India which is diverse, inclusive, democratic (but you believe in the idea that anybody can dictate what freedoms you have and don’t have) then you are in a different camp. You really have in a sense a polarized country in these two camps. Of course, there is larger polarization in terms of caste, religion, professions, poverty, education, etc. but the real polarization is in these two ideas.
Q You have worked with two generations of Gandhis—Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. What similarities and differences have you seen in their style of leadership?
A India needs younger leaders and not a leader who is in late 60s and 70s. I have seen the benefit of a young leader in Rajiv Gandhi’s time. Two, India needs a leader with character, one who believes in democracy, freedom, human values, trust, love, Gandhian values. We don’t need an actor or a great orator who lies. We need a doer and someone who develops consensus by talking to people.
Q Rahul Gandhi recently announced the minimum income guarantee scheme (Nyaya). Your comments on that?
A Nyaya is about income guarantee to the poorest of poor people who will get Rs 72,000 a year to lead a dignified life. I think as a society it is our moral responsibility to take care of the poor. But Nyaya is required in many other areas—jobs, women’s security, farmers, education, health. So, the Nyaya initiative is a very good initiative. Rahul Gandhi has approached many legal and economic experts and only after that he has gone public with it.
Q How do you view the job crisis in India?
A We have a serious problem with jobs. This government has not created any new jobs. Unemployment today is the worst in the last 45 years. In Rajiv Gandhi’s time we created millions and millions of new jobs in IT, technology, construction, etc. You need vision to create jobs. And for that you need to look forward.
There is also a need for administrative, judicial and political reforms. We also need reforms in the financial sector, labour, banking and the public sector. We need a vast array of reforms in all these sectors to create jobs in the future. How can we create more jobs if we don’t have labour reforms. Everyone loses sight of these reforms.
Q How can the legal system play a role in creating a better and improved India?
A I think justice has a lot to do in giving us the idea of India of tomorrow. We need justice in every walk of life to make things right. I have had a chance to work with the legal system in the government during Manmohan Singh’s time only from the viewpoint of technology. Not that I understand and appreciate all the nuances of our legal system but I know we have 32 million court cases pending and not enough number of judges and infrastructure. Our population has expanded substantially in the last 20-30 years but our judicial system has not kept pace. The world today is much more complex than 30-40 years ago and it requires lots of new laws, whether in the digital space or privatisation, liberalisation, free market economy, competitiveness, global businesses. It means we need more lawyers, more judges, more infrastructure and better tools and technologies to meet the needs of people.
Q The other aspect of access to justice is how some laws are misused to suppress dissent, like the sedition clause in the IPC and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Do you think there is a need to revisit these laws?
A We need to revisit our old laws to make sure they are in tune with the 21st century, with our Constitution and with our needs today. Another big task is to use technology as much as possible to expedite the process of legal justice. Third is to improve infrastructure in legal institutions and give them autonomy. Fourth is to provide required manpower, training and tools in terms of judges, lawyers and paralegal workers. I believe if you improve and modernise your legal system substantially you can probably add 1-2% to your GDP.
Q You ushered in the digital revolution in India in the early 80s and today India has one of the largest number of smart phone users. Do you think the growth in the digital space has been commensurate with your vision?
A I would say the growth has surpassed our vision. Lot of us didn’t see the smart phone and internet revolution unfolding as rapidly as it has. In addition, no one saw that the cell phone revolution would reduce cost substantially. I have spent 55 years in the telephone business. For the first 35 years, the cost per line remained roughly $1,000-1,100. So we took 115 years to add 1 billion phones in the world. Then came the cell phones which started with $2,000 per line and then reduced to below $100 per line. In 15 years we added 8 billion phones because it became affordable. As a result, it was scalable and sustainable. No one saw that coming.
Q The digital revolution has also given birth to social media which has its share of advantages and disadvantages. What are your views on it?
A Social media has been a great tool to connect people and exchange information. Unfortunately, a handful of people are using it to propagate lies which affect a large number of people. Part of the problem with internet is that when it was designed it was not designed for mobiles phones but for the fixed line. As a result, the address of the line could be identified. But now with cell phones that address cannot be identified. That hiding behind the curtain is what allows people to abuse the system.
Q Do you think that social media is being misused by one political party or do you view it as a pan-India problem?
A It is a global problem but in India it is a larger problem. Because first, we have a larger audience, and two, we have people who don’t mind lying. As an outsider looking into India, I see that the strategy is let’s create fear by saying that we have strong enemies on the border. But that enemy has been there since 1947. Second, the attitude of the ruling leader is that no one knows anything except me and everyone is incompetent. And the ruling party also alleges that everyone is corrupt except them and that the Gandhi family is corrupt and didn’t accomplish anything in 70 years. Third, their leader keeps harping on that he is a rag-to-riches story and so ought to be respected.
This is not the India some of us had dreamed of. There have been some great leaders like Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Manmohan Singh, Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee. They were decent human beings and never abused anyone.
Young people have to think about what kind of India they want to live in. Do they want to live in an India which is undemocratic and where they have no freedoms? Or do they want to live in an India where they have freedom and opportunities? People don’t make that connection between democracy, freedom, equal rights, diversity and opportunity. If you destroy democracy, you destroy opportunities.
Q You headed the National Knowledge Commission in UPA-I and suggested many reforms. Can we expect any movement on that front if the Congress comes to power?
A When we come to power we will have to revisit the knowledge commission recommendations and see what still makes sense and doesn’t make sense and then implement those reforms. A lot of those reforms are very critical.
Q What about our educational institutions?
A Our educational institutions have been hijacked. It will take a long time to bring them back to where they were. We need to systematically find and undo the damage in each institution. It could be damage because of people or processes that have been put in or because of the content that has been introduced. History is being rewritten.