'Retirement' is an alien word for Faqir Chand Kohli, 85, the founder of Tata Consultancy Services. It's been 10 years since he relinquished the vice-chairmanship of India's largest software company. But the granddaddy of Indian outsourcing is not just about bits and bytes.
Kohli chaired a committee that, way back in 2001, asked the government to take steps to introduce 4G telephony. Seated in his modest 'office' on the 11th floor of Air India building, the old headquarters of the company at Nariman Point, Mumbai, Kohli shared his excellent insights on a host of developmental and educational issues with DNA Excerpts:
What keeps you occupied these days?
What keeps me going are issues especially in education, computerisation across the country and thinking up on how India can do better in hardware. We are also exploring why India cannot do better in agriculture. Simply, there is very little application of science and technology in our agricultural set up. The whole thing started with our Agriculture Consultancy Management Foundation, which is headed by a senior journalist S Vishwanathan (former editor and publisher of Industrial Economist) out of Chennai.
Agriculture productivity in California is six times India's. China is doing much better than us. We need soil, sun and water for agriculture. We already have more of all of those than most countries. Then why is our productivity so low?
Why is it?
It's simple. Look at the number of graduates India produces — it's 3 million a year. About 450,000 of these are engineers, 600,000-odd commerce grads and 1.1 million from humanities. Now we have 95 agricultural colleges and 15 agricultural engineering colleges. Where do all the fellows go? They are not in the villages. They are not in agriculture. Clearly, we are not interested in what happens to what we produce. Let me go back some years. Laksh Lakshmanan of California Agriculture Consulting Service in Davis County, California joined me, as did the University of Wisconsin in a discussion. We said something has to be done about this. Let us start some experiments. Then Balaji Farms, which is located 20 kms outside Chennai, gave us a couple of acres of land to conduct our work.
When did they give it?
About 2 years ago.
To go back to your argument on science and technology not being applied to agriculture, how did we have the Green Revolution, then?
True, but the Green Revolution happened 40 years ago and that had more to do with seeds. What has happened after that? We have just not been able to take agricultural sciences to rural areas properly. That is the problem. If not, then why do you need 95 colleges?
So tell us about your experiments…
We carried out extensive soil testing in the land that Balaji Farms provided us. We were surprised the soil was good. But the soil does not need as much fertiliser as you normally put. It needs supplements like sodium, potassium, zinc and magnesium, which are necessary for plant growth. Secondly, we found that in California they till the land two feet or even 30 inches down. Here (in India) when we had wooden ploughs we tilled about two to three inches. Then came tractors with which you went six inches. We looked at how to go deeper into the soil. I spoke to Anand Mahindra and he sent some people.
They modified the Mahindra & Mahindra tractors in such a way that we could go down 15 inches. So we deposited the seeds 15 inches below the soil and then we deposited fertilisers and supplements about 6 inches below the ground level, not just spread it. And we also did water management. We ensured that water does not spread all over the place. You get the water to the place where it will make the most difference. That is to the plants and their roots.
It's like drip irrigation but is a bit expensive. It was a brilliant idea by Lakshmanan. He said between seedlings you create a mound of earth. Make it about 15 inches tall. You put a drain through it. There was nothing else to be done. Keep it filled with water. No pressure. Then take plastic pipes and siphon the water right to the roots. We also did de-weeding. The net result was that when the first crop came we got 3,100 kgs of corn against 700 kgs earlier. And we got 1,100 kgs of sunflower against 300 kgs earlier. That was our proof: science and technology was just not applied appropriately in agriculture.
Did you speak to government authorities on this?
We spoke to the Planning Commission. We have spoken to the government to run 100 such prototypes, to encourage putting soil-testing labs all over the country, and also do something on water management and fertilisers. The whole idea is to transfer it to the countryside. Once you do that, two things will happen. One is that if there is four-five times more productivity, and you manage the water well, then you can thrive even during times of water shortage.
Secondly, if the income of a farmer goes up 4-5 times, there is no reason why he should migrate to the cities. Third, which, is my point of view as a technocrat, is that villages would then be able to employ agriculture graduates.
What would they do if there are no significant agro-based industries in the villages?
No, no, we shouldn't plan everything in one go. When I tell a farmer that he should not send his son to urban areas, he does not believe me. But once he sees this rise in output, and once you provide the marketing support so that he gets the best rates and is not trapped by this cartel or that, it changes everything. First, the basic aim is to increase his productivity. We are now going to enlarge the experiment. We are willing to share that knowledge.
Getting to information technology, are you satisfied with the place India has carved for itself? Were there missed opportunities?
What have computers done for the country? Almost all software is exported. You have about $50-60 billion in exports and about $10-billion revenues from the indigenous market. Out of that, again, half of the software is from Microsoft, Oracle and others, which you import and sell. So, if you really see, there is hardly any software (made and sold) within the country.
There are 900 million people in India who do not know English. Would you not make them highly productive by making computers and software in Indian languages?
China does not use English, Saudi Arabia does not use English, most of the European countries do not use English. For good reason, we went for exports because when we started TCS, the government did not believe in computers; they thought computers will cause unemployment.
Now the thing is that everybody is making a profit by exporting software and who wants to dirty hands and focus on India? It's not an easy thing to develop software. Our problem is also that we have 22 languages. China has two, Saudi Arabia and other Arabian countries have only Arabic. So software finally has to be made in local languages like the Europeans do. Our states are bigger than many European countries. So you can't even say that everybody should learn one language.
You also want to keep the diversity because it is an asset. So this whole thing we started some years back —- it's a Government of India activity now, with educational institutes and the Pune-based C-DAC, or Centre for Development of Advance Computing. Now we have the operating system and search engine software in 10-12 Indian languages. But the question is, if I have to use software I must have application software. And there are hardly any applications in Indian language. We are looking at it, on how to do it, and trying to rope in educational bodies and all that. But none of the organisations is involved.
Now once these 900 million people become computer-literate, then you need many more PCs than now. Every year now, about 6 million PCs are sold in the country, which are imported or locally assembled. Then you would need 25 million PCs a year. For that kind of number, you would also need an indigenous hardware industry. We should not forget — it's something which I have been saying from Day One — that IT is both software and hardware. It's not just software. If you do not have both, there is no growth.
As a people, we do a lot of work that is bright. The focus should also be on "useful" work. The opportunity is going to be a lot more if you think about the whole of India.
The government has been supporting a lot of translation work-related projects. There is a lot of talk on translation from English to local languages. I found a lot of bright Johnnies who have done good work translating from English to local languages but no case in the reverse has happened. Today all lower courts, for instance, work in local languages. It is a huge opportunity to translate the local languages to English.
Even TCS has not focussed on hardware. In fact, your rivals like Wipro and HCL have, and now run a sizeable hardware business…
The reason TCS didn't was because of the government. The Department of Electronics said hardware will be manufactured by Electronics Corporation of India Ltd and Bharat Electronics. It's a countrywide thing and you have to think ahead. It takes as much entrepreneurship as software.
Wipro and HCL did the right thing to have both software and hardware. But how many PCs do they make? Only a few, right? And that, too, they assemble mostly. I am talking of 25 million PCs. If the Wipros, HCLs and Zeniths would have made all the PCs that are required then we would have a significant hardware industry for ourselves.
There was a hardware committee that I chaired in 2001. When I went deeper into it I saw that you need micro-electronics engineers for the hardware industry. At the time India was producing less than 200 of them, while a small country like Israel was producing more than 1,000.
TCS then spoke to IIT Bombay, to professors Dinesh Sharma and Juzer Vasi on how to re-engineer courses in micro-electronics. They did it and handed it over to the ministry of information technology with the request that you run those courses in 100 engineering colleges where they have good physics and engineering departments.
They did it only in 20 colleges due to some constraints. But the thing is in 2008 we produced about 1,000 microelectronics engineers. When we produce 3,000 to 5,000 microelectronics engineers, as my report suggested, then you will become a design leader in the world. Already Intel has got a design centre in Bangalore. Some others also have. Intel is designing its 6-core chip here and not in the US.
What other areas interest you?
Adult literacy is one. The government had a very major programme in removing literacy. It required 200 hours of instruction. It required trained teachers. The first problem is, where do I find so many hours to be given. Secondly, if the illiteracy is largely in rural areas, then 500,000 villages means at least those many teachers. Where do you find so many teachers to go and settle in rural areas?
Then some of my friends and I, along with professor P N Murthy, started a project on human cognitive systems. I studied human cognitive systems, I studied the process of how , we recall, how we retain. I came to a conclusion that we retain things by a combination of audio and video. What we said was why do we have to teach alphabets? We would start of by teaching words. What is our objective? It was that a literate person should be able to read a newspaper. So then came what size of vocabulary you need to read a newspaper. For an English daily, I could read with a vocabulary of 600 to 700 words.
The idea was to trim that down to 500 words. We did the first pilot at a village outside Hyderabad. In eight weeks, people in the village could read newspapers, though not fluently. Then we did in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh. I think Guntur is now totally literate. The women there have started asking their political representatives to give in writing what they promised, because those women could read. This method has been accepted in National Literacy Mission and they added writing to it.
Now the good thing about it is that all these lessons are put in CD ROMs. You load it on the PC and then you won't even need a teacher, it is so user-friendly. Our way of making a person literate took even less than Rs 100. It has worked. Some countries like South Africa and other African countries have taken this model back. Actually Zanele Dlamini Mbeki (wife of former South African president Thabo Mbeki) came to see this. She went to Hyderabad to see the pilots. She came back convinced.
Then we have done something about engineering education that came out of professor U R Rao's report — that we are not producing enough engineering Phds and that there is not enough innovation. Then the question was what kind of people are suitable for research. Some of us felt that a person who comes out of IIT goes abroad, does his Phd in four years.
Why do people here take six to eight years to complete it? A simple conclusion was that the quality of people in this country is very good but we are not preparing them in basic sciences like mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology. The IITs are good in basic sciences. They produce 3,500 to 4,000 graduates out of which 2,000 go abroad and do not come back. Another 500-600 go for MBAs. So we are not left with many on a scale that we would like to go for Phds. So we proposed to some of my colleagues who studied the issue.
We found that autonomy is required for some colleges to do this. Maharashtra had seven or eight colleges which came in the category of 'good', which had an 85% admission cut-off level for marks. The Maharashtra government had taken out four colleges from the university system —- The College of Engineering, Pune (CoEP), Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute, University Department of Chemical technology and Sri Guru Gobind Singh College of Engineering at Nanded. Now we did a total gap analysis between CoEP Pune and IIT Mumbai.
We started looking at their labs and we brought them on a par with IITs. We also got some professors look at their process of education. We also went to the extent of laying dedicated optic fibre link between CoEP and IIT Mumbai so that professors and students could interact live. What has happened is that there is marked improvement in the quality of graduates being produced by CoEP, which now produces 600 of them, The University Department of Chemical Technology in Kalina, Mumbai, produces 400 graduates. So you have added 1,000 straightway to that. The other two will also come up like this.
There are 50 such colleges in India where the focus will now move to. If a Pune prototype is replicated in all those places then you will have 35,000 to 45,000 engineering graduates with the requisite background in basic sciences.
If you have that, you can afford to lose even 10,000. Then for your graduate school be IIT or IISc, you will be left with 15,000 to 20,000 people. Then the fun starts. See, we have an advantage of scale and quality of mind. Just put them to your advantage.
Do you think you would run an organisation that will have all these businesses?
Yes I think I could. Now these have to be marketed.