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May 7, 1999


Amberish Kathewad Diwanji in New Delhi

A bug's file: A status report on the efforts of the government's Y2K Cell. Is India on the road to Y2K disaster? The answer, thankfully, is no, but just about so. The fact is that until last year, one could safely bet in favour of a Y2K meltdown.

Email this story to a friend. The scenario was frightening enough for the Indian government to sit up and take notice. After all, according to a government estimate the Y2K problem could cost the nation Rs 80 billion, if not tackled.

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The government authorised its Department of Electronics to take the necessary action.

The DoE tied up with the Hyderabad based CMC Limited, a government run computer firm, to prevent the looming catastrophe.

A special Y2K Cell was created in December 1998 and it has made some progress, at least sufficient to see that India won't grind to a halt at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999.

"The biggest problem with us Indians is that we are a very complacent lot," laments S Ramakrishnan, head of the Special IT Project Division and Y2K co-ordinator at the DoE.

The effort, first and foremost, is to shake Indians out of this all-pervading complacency, he explains.

"The Y2K problem was being totally ignored. No one knew its extent, some people who operate computers did not even know what it was all about," says Ramakrishnan.

Thus a media campaign was launched involving seven advertisements published so far in 130 newspapers across India. The campaign would stress the urgency of the situation and ask readers to 'act now'.

It is here that CMC came into the picture. Whether by telephone, fax, or email, the CMC would reply to any question within 48 hours.

"Most of the queries can be resolved by the CMC itself," says P V Rao, head of the International Systems Group, the section that deals with Y2K at CMC Limited.

Beyond the first level consultancy provided by CMC, 140 software firms throughout India have been listed to provide solutions and help individuals and firms, small or big.

To give an idea of how little people knew, many of the callers were just individuals and firms that operated their computers for a few hours a day and therefore had no worry about a Y2K bug.

But some of the inquiries are more serious.

"We tell the people not to worry but that they must also remain aware of what is happening and of what can go wrong," pointed out Rao.

The response has been good, or at least Ramakrishnan and Rao feel so. "Our Web site registers 5,000 hits a day, hundreds of letters and call.

"We have received 10,000 queries so far," said Rao, adding, "Now we can say that the Y2K is on everyone's agenda."

The effort was further boosted by other measures. "The idea that Budget can offer tax benefits to ensure Y2K compliance originated in our Y2K Cell here. Moreover, the Securities and Exchange Board of India and the Company Law Board have also issued guidelines that each company's Y2K compliance must be listed in the quarterly statements," added Ramakrishnan.

Even the Planning Commission has got into the act with regard to state governments and public sector companies. Member Secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia has written letters in this regard to stress the importance of the matter.

In the fight against the Y2K bug, Ramakrishnan lists the advantages and disadvantages of India. "The biggest advantage is that we have a huge pool of trained manpower to tackle the problem," he said.

This statement certainly is beyond doubt. Thousands of Indian youngsters, who have gone West, have taken wings on the Y2K flight!

"And the second advantage is that India computerised very late, hence there are fewer computers which in turn will take less time to resolve the problem," consoles Ramakrishnan.

But then there are the disadvantages. "First is the lack of awareness, which we are fighting with some success. Second is the complacency that exists. And third is that we are such a chaotic lot, there is no system. Nothing is done unless pushed to the wall," said Ramakrishnan, sounding exasperated.

Private companies have made good progress in ensuring Y2K compliance, consumer goods giant Hindustan Lever has spent Rs 800 million and should meet the government's deadline of September 30, 1999.

Small and medium enterprises have banded together to take help from the Y2K Cell.

In government, the result is mixed. The public banks and financial institutions are well ahead in meeting Y2K compliance, the railways are chugging along and the civil aviation sector is only in mid-flight (actually it should be ahead since civil aviation is almost completely computerised).

The sectors lagging behind are petroleum and power. Among the public sector, the result is mixed and in the armed forces, the navy is ahead of the air force and the army, but not yet clear.

The big worry is the state governments. Again, a state like Andhra Pradesh is no problem but Bihar sure is. State governments that do not meet Y2K compliance run major risks. At risk are their employees' payrolls, school examinations and admissions procedures, revenue collection, pensions, taxes and utilities such as water, electricity and road transport.

"Actually, I am sure that once more the deadline will be pushed further back," said Rao, pointing out that the earlier deadline was June 30, which is now the end of September. The trouble is you can't get later than December 31!

Ramakrishnan agrees that much remains to be done. "Time is of the essence," he says. The Y2K Cell is now releasing more advertisements in different languages to target the states of India.

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