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Sam Pitroda: Connecting India

July 27, 2007 10:13 IST

The name Sam Pitroda rings a bell in the minds of millions of Indians, literally. For, he is considered the visionary behind the Indian telecom revolution, the man who made the country the second most populous nation in the world in terms of subscribers.

The first chairman of the Indian Telecom Commission and a close friend of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sam Pitroda started the concept of public call offices in India. The concept, hitherto unheard of, brought the masses closer to the telephone, that was earlier a privilege of the riches. This eventually led to the exponential growth of telecom in the country.

Pitroda is also considered the pioneer of the Indian telecom revolution, more than his reputation as a venture capitalist, inventor, technocrat and social thinker.

Born in Titilagarh, Orissa, Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda went to the US to do his masters in electrical engineering, after which he got a job in GTE Inc, a Chicago-based company. In 1974, Pitroda quit his plush job and started a company, Wescom Switching.

He later sold the company to Rockwell International Telecom, and headed the company's telecom department for another three years.

However, in the early 80s, Pitroda began to dream of a resurgent India and came to the conclusion that telecom connectivity was needed for "nation building". He spoke his heart out to his close friend Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a visionary like him, who invited him to India.

Sam returned to India and founded the Centre for Development of Telematics (CDOT) in 1984. Under CDOT, the country started setting up rural exchanges and laid a nation-wide telecom infrastructure that latter became the stepping-stone for telecom growth.

The coin-dropping PCOs were created by Pitroda and his team at CDOT, a device that generated an instant bill at the user's end. Until then, bills were generated at the exchange. Later, in 1987, he became the chief technology advisor to Rajiv Gandhi.

In 1989, he was elected first chairman of India's Telecom Commission.

In a recent interview with Business Standard, Pitroda said, "My ambition was to wire up the country and provide connectivity, but I found that accessibility was the key issue".

Pitroda continued his services for the country for sometime more after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 21, 1991. But in 1995, he decided to move back to the US and founded a company called WorldTel, to help develop telecom infrastructure in less developed countries.

He also joined as advisor to Kofi Annan on the United Nations's Information and Communication Technology advisory committee. He went on to set up companies like C-Sam and the recent Vavasi Telegence, while he also incubated a number of companies in the Silicon Valley. In early 2000s, Pitroda heeded, once again, the call of the homeland. He was rumoured to be in India to help Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi fight the elections, and actively campaigned for the Congress.

The recipient of India's National Citizen's Award for work on telecom, the IIT Alumni Medal and International

Distinguished Leadership Award, Pitroda became the chairman of the Indian knowledge Commission.

What next: "I'll strive to provide every Indian with adequate food, clean drinking water and shelter," he says. A noble thought indeed.

Rajesh S Kurup in Mumbai
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