computer age in India

The computer age in India began in 1955 with the installation of HEC‐2M (a computer designed by A.D.Booth in England) at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) at Calcutta (now Kolkata) [1]. The same year a team headed by R.Narasimhan started designing and fabricating a computer at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at Bombay (now Mumbai) 2000 km away on the west coast of India [2].  In 1955 only a few dozen scientists and engineers in India knew about computers.  In 2010 there were over 2.4 million people employed in computer related jobs and over 60 million Personal Computers were in use. Information Technology which depends on computers contributed 6.4% of the GDP of India  and IT services became the fastest growing segment among export industries and grew by 22.7% in 2010 with aggregate export revenue of USD 50 billion and domestic revenue of USD 17 Billion [3]. Undoubtedly it has been an exciting journey from 1955 to 2010 though not smooth and steady.  In the 60s and the 70s there was a lot of trepidation about the use of computers and their impact on employment.    Questions were asked whether computers were relevant for an over populated poverty stricken country.    From this jittery beginning India reached a stage in 1998 when its Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could declare IT as “India’s Tomorrow”.  How did India reach this state?   What were the contributing factors?  What lessons did India learn?  In this report I will try to answer these questions. The development of computing in India is inextricably intertwined with two interacting forces: the political climate (determined by the political party in power) and the government policies mainly driven by the technocrats and the bureaucrats who acted within the boundaries drawn by the political party in power.   There were four “break points” in the development of computers and their applications in India caused by the political party in power and some external forces. These break points are those significant events in 1970, 1978, 1991 and 1998 that changed the direction of the development of computers and their applications (namely, Information Technology or IT) in India.  In this report we will explain why these breaks occurred and how they affected the growth of IT in India.  The period 1955 to 1970 saw the beginning of the use of computers in India. A committee under the chairmanship of Homi Bhabha, an atomic scientist, realized the importance of electronics and computers in India’s development and suggested the establishment of a separate government department to promote its planned growth. Consequently a separate Department of Electronics (DoE) was established in 1970 by the Government of India. The period 1970 to 1978 saw a slow controlled growth of computing in India.    During this period the political class had genuine doubts whether computer technology was relevant for a poor developing country.  However, this did not impede the technocrats and the educators from laying the required 8 foundation which was essential for the future growth of Information Technology.   The period 1978 to 1990 saw the emergence of a local computer manufacturing industry in the private sector and the gradual loosening of government control over the computer industry.    The period 1991 to 1997 saw “economic liberalization” in India which abolished tight government controls in a number of areas that encouraged the private IT entrepreneurs to innovate.    Import of computers was liberalized and foreign collaboration and investments were permitted which enabled a large number of software companies to export software services. In 1998 the government took proactive steps to promote Information Technology by giving incentives such as tax breaks and reduced import duties.    Communication infrastructure also improved.    The cost of computers came down.    All these resulted in a rapid growth of the software services industry with annual growth rate exceeding 30%.  We will identify the significant events during each of the above referred periods and explain their impact on the development of IT in India. A number of studies on various aspects of the development of computers in India are available in the literature.  The book “The Long Revolution – The birth and growth of India’s IT Industry” by Dinesh C.Sharma [4] gives a detailed account of the history of IT in India from a journalist’s perspective.  In an earlier book C.R.Subramanian [5] discusses computer technology in India before 1990.   It is more technical with detailed statistics and excerpts from government archives.  The book highlights the weaknesses inherent in the government policy of planned development of computers. Ramesh Subramanian [6] traces the history of Information Technology in India by “gathering evidence” by talking to five IT professionals representing different groups – namely the government, education, research and industry.  (I was not one of them).    J.M.Grieco [7] analyses how India negotiated with the International computer industry to preserve its national interest without becoming subservient to multinationals.  Balaji Parthasarathy [8] discusses how India’s domestic policy initiatives enabled the Indian software industry to grow rapidly. Ross Basset [9] analyses the impact of computer education initiatives taken by IIT, Kanpur and other IITs and how this mutually helped India and the USA.    P.Walcott and S.Goodman [10] document the growth of computer networks in India from 1980 to 2003.    V.Rajaraman [11] has given a brief retrospective of IT in India during the period 1965‐1999.    The first part of the book “Homi Bhabha and the Computer Revolution” edited by R.K.Shyamasundar and M.A.Pai [12] (published to commemorate the birth centenary of Homi Bhabha) has five articles that present a historical perspective on the development of computer technology in India by professionals who participated in the development.  It has other articles written by the pioneers of the Indian computer and communication industry and provides a wealth of “first hand” material. 9 The only comprehensive and readable history of IT in India is by Sharma [4], a journalist, who interviewed a number of individuals (including me) who participated in the development of IT in India.  To the best of my knowledge no short report has been published on the history of IT in India, identifying break points, why they occurred and how they changed the slope of growth.   As an educator, a policy maker in government and a consultant to IT industry during its formative years, I had the unique opportunity of participating in and observing the growth of IT in India from 1962 till date.  This report will thus be coloured by my experience and opinion. This report is divided into 8 sections and 2 appendices.    The next section presents some facts about India as background information. Section 3 describes the historical developments of computing in India during the years 1955 to 1970 starting with the installation of the first computer in 1955 culminating in the decision to establish a Department of Electronics by the Government of India to oversee a planned growth of electronics and computers.    This is followed by section 4, which   describes the self‐reliant growth of the computer industry in India during 1970‐1977.    During this period the DoE funded the computer division of a public sector company, called the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (ECIL), to manufacture computers. Section 5 describes the growth of private enterprise in both hardware design and software development between 1978 and 1990.  This period began with IBM’s withdrawal from India following which a number of local private entrepreneurs started to manufacture minicomputers.   In this section I also describe how software services industry started and grew. Section 6 covers the period 1991 to 1997 during which India liberalized its economy, dismantled controls on industry, allowed foreign companies to enter India and promoted the growth of software services industry by taking numerous   favourable policy initiatives.    By 1997 the software services industry was on course towards rapid growth.  Section 7 describes the period 1998 to 2010 which saw the rapid growth of the IT industry.  It explains the political environment and the policy initiatives which led to this rapid growth. The report concludes with section 8 which discusses the lessons learnt from history.  It is concluded that the investments and the initiatives taken by the government in education, research and development projects, liberalizing and improving communications and supporting private software services industries with a number of incentives paid rich dividends. Investments in public sector manufacturing of computers, however, did not yield commensurate results.  There are two appendices which are useful in following this paper.  Appendix 1 gives a time line of development of computers in India.    This gives a bird’s eye view of history.    As the development of computing in India is strongly influenced by the political climate and government policies, Appendix 2  gives a time line of the political and economic history of India.

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