A Farewell: The Professor Who Made India a Tech Power

By  |  May 29, 2013, 5:46 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive

A remarkable character in the history of technology died this week in Bangalore. Few in the West have even heard of him, yet every Indian technology company, every U.S. corporation that ever sent software development to India, and in fact the entire globalized world-is-flat economy owes him a debt of gratitude.

Padma Bhushan N. Seshagiri was an unlikely tech industry hero. While doing a project in India over the past 18 months, I got to know him a little. He struck me as brash, brilliant, and nerdy. When he talked about all of the incredible behind-the-scenes roles he played in launching the Indian tech sector, I at first thought he had an overblown sense of himself. It turns out he didn’t.

In the 1960s, Seshagiri attended a tiny university, Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, in Bangalore—then still a small city known mostly for it’s great weather. His math professor introduced him to the budding field of electronic computers. At the time, there were exactly two computers in India.

Seshagiri published a research paper on computers while still an engineering undergrad. He ended up getting a Ph.D., while churning out scientific papers about computing, telecommunications, software and satellites.

Going into the 1970s, India was a business and technology backwater — a non-factor in the global economy. Allied with the U.S.S.R., with a strongly socialist government and strangulating bureaucracy, India was led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She decided she wanted to understand the potential of computers in India.

She asked M.G.K. Menon, another Indian thinker about computing, to form a government commission. Menon in turn asked Seshagiri to run a new entity called Information Planning and Analysis, or IPAG. Seshagiri, supremely impatient with bureaucracy, immediately saw a problem: the government controlled nearly all companies doing anything in electronics, and protected its monopoly with laws and policies. Seshagiri used his IPAG platform the best way he could: He produced a flurry of studies and papers aimed at changing India’s tech policies. It would take him more than a decade to succeed.

“When I came into government, I was aghast to see that everything was completely stifled,” Seshagiri told me earlier this year. “The industry was stifled, growth was stifled, everything was stifled because of government regulations. This became a monster and they did not realize where to break it, how to break it, and if they break it, what will happen.”

Indira Gandhi was forced out of office in 1977 then won re-election in 1980. Indira convinced her son, Rajiv Gandhi, to enter politics, and he won a seat in Parliament. Seshagiri, working on orders from Indira Gandhi, steeped Rajiv in technology. In 1982, Seshagiri helped Rajiv computerize the Asian Games, which India hosted. It was an a-ha moment for Rajiv.

Then on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Rajiv, age 40, won the election to replace her. Guided by Seshagiri, Rajiv Gandhi quickly unveiled what became known as the New Computer Policy.

The document itself was a small step toward opening up the industry to liberal capitalism. It cut back on regulations and eased access to capital for technology companies. But the chief impact was cultural. “Until the 1984 IT policy, we were not even really entrepreneurs in the eyes of the government,” wrote Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of Infosys, in his book Imagining India. “Software did not qualify as a business. We were therefore ineligible for bank loans. We struggled to get hold of a computer.”

Seshagiri wasn’t done. Rajiv Gandhi’s reforms had been aimed at hardware. Seshagiri became convinced that software was India’s best chance for success. Software required little capital and no ecosystem of parts makers—neither of which India had. Indian programmers had the capabilities to create globally competitive software, and they could win business because of low labor costs, Seshagiri argued—far ahead of his time. New companies such as Infosys proved him right as they started to mushroom by selling software services.

In 1991, sweeping economic reforms finally opened up the Indian economy to world markets. By the mid-1990s, all the pieces were in place for a transformative event in the Indian IT sector: Y2K. U.S. companies, desperate to fix the bug they thought might shut down their computer centers, sent waves of business over fiber-optic lines to fast-growing software companies in India. By the 2000s, India emerged as a global force in software — and technology turned into the engine driving India’s surging economy.

When I met Seshagiri, he was still a dynamo, full of ideas about what needed to be done to take India to the next level. As reported in India’s media, he died at his home in a suburb of Bangalore after a “brief illness.” He was just 73. I’m grateful I didn’t miss the chance to talk to him.

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