Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza
The best connected university in India
February 18, 2004
One of these days, I keep the faith, the call will come through. In my mind, in almost delicious anticipation, I savour the moment. The phone at my parents' home will ring. They will answer. A thin and distant voice will say "Trunk call from Pilani, please speak here." And they'll say, or preferably yell, "Our son graduated from BITS Pilani nearly a quarter century ago! Probably before you were born!"
I can't wait.
I'm betting that at least a few of you will remember how, in years gone by, you had to "book trunk calls" in India. That was how it was in Pilani, home to the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, BITS, where I went to college. In those years, if I wanted to phone anywhere outside campus, I had to go to the post office. In a corner stood a dusty booth, housing an
ancient phone, one of those shapely black beasts made of bakelite. After giving the sleepy man behind the counter the details of the call I needed to make, I would wait anywhere from an hour (if I asked for it to be classed "lightning") to several hours ("ordinary"). Often, I would go back to my room and take a nap before it went through. More often, the call would not go through.
This is no science fiction, I assure you. This is what long-distance phone service was like in India till about the end of the 1980s. Not so long ago.
So it was that on one cool Pilani evening in November 1980, during my last semester at college, I booked a call to my parents for some reason, probably the usual futile begging for more money. Went back to my room for the usual nap. Forgot all about the call. (Which, come to think of it, likely means it wasn't about money). Hours passed, then days and weeks,
then I graduated and left Pilani. Months later, I suddenly remembered it. Checked with my parents just for fun: it had never come through. Twentythree years and change later, it still has not come through. So I wait, hoping that one of these days I'll have something to top those curious stories about a love letter reaching a pining lover 40 years after it was posted.
This really is what long-distance phone service was like, what Pilani was like. Not that any of us complained, or thought about doing so, or even thought this was strange. This was the norm, we were used to it. Phones worked this way. We lived with it as we lived with many other things that seem unimaginable today. Things like: The postal service was about the only
means of communicating with the outside world -- we had no email, no faxes, no couriers, no mobile phones, no smoke signals, and trunk calls were fitful at best. Chai was 50 paise a cup, the vendor who raised his price to 75 paise in my fourth year sparking a wave of student protests. Haircuts cost a rupee; massage included. A room-sized device that read punched cards and was labelled 'IBM 1130' was what we called a computer, one machine shared by an entire college.
Of course lots has changed in this quarter century. STD booths are now everywhere. Students carry mobile phones. Haircuts -- well, put it this way: I've found a wandering barber who trims my locks for ten rupees and I'm thrilled with that low price. And last year, BITS even had a young woman as president of the Student Union. The first time ever.
But possibly the most dramatic change, one I plan to make a trip to see, is the result of a worldwide alumni initiative called BITSConnect. As you might guess from the name, this is an effort to provide the whole BITS campus with state-of-the-art internet connectivity. It is now complete. So today at BITS, every student's room, the staff quarters and the academic
areas -- four thousand access points in total across the campus -- all have permanent broadband access to the Internet. The breadth of access and the bandwidth allow for full video conferencing, interactive broadcasting of lectures and net telephony, among other delights.
So if it wasn't already, the easy access to net phone service means trunk calls are now well and truly consigned to the trash can. (I wonder, though, if that black beauty still sits in the post office). And the broadcasting of lectures is good news and bad news. Good, because now there's no reason to actually wander into class on a sultry Pilani summer afternoon. Bad,
because you'll have to fight off the guilt of taking a nap when the lecture is available right in your room. (In my time, I just slept, period. In class or in my room).
More seriously, this is easily the most ambitious and comprehensive project of its kind on an Indian campus. BITS is now probably the best connected university in the country, and it would be interesting to find out how it stacks up with advanced campuses across the world.
To those of us who were at Pilani in an earlier generation, the scale and impact of this project is breathtaking, almost unbelievable. And yet to me, the most encouraging aspect of BITSConnect is not the advanced features, the impressive numbers, the possibilities it opens up for research and teaching. Instead, it is the coming together of alumni, this voluntary and generous attempt to give back to an institution that gave so many so much. Of the Rs 70 million cost of the project, alumni funded half. And while money is important, but often easy, many alumni also contributed their time and hard work to make it all happen.
Some of these are well-known CEO-types. But there were also people like Anupendra Sharma, a tireless entrepreneur and editor in NYC. Mukul Chawla, a Cisco (whiz) kid. Deepak Sharma, Aashish Bhinde, Karthik, Venu Palaparthi
and many more, too many more to name here. I often find it hard to explain to someone who hasn't been at a college like BITS the sense of bonding and camaraderie such institutions generate, even among alumni who were not
there at the same time. But it's exactly that sense that brought these people together in this initiative.
What's unusual about this, you probably want to know. There have been plenty of college alumni initiatives. This is just one more. Right?
Right, but there's a larger sense in which this interests me. Call me nuts, but I'm almost obsessed with searching for initiatives, efforts, in India in which people come together and work towards something. "Together" being the crucial word here. This is why, as I have written here before, I was so inspired by my experiences in Orissa after the 1999 cyclone and in Kutch after the 2001 quake. Yes, in the face of horrendous calamity, I was inspired. Because Indians of every stripe simply and calmly got together and did the work -- relief, cleanup -- that had to be done. No egos, no divisions, no pointed fingers, no apathy: just a recognition of need and the effort to address it.
But is it just disasters that bring Indians together? BITSConnect is a small but firm answer to that question, and that answer is "No". It demonstrates a simple truth that always bears repeating: when people work diligently and together, they can achieve a great deal. They can inspire.
That's all. That's a lot.
The BITS Pilani alumni meet is in Bombay on February 21 2004. Want to attend? Call Ivy at (022) 2490-3047 x355, or email firstname.lastname@example.org