Sam Pitroda’s IOS lecture on “India after Covid-19 in a Hyper-connected World”

Amid Covid-19 pandemic the Institute of Objective Studies organised yet another on-line lecture recently (October 24, 2020) on “India after Covid-19 in a Hyper-connected World”, by Sam Pitroda, acclaimed development thinker and policy formulator, who spent nearly 50 years in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and related global and national development. 

Pitroda has been a leading campaigner to help bridge the global digital divide. During his stint as an advisor to the former prime minister, late Rajiv Gandhi, Pitroda led six technology missions related to telecommunication, water, literacy, immunisation, dairy production and oil seeds. He was also the founder and the first chairman of India’s Telecom Commission. In these leading roles he helped revolutionise India’s development philosophy and policies with a focus on a public access to technology as the key to social change.

In his introductory remarks, Research Director at Centre for Development  Policy and Practice, Hyderabad, and development economist, Dr. Amir Ullah Khan, described Sam Pitroda as the embodiment of scientific development in the country. He tried his best to create strong infrastructure during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as India’s prime minister. He struggled for the application of contemporary technology for India’s growth. Ten years ago, he introduced knowledge economy and headed the knowledge commission. He said that like him, Pitroda had a number of fans who hailed him for technological and economic programmes. Pitroda had a large blueprint for India’s growth. His views on challenges of modern times and their solutions were extremely relevant in today’s context. He suggested how technology could be used as an answer to our problems, Dr. Amir Ullah added. 

In his lecture, Sam Pitroda said that the situation arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic was unforeseen in human history. This was for the first time that the implications of hyper-connectivity had led the world to redesign our model that was 75 years old. Owing to congestion and other problems, it was difficult to connect by phone a few years ago, though the number of telephone connections stood at two billion. Focusing on hyper connectivity, he observed that the Corona crisis put the connectivity at half. But this had given us an opportunity to re-think and understand all we had done in the past. Today, economy was in trouble, education and health services were in a shambles. 

Poor people were suffering as economic activities were on the back burner. Everyone thought that the crisis would not last long, but that was not to be. Referring to the communication services, about which people were paranoid, but thanks to hyper-connectivity that they managed to talk to whom they wanted. Commenting on the lessons the world learnt, he said that we stayed connected irrespective of caste, creed, poor health; etc. We must take care of our planet because it is for the survival of us all. 

At the end only people matter and nothing else. Every life is important. He observed that the rise of nationalism was a global phenomenon. People were being divided without regard to caste and creed. This phenomenon was more pronounced in countries like the USA, Turkey and Philippines. Explaining the role of hyper-connectivity, he said that it accelerated the process of democratisation of polity. It empowered human beings and gave tools which were not there earlier. By empowering people, it reached out to the worst off, who suffered economically and socially. The second role hyper-connectivity played was decentralisation. 

It replaced centralisation which was based on command and control system. The third role was that of democratisation. In this field, he observed, hyper-connectivity had demonstrably democratised the economies. As a result, Uber was providing transport services and banks were demonetised. Banking services by way of teller system and the ATMs were being gradually replaced by net and digital banking, he noted.

Mr. Pitroda held that today education was centralised and this model did no longer work. Under the prevailing system one paid fees and got a certificate to that effect. One wanted to know as to who decided that a degree should be of two years or a Masters of four years. But, the basic elements that made education workable were missing. He said that the elements were motivation, learning and content. He argued that what a student could learn in class, he could also learn at home. This was the reason why what India had was an obsolete system. He said that hyper-connectivity had significantly contributed to the smoothening of medical and health services. He asserted that if India designed hyper-connectivity, then whatever it had today would be become useless and would be required to be done afresh. Hyper-connectivity would bat for decentralisation. For this, India needed democracy, diversity and demonetisation. India wanted to create a new world, which did not exist today. Referring to Gandhiji, he said that the mahatma wanted decentralisation but he could not achieve it because he did not have hyper-connectivity. He stated that democracy had to be decentralised to the state and the district level. Today, hyper-connectivity was being used to manipulate things, but that held a better future for democracy, decentralisation, freedom, human rights and trust. 

Hyper-connectivity was forcing everyone to work towards that goal, though it might take time. He said that bio-technology and nano-technology is humanities future. India, a country of 1.3 billion people, had a multiplicity of the poor. People wanted jobs, but this problem would be solved with the change of the system. He observed that 50 years from now, we would be surprised to be living. Problems of the poor would not have been solved, because they could not get the right attention. New economy and new idea of economy was needed because today’s India was designed 75 years ago. Speaking of himself, he said that he lived in poverty, saw richness from close quarters and also witnessed democracy at work in the US and India. 

Commenting on the old design, he said that democracy, human rights, diversity, consumption and the military predominated. But the new design was necessitated by the post-World War-II era. American and Chinese visions were based on old values. But the new vision would be based on hyper-connectivity. The world had seen the bipolar system of the world after agreements like NATO, WTO were signed. This included the creation of GDP and balance of payments. Under hyper-connectivity, the world neither be unipolar nor bipolar, it had to be multi-polar. He held that Covid-19 gave the world an opportunity to re-design the system of governance, leadership, infrastructure and mindset. This could be achieved by pushing decentralisation and breaking organisations in order to make them more responsive. 

He said that global power could not be centralised; it had to be shared. This could be understood in terms of the raging forest fire in Brazil. Brazilian forest fire could change the eco-system of the world. This was a matter of great worry for everyone or the planet earth, because this could adversely affect monsoon and raise the level of pollution. Referring to GDP, he said that it did not factor in value of money. Today, the judgment was not based on production and that was the reason why the world needed to be redesigned as the 75-year old design could not work. Batting for decentralisation, he noted, was significant as the world could not be allowed to waste the window of opportunity. The people required the planet, and the people meant us all. New thinking, new change was needed and the change had to come from within. There was no escape from it. He said that his book dealing with these issues was ready for publication. 

Mr. Pitroda remarked that the US had been lucky to achieve a place in the comity of nations. They worked hard to achieve this place. They had the best minds of the world; they had liberty, democracy and human rights. At the same time the US had the largest number of prisoners in the world. As far as India was concerned it had been gifted with soil, river, etc. What India still needed was to learn best practices from everywhere. The Ganga was the food basket of the world around which plenty of crops was grown. Though India had been isolated, yet it could boast of having a variety of medicinal plants that no other country could claim to possess. We must redesign our model by promoting diversity, democracy and human rights. This had become imperative since the idea of India was being challenged. 

He advised against constraining kids from doing whatever they wanted to do. They must be allowed to work on cellphones. He said that India had to be built from within; it could not be built on supply chains or exports. 

Laying emphasis on trust, he recounted his own experience of hassles in opening an account in a bank. He said that Indian banking system was based on mistrust. In this connection, he recalled Gandhiji who always talked of trust. He complained that India did not have power, logistics, robust health system, infrastructure and distribution structure. India should solve her problems with its own means. He cited the instance of China which was very clever in not giving permission to foreign companies to open shop in the country and have access to the Chinese market. Instead, they were confined to the transfer of technology. There was disturbance because technology worked as a tool. Coming down heavily on the unauthenticated behavior on social media platforms, he said that most of the people shouting on social media were unauthenticated. 

He termed the cutting or suspending of Internet as an authoritarian tendency as the old design was based on command and control system. The new design should be based on cooperation, collaboration co-creation and communication. Holding that in the times of Covid-19, hyper-connectivity helped a lot. While providing its vaccines, recipients in order of preference had to be categorised. Health workers should be given the vaccine first, followed by policemen, older people, weaker sections, protection agencies and hotspots. He observed that India did not figure much in the US newspapers which had little or no news about the country. With regard to the current US presidential elections, he said that if the democrats won, this would mean predominance of democracy. He expressed his willingness to collaborate with the IOS. 

The chairman, IOS, Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam, observed that the people were God’s honoured creation on earth. In order to preserve this honour, we needed education. People talked of human dignity. But the problem of humane aspect of development was still a far cry. Global aspects of equality and humanity were still a distant dream and the humane aspect threw a challenge to hyper-connectivity. Discrimination and social distinction were also a challenge to hyper-connectivity. He concluded by offering Sam Pitroda the mentorship of the IOS. 

Dr. Amirullah Khan remarked that Sam Pitroda had given us courage to forge ahead. He said that Mr. Pitroda’s talk was positive against the backdrop of the grim situation created by the Novel Corona Virus. He made a positive contribution to India, Dr. Khan said.

In his presidential remarks, the Secretary General, IOS, Prof. ZM Khan, pointed out that Mr. Sam Pitroda gave a new vision to the challenges that must be confronted and won. He said that the common man was struggling to survive. Democracy was being misused by vested interests with the result that our people were swayed by poisonous propaganda. Introducing the profile of the IOS, he said that the NGO was focused on the neglected and marginalised sections of society. In response to the suggestion of Mr. Sam Pitroda to consider opening of a centre of the Institute in Dubai, he assured that the proposal would be properly examined. He observed that heterogeneity of the country, instead of being an asset that it was supposed to be, was now creating problems. With a view to reaching out to the deprived sections and the minorities, the IOS was collaborating with the local people. He noted that democracy was basic to India’s culture.

Dr. Amirullah Khan, who conducted the proceedings, also extended a vote of thanks to the participants. The lecture was attended by more 100 participants from India and abroad.


Go Back