Sixty years of IT in India
By the 1980s, software development by various companies began in right earnest
I was struck by a recent headline that appeared in the business pages of newspapers, stating that the IT-related exports from India are expected to touch US $ 87 billion in 2014. In these days when colossal figures related to scams hit the headlines, this figure, coming out of hard, honest work, largely by “Generation X” is heartwarming. And to put this figure in historical perspective, software and services exports fetched us US $ 2 billion in 1998 and 50 billion in 2010. IT contributes about 7 per cent of India’s gross domestic product and employs about 2.4 million software professionals.
All this in a matter of less than 60 years! The year 2014 marks the start of the Diamond Jubilee of the entry of computers into India. Professor V. Rajaraman, whom all of us consider as the Bhishma Pitamaha of computer education in India, summarizes the story of IT in his recent monograph “History of computing in India – 1955- 2010”. It traces the milestones of the growth of IT in India from day one, 1955, when the first UK-made digital computer named HEC-2M was set up at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta by Drs Mohi Mukherjee and Amesh Roy. Rajaraman points out that this machine had but a memory of 1024 (24 bit words) and arrived at the ISI without any manuals. Mukherjee and Roy had to write them and a dozen people used them.
But a truly Indian-made computer was made by Professor R. Narasimhan at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Bombay, when he put together a pilot computer to design logic circuits in 1956. This was later expanded to produce the TIFR automatic calculator or TIFRAC, inaugurated (and christened) by Jawaharlal Nehru. Professor P.V.S. Rao, who was part of the TIFRAC team describes the story in exciting detail in the scholarly book “Homi Bhabha and the Computer Revolution” edited by Professors R. Shyamasundar and M.A. Pai (Oxford, 201; hereafter called the S + P book) dedicated to R. Narasimhan, whom they call the doyen of Indian computer science. Soon after, ISI combined with Jadavpur University and produced another home made, second generation transistor-based computer named ISIJU.
Even as these computers were getting built and used, two important developments occurred in the 1960s. One was the establishment of the IITs, particularly IIT Kanpur, where the American partners brought in what was at that time a state-of-the-art computer IBM 1620, along with a Fortran II compiler. Prof. Rajaraman points out in the S + P book how important this high-level language was at the time — novel, contemporary and easier learnt than others. The second related development was the teaching and training program that IITK embarked on. Rajaraman wrote has first bestseller “Principle of Computer Programming”, which he forced the publishers to price at Rs 15/- so that many students can buy and learn from it; it has run its 50 edition now. The machine, the mentor, the manuscript, and the bright-eyed mentees basking in the new-found mode of American informality in learning (access to all, 24/7); this invigorating cocktail made hundreds of students take to computers and IT.
The decade of the 1970s is equally important. This was the period when the self-reliant growth of the computer industry blossomed, through the Department of Electronics and the Electronics Commission of India. ECIL designed the Trombay Digital Computer TDC-12 and sold this and other versions in the market. In the private sector, Tata Consultancy Limited (TCS) was established and by 1975 TCS, under Dr. F.C. Kohli, installed Burroughs machines and began to export software. National Informatics Centre (NIC) was established, where Dr. Seshagiri set up networks such as NICNET and the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), providing opportunities for data sharing, monitoring and e-mail (my first emails were courtesy NIC). Computer Maintenance Corporation (CMC) was also set up.
By the 1980s, software development by various companies began in right earnest. By 1985 software export by TCS, CMC and others touched US$ 30 million. (Dr. Kohli has a fascinating chapter in the S+P book). Private sector entered the IT field in full measure, intercity connectivity via ERNET became operational and the National Supercomputer Centre was established at IISC Bangalore, where Rajaraman moved. Kanpur’s loss was Bangalore’s gain.
Two interesting examples of the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” came about during the 1980s. One was the need to make voting and vote-counting tamper-proof during elections in the country. The Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) was developed by ECIL and Bharat Electronics, and used. The second is the imposition of computer export ban by the US on India, which led our home-grown experts to design parallel processing machines, called PARAM.
A major milestone in boosting computers and IT in India was in the mid 1980s when the government liberalized computer import and use, with Seshagiri, and Pitroda as advisors (read them recount their experience in the S+P book), through the NIC and Centre for Development of Telematics (CDOT). Further liberalization and globalization of the economy in 1991 made private players such as Infosys, Wipro, Satyam and others become globally recognized. Rajaraman points out how factors such as “night in India, day in America” and correcting the Y2K problem came in handy for Indian IT companies. By the year 2010, IT had given employment to over 2.5 million Indians and brought in US$50 billion.
This fascinating story of the birth and growth of IT in India has some special features so relevant to current times. Interesting how individuals make all the difference – Nehru, Bhabha, Mahalanobis, Sarabhai, Narasimhan, Kohli, Menon, Srikantan, Rajaraman (not to forget Prof. Mahabala and the IITK Director Kelkar), Narayanamurthy, Premji – with their dedication, character, ethical standards, selfless service and commitment. See how even the Satyam aberration was quickly and admirably corrected. O Tempora O Mores! Or should I say: Cometh the moment cometh the man?