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The Rediff Interview/Brijendra K Syngal, former chairman, VSNL
'India on verge of becoming a superpower'
December 18, 2006
Brijendra K Syngal is advisor to the Essar Group. Earlier, he was vice chairman, BPL Communications Limited. Before that he was responsible for all telecom initiatives of the Reliance group. He was also the chairman and managing director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd.
Syngal is the recipient of many awards for his contribution to telecommunications.
Syngal holds a B.Tech (Hons.) and M.Tech. from IIT Kharagpur, India.
In an interview with rediff.com, Syngal speaks about the Pan-IIT conference, about the qualities needed to succeed as entrepreneurs, and the challenges that face India. Excerpts:
'Inspire, Involve and Transform India.' Can you dwell upon the significance of the theme for this year's Pan-IIT global conference?
The significance of this theme evolves from the very fact that inspiration creates involvement. If one is in not involved he is not committed, he is not committed because he or she is not inspired. Therefore, to transform India we have to inspire people and get them involved and committed into nation building.
We are on the threshold of becoming a superpower. To accelerate that coming of age we have to be inspired and involved for the transformation to be catapulted to the real world stage or metamorphose into world superpower.
How do IITians plan to give back to their country and transform it?
IIT-ians have achieved and got whatever they have by the system called IIT. There is this inspiration or realisation to now give back to the country what they got from the country. The Pan-IIT movement is that vehicle of committed, inspired people who are working together voluntarily to inspire more of the 150,000 to contribute in whatever way to build the country which gave then so much called education, knowledge.
Knowledge is power, as was said some 3,000 years ago by our sages. We would like to give back in whatever way; be it plain simple moolah, or in any other way. We will work with all stake holders to create an agenda for the future and implement that agenda through this movement.
Having said that it does not mean that IIT-ians have not contributed so far, they have. The movement is to canalise, focus and collectively contribute to a common cause; the uplift of IITs and the country. The movement will create that multiplier effect. It is moving away from individual to collective effort without preventing any individual effort. IIT system needs changes. The old model of only government funding needs a change.
The movement wants to be a part of bringing in that change. It is voluntary. We will work with all stake holders. We will not do anything, which the stake holders object to, but a change is needed all across.
IIT-ians are the pride of India. What do you think is the biggest contribution of IIT-ians to India?
Outside India, creating this Brand IIT by sheer hard work, excellence in the disciplines in which IIT-ians participated and finally creating a myth that you can not go wrong hiring an Indian and on top of that an IITian.
In India, IITians contributed as nation builders of the country by joining civil services like railways, telecomm or PSUs. The biggest contribution of some of us has been to forgo the attraction of good dollar salaries and good life to have stayed back and contributed to the building of the nation at compensation levels far below than out of the shores of mother India.
It must be said that more IITians have contributed on-shore than off-shore, but that is not recognised. Therefore, the biggest contribution is to have stayed back giving up the lure of the dollar salaries.
What is it about IITs that sets its graduates apart from others?
It is the spirit of competition. You are amongst the cr�me de la cr�me of India. Therefore, you have to be better than that best or the brighter of the brightest. It is that killer instinct to beat the competition and that burning desire to stay ahead in whatever you do. It is one place where you have a Sangam of all the 23 states.
The day you enter the portals of IITs, you learn to deal with competition, cross cultures and to fend for your self. You are kind of in the deep end.
It was that mix of class room and outside of class room, the hall functions, the musical competition etc. it was this heady mix of studies and extracurricular activities.
When you made it to IIT; what was that experience like?
Simple exhilaration and ecstasy. You felt on top of the world. The world being your oyster. Suddenly the door of opportunities opened for you.
Did you have any role model who inspired you in your career?
My second cousin who got selected for the batch two years ahead of me (1955). He was a gold medallist in his year (1959).
How did the IIT help build your career and personality? How does the IIT-ian network help?
It is that cross cultural environment at IITs. You meet different set of people out side of your own sphere. It is the hotel life away from the pampering and tutelage of your parents.
Simply put it this way, the hall spirit, the course spirit, the hostel block spirit, the playing field spirit. It is that living together for four to five years of caring sharing and delivering that creates the bondage to help and assist each other. This camaraderie still works.
Could you tell us 5 things that young IIT-ians, entrepreneurs must do to succeed?
They are: honesty; integrity, hard work; sincerity and commitment to deliver. Intending to do something is easy but delivering it is often difficult and not without pain. But when you do deliver, it is the most exhilarating experience. Therefore, to be a winner, make sure you define your deliverables wherever you are and deliver them.
In the process you might have to reassess, retreat and regroup for tactical reasons � but keep your eye on the main deliverables and go for the kill at the right time with renewed aggression � and deliver. Lastly and most importantly, that killer instinct to pull the trigger to close or clinch a deal. Learn to respect the decision once taken.
What are the challenges that India faces in the new millennium? How can IIT-ians help address these challenges?
Removal of corruption. Break the umbilical cord of past fifty years of the corrupt system of politicians and bureacarcy. Poverty alleviation, nourishment, housing, basic amenities, discipline, civility, regimentation. On a broader front, water, electricity, clean affordable housing. India must harness its hydro power to meet energy needs and not listen to the west.
We must harness all the potential of brahmputra like Chinese have built the three gorges dam. There will be teething troubles, but let those not bog us down into indecision. Let us except no pain no gain. Let us not miss the woods for the trees. Let us not be crabs. The indecisions, the vested interest the crab mentality, the suffering from the not invented here syndrome is what has killed the progress of India. We need to change the entire system of governance both political and bureaucratic.
To make all sections of society to be the partners and beneficiaries of the success story. Create a society and not a band of nouveaux rich maharajas of 21st century. Corruption is a scourge; it is terminal cancer in every society. Unless this terminal disease is eradicated, we can continue to live in a fool's paradise.
How can IT be used by SMEs to grow the market?
Broadly, brings in info at the flick of a button for example say inventory control, or access to the market.
What are the challenges that India will face in the IT sector? How do you think it can be resolved?
Skilled Man power, use technology to spread education by going in for classes by satellites or internet. Create modules of courses for distribution to schools and colleges. Move away from the only classroom system of education. Use technology for outreach.
How would you rate India in terms of IT services? Do you think India will emerge as an IT super power? What role can IIT-ians play to develop India as a knowledge economy?
We have quite mastered the services sector; let us develop products like what Microsoft did. Comments reserved on IT super power status.
What would be your advice to people aspiring to join the field of IT, technology?
Develop products; no short cuts in life have patience. To curb the urge, tendency to get rich quick
What keeps India from becoming a product giant like it is in services?
They must persevere with an idea, products take time to find their niche due quality, confidence, after sales, and upgrades.
How do you contribute to the society, industry, IIT?
I believe in sharing my success both monetary and knowledge. I believe in paying back. I have 8 scholarships at IITKGP. I do charity. I support few families. I am no Bill Gates or Narayana Murthy, but do contribute in my own little humble way without making any song and drama.
By the by I am president of the IIT Kharagpur foundation, where our theme is every paisa counts. We respect contributions from a paisa, a rupee onwards. It is not rich man's club.
What advice would you give today's IIT-ians who are tomorrow's entrepreneurs?
Keep abreast of the technological changes, do not bask in glory. Acquisition of knowledge is from birth to grave. No short cuts in life. Doing is not enough delivery is most important. No excuses and bluffs. Truth does catch up. See my comments elsewhere and my various speeches.
What role can IIT-ians play to develop India as a knowledge economy?
Share and disseminate knowledge.
Many IIT-ians have preferred to go aboard rather than work in India. Do you think this trend is changing now? How can India retain its talented people?
This will not change as long as compensation, quality of life, caring and sharing society does not get created. Will not change until corruption is removed.
Which are the technologies and companies in the rich India that can have a beneficial impact on the rural India?
In addition to education, basic healthcare; we do need to improve our agro production; we do need to then improve our storage and food processing capabilities. Briefly technologies related to production, preservation and distribution of agro products.
In what ways have the earlier Pan IIT events helped? What projects has it worked on?
Awareness has been created of the IIT system and paying back to the system. It has just touched the tip of the iceberg. We need to work together to create a relationship between industry and IITs. We need to institutionalise the relationship between us the alumni and the stake holders. Vgsom school at iitkgp, gs sanyal school at IITs kgp, creation of chairs in various disciplines. Improvement of hostels at IITs. There has been funding in few R&D projects. There are quite a few projects.
Should India have more IITs? Why?
Yes, indeed, to balance the supply and demand situation, but not for export of manpower. After all they are built out of tax payers monies. Therefore, the only way to stop export of man power is to offer opportunities here and compensate people for performance. It is a mix of challenges, opportunities, adequacy of composition coupled with quality of life.
What does money mean to you?
Not a lot, poverty disturbs me immensely. We have wasted 50-plus years in not creating sharing and caring welfare society. What we have created is a corrupt society only for them. The Moguls and the British created those pliant Nawabs and Maharajas; we removed them, but have created the unethical tax avoiding evading nouveaux rich amongst politicians, bureaucarts and industrialists.
Please tell us something about how you became an entrepreneur, the difficulties you faced in setting up your enterprise?
I am not an entrepreneur, but have played a very significant role in the built up of the IT industry. I am instrumental in bridging the digital divide and bringing internet to India.
The IT industry would not have been what it is toady but for the risks, visions strategy of few of us at VSNL. We thought of connectivity in 1992 and not today. My tribute to Late Mr Naidu, Babuji and their teams in creating that infrastructure for the IT industry.
My biggest difficulties, frustrations were dealing with politician, bureaucrat and industry nexus. The opposition from them came as torpedo sinking the INS Khukri in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. They did not want PSUs to succeed, but to sink them like stones.
Yet we managed to do a bit, though not a lot. Could not create a telecom behemoth of $25 to $30 billion because of the above.
I am not an entrepreneur for self but for the country.
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