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October 4, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/R Chandrashekhar

'Technology is not the issue... It is about managing the change'

Rennitala Chandrashekhar is considered one of the brains behind Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu's acclaimed development and Information Technology schemes.

A senior Indian Administrative Service officer with over 20 years experience, Chandrashekhar holds a master's degree in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and in computer science from Pennsylvania State University.

As the state government's IT secretary and the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation chairman and managing director, he has also been playing a pivotal role in the southern state's IT initiatives.

In an exclusive interview with J S Sai, Chandrashekhar evaluates the progress made on Chandrababu Naidu's dream projects like Cyberabad and electronic governance.

''There is no denying the fact that a lot of impetus has been provided by the leadership of Naidu,'' he says. ''But, at the same time, it not as if that there was nothing before that or that everything will come to a halt if he is not around. In fact, Andhra Pradesh has been at the forefront of IT usage, for a decade at least. There has been a history of this culture getting built slowly. Even now there is a large team which has played a significant role.''

Excerpts from the candid interview:

What do you think are the achievements of the Nara Chandrababu Naidu government in the IT sector?

At a very fundamental level, the most important thing has been to focus attention on IT as a strategic instrument for providing greater efficiency, accessibility, transparency and so on within the government.

I think that fundamental perspective is very critical. Once the potential of IT in that context is realised, then the different parts of the government have to start identifying the ways in which this can be used for the purpose. That understanding is a vitally important one.

The second thing is that today one of the major features of IT is that it has become more network based. So integrating systems and networking them is the key...

If you look at it in this context, one of the significant achievements has been to build the infrastructure to achieve that end objective. That is also something that has been done. You know the state is the first one that has implemented the wide area network (Andhra Pradesh State Wide Area Network) which is operational. Of course initially the network reaches only the district level, but the idea is to drill down below the district headquarters, and go down to the mandal level (the state has 1200 mandals).

Even at the district level, is it not true that only the collector's office has been connected?

Currently we have reached only the collector's office, but we plan to extend it to a few other locations. We are looking at various options for the last-mile connectivity, and we have also entered into some innovative partnerships with industry. So a lot of interesting, exciting possibilities have emerged....

Could you spell out some of these exciting possibilities?

When you go down to the last mile and the actual connectivity, in today's world the way things have evolved -- whether it is computing or whether it is entertainment -- there is a tremendous opportunity to use it for high-quality education, where faster learning is possible. This of course envisages the use of the Internet. But what needs to be looked at is the cost-effectiveness... I think the IT industry cannot give answers in this regard. We can only give suggestions, we can only facilitate the process. It is for the educationists to look at that.

How do you plan to fund the growth of infrastructure till the mandal level and beyond?

While the first phase of the network has been done by the state government, subsequent growth will have to be fuelled by demand, actual demand for the services that are to be created.

I have visited several districts to cover the polls. I had problems getting Internet access even at some district headquarters. If such is the scenario, how do you plan to create demand?

That is precisely the point. You have hit the nail on the head. Here you have a chicken and egg question. You don't have demand for Internet because you don't have the ability to connect into it. Secondly, you don't have the relevant content. And you don't put in the relevant content because it is not a viable medium... So which is to come first? The content or the reach?

Given the condition of infrastructure in India, particularly in the hinterland, we believe that the creation of some basic infrastructure is a pre-requisite to catalyse and stimulate the growth of content. Then it becomes a self-perpetuating engine where content grows, it feeds the growth of infrastructure...

How long do you think would the process take in a state like AP?

With the basic level of infrastructure that has been created, I would think that within one year we should have sufficient local content which would drive the further growth of the sector.

The state had been trying to implement several IT projects including APSWAN, which we have discussed, and Andhra Pradesh Value Added Network which has been shelved. At what stage are the other projects now?

It is immaterial whether a particular project (referring to APVAN) has been shelved or not. But the objective of providing convenient services to the people has very much remained the central theme of the government's efforts. And there are a number of different possibilities and ways of doing it technologically....

Basically, when you look at the content, there is an implementation to it, there is the back-office implementation within the particular department, then there are the intermediary level of network arrangements, then there is the front end....

We feel the determining step in this is the back-end. What we have focused our attention on in the meantime is getting the computerisation activity within the department done. A number of departments have already met with success in their own way including treasury, registration, commercial taxes, land records, etc.

So the projects have been implemented on a stand-alone basis in several departments. That is, these departments have networks which are confined to their offices. But they have not been integrated across the state...

How long would it take to have the whole system in place including the network, the optical fibres and the software?

If you compare what has been done with what eventually needs to be done the progress has been quite insignificant.

Is it 20 per cent, 25 per cent...?

It may not be very meaningful to talk in percentage terms. I would not look at this as a project, but as a process. So it is the process which needs to be put in place.

How long do you need to set the ball rolling?

To put the process firmly on track, and to set in motion a clear process by which things are all moving in the right direction, would require two years. But if you ask me how long the whole process would take for implementation, the answer is that it could even be 10 years.

But my point is that we have heard a great deal about the state's IT plans, but little is visible when you go to the district or taluka level, where you find one or two computers at the sub-registrar's office.

There I would differ with you. It is not true that nothing is visible beyond the district level. What has stopped at the collector's level is the network. The computerisation itself has gone much further, and it has been stabilised, and in operation for a long time... That has penetrated widely.

Even to stabilise these as stand-alone systems, it needs a tremendous amount of effort in terms of providing training, providing infrastructure, etc. We have done that. Viewed against the complexity of these problems, providing a network or providing network-centric services is a smaller problem.

To give us an idea as to what the chief minister has done in the last four years, could you tell us how many PCs have been installed in the state?

We don't really have that kind of census of the computers in the state. Maybe another yardstick would be the expenditure on IT implementation in different projects. Perhaps it will be between Rs 500 million and Rs 1 billion.

Is it true that the number of computers has gone up from 50 to 600 in the state secretariat during the period?


At the district level, could we have some figures like that?

In the secretariat firm figures can be given because there is a specific project -- the AP Secretariat Campus Network. In the districts, there has not yet been such a project.

In fact what we are now doing is implementing a similar project in one district so that the same can be replicated in other districts.... What has happened at the district level is that computers have been brought in by different offices and different individuals in a non-integrated fashion. Even the money has been drawn from different sources. That is why it is difficult to verify the number of computers.

How do you react to the allegation that there is a lot of hype, and that nothing much has been done?

When you look at the use of IT in government, it is wrong and facile to expect that you talk of the project today and six months down the road it will be done. The mistake that people are making is in thinking that it is that kind of a magic watch. It is not.

Though the technology is established, it does not mean it can work overnight in India. Number one is that it requires a lot of funding -- we also have to see the cost-effectiveness. We also have to understand that we have a creaky system, and it is all about people. Technology is not the issue... It is about managing the change, and it is about managing the people.

There is a lot of resistance from the staff?

No, I would not put it negatively like that all. If you do not train people, go step by step, then you will naturally find that you are not able to implement it. It becomes easy to say that there is a lot of resistance and throw your hands up. But I have not encountered any case of resistance when a project has been implemented step by step... once the employees know that computerisation makes their job easy.

Why have the employees opposed APVAN? Was it because they were afraid, as claimed by several people, that they would be deprived of their 'perks'?

I can't believe that this is the dominant reason for the employees' opposition to the project. There may be some people for whom this is a factor.... I don't think that computerisation is a panache for corruption.

You have said that things cannot happen overnight. But hasn't the government created an impression that the entire administration has been digitised?

I do not think the government has created an impression that it is happening, or that it has already happened. What the government has tried to do is paint a picture. For, the most important thing here is managing change, and when you are managing change, and when you have thousands of people who need to understand what you are changing, communicating what you are trying to do, and what your objectives are is the first basic step....

If somebody says, ''You said this yesterday, and why is it not happening today?'' that is not our problem. They have not understood the problem.

In fact, one of the criticisms in some context has been that the government has not spent sufficient amount of time on communicating what is going to be done. Now we cannot be hung both ways -- on the one hand we have over-communicated, and on the other we have not sufficiently communicated. I don't know how somebody can simultaneously accuse us of both the things.

Perhaps the first comes from the people, the second from the employees...

That is the whole point. There is a mean. A certain amount of communication is essential to this whole change process because the government exists for the people. And IT won't happen unless there is some demand from the people.

It reminds me of the railways. They have quietly gone about computerising their reservation systems without ruffling any feathers... But the state government went to town without taking its employees into confidence, even when there was no concrete plan... Don't you think the railways have done better, without any confrontation from the employees?

I don't think there was any confrontation with the employees. When the treasury was computerised where was the confrontation?

But APVAN had run into problems.

In that case certain issues were raised, there were certain apprehensions, because of which the government said the project is not going to be implemented. But it was not the employees' case that computerisation should not be done.

How well is the software industry in Hyderabad shaping up?

The growth has been really good in percentage terms. The growth has been really good in terms of bringing who's who of the IT industry to Hyderabad. We have made a very good beginning in the IT-enabled services, and that is the major growth area of the future.

Hyderabad has clearly established itself as a major IT centre. In fact the whole state, not just Hyderabad.

What is the growth rate?

It has been a 100 to 120 per cent.

How does it compare with other centres like Bangalore and Pune?

Bangalore, I think, has been having a growth rate of 60 to 70 per cent a year -- that is the industry average for the country. Chennai has also recorded a very high growth rate last year. Pune also had a fairly good growth.

So where does Hyderabad stand now? At one stage we were talking of overtaking Bangalore.

Bangalore has been around for a long time. I would not like to oversimply it... But what is important is where the new investment is headed? Whether the new companies are looking at Hyderabad? What has been the percentage increase?... Today, from a point where it was a miniscule one in 1992, it has reached a stage where it is one-fourth of what it is in Bangalore.

I think it is much less -- Bangalore is something like Rs 30 billion whereas Hyderabad is around Rs 5.75 billion...

But that is a significant achievement.

So what is the position of Hyderabad -- second, third?

Well, if you leave aside Bombay and New Delhi, today we have reached a situation where principally investments are going into this triangle of Bangalore-Chennai-Hyderabad.

So where is Hyderabad?

In terms of new investment, I think AP has ranked very high, particularly in terms of foreign investment.

Isn't it true that even Pune has overtaken Hyderabad?

Pune has had a good growth rate.

I believe even centres like Baroda are about to overtake Hyderabad?

No. That is not true. A large number of centres like Thiruvanthapuram, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar have been competing. But only centres like Hyderabad and Pune have done reasonably well.

There are rumours that Hi-Tec City is not fully occupied.

Would you like to know the correct statistics?

Yes. Please...

Hi-Tec City is at the moment 92 per cent full -- 92 per cent is fully booked. It may not be physically full because the companies are ramping them up at their own pace. The space available at Hi-Tec City now is only eight per cent, and the enquiries we have got is much more than that. We are, therefore, starting the second phase in the month of October.

What has been the impact of the arrival of big companies like Microsoft on the local companies?

It is too early to say because some of these big companies like Microsoft have a relatively low level of dependence on the local companies. But some other companies like GE, which has just begun its ramping up, plans to set up a huge unit. Their strategy involves a lot of local participation...

So it is still a little early to say what the impact of their arrival has been. The indirect impact has been that Hyderabad has attained a certain level, which has brought in a number of other companies.

Sometime back you had said that only in the recent years big names have started considering Hyderabad. Isn't that an exaggeration considering that public sector IT companies like CMC, which had been started years ago, are based here?

I don't think that it is anybody's case that Hyderabad has never had any big names before. In fact Hyderabad was the original capital for IT before Bangalore came on the scene because both CMC and ECIL were Hyderabad-based.

Hyderabad was certainly the IT capital in the days of the public sector... Hyderabad also had big names like Baan which has been around for a long time.

So it is not that there were no big names or no multinationals. But a larger number of big names like Microsoft, Motorola, Citicorp coming here has happened in the recent past. This has made a difference in the perception of the MNCs.

Has IT education kept pace with the developments? You of course have the Indian Institute of Information Technology...

What has happened is that there has been a tremendous increase in the number of IT educational institutions. In fact a lot people feel that Hyderabad is teeming with IT training institutions.

Is it true that Hyderabad has been facing a problem with fake degrees, fake experience certificates? An IT professional (who had a brief stint in Bombay) recently told me that his prospective employer looked at his resume, and commented that he was happy that he had not worked in Hyderabad.

It is very easy to pick up one subjective stray comment, and try and extrapolate it to infinity, and derive conclusions which are at variance with known facts.

I don't think that the stray remarks made by one individual can be held to counter the visible decision of a large number of companies which have reached the top in a globally competitive situation. Companies like Microsoft have been on record that they had no difficulty in meeting their personnel requirements.

I agree with you that Hyderabad...

I am glad you do ( laughs).

I agree with you that Hyderabad has been producing the best of software professionals. But is it not true that several people are trying to make a fast buck, bringing disrepute to the state? You yourself had submitted a list of professionals and their experience levels to the US consulate some time back.

It is amazing how much disinformation gets built around a simple fact. The reason that was done was that the consulate had brought to our notice that from several places in south India there were reports of people coming with fraudulent certificates. They asked various states whether they could do something... We acted very fast, and provided an online list which they could access from the consulate... It is rather unfortunate that from that we draw a different conclusion.

All our IT plans seem to depend on one individual -- that is AP Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu. What happens if he loses the poll?

There is no denying the fact that a lot of impetus has been provided by the leadership of Naidu. But, at the same time, it not as if that there was nothing before that or that everything will come to a halt if he is not around. In fact, Andhra Pradesh has been at the forefront of IT usage, for a decade at least. There has been a history of this culture getting built slowly. Even now there is a large team which has played a significant role.

While there could be accelerations or decelerations, we are certainly not in a stop-go situation. Just like on liberalisation, there is a consensus on IT in this country. It is no longer a question of an individual believing in it or not.

Do have a contingency plan to tackle the situation in case Naidu loses?

We have no such plan. The bureaucracy is here to implement the policies of the government.

A very senior retired official has said that AP does not have the tradition of leaders building on the good work of their predecessors. On the contrary, what has been seen is CMs demolishing the good work done by their predecessors...

One of the things about IT is that introducing it, and stabilising it does require leadership, thrust and prioritisation. But once it is in place it does not decay on its own, unless there are major efforts to undo it. And none of the projects in AP have ever been undone, though there have been several changes. There is no question of rollback.

But have we reached a stage where it cannot be rolled back?

It depends on the particular project. You cannot say for IT as a whole. There is no question of IT reaching a stage where it cannot be rolled back.

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