Pit Stops in India's Digital Journey

The pandemic has brought millions of Indians face-to-face with digital technologies – remote working, teleconferencing, digital and touch-free payments, telemedicine, online education, e-commerce, paperless transactions, and so on. These technologies have been around for many years, but the pandemic fueled their widespread dissemination and acceptance. Billions of digital transactions, including micro-payments, take place every day. Millions of school children are hooked to online classes, teleconsultation with doctors has become a routine affair. All this is nothing short of a transformation for a country where new technologies were feared, vehemently opposed, and were unaffordable not so long ago.

The present stage of digital adoption comes as part of a long chain of events that started with automation and mechanization in the 1960s and the 1970s, and computerization of public services beginning in the 1980s. My book, The Long Revolution (HarperCollins India, 2009) - and its international edition The Outsourcer (MIT Press, 2015) – elaborates this fascinating journey. In the 1960s, mainframe computers were introduced in the large public sector and private companies for payroll accounting, inventory management, etc., while research and academic institutions used them to teach programming and in executing national projects. Indian scientists and engineers also demonstrated technologies needed for remote learning, technology-enabled distant working, data communication links, networking of computers, satellite broadcasting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, much before all these became commercially available. All this happened under a difficult policy environment of restricted imports and lack of access to basic communication means such as landline phone (waiting period for which extended up to five years).

The National Centre for Software Development and Computing Techniques (NCSDCT), a unit of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Department of Electronics, developed technologies for remote computing. At the annual convention of the Computer Society of India (CSI) at Pune in January 1977, three computers at the conference venue were connected to the NCSDCT’s computer in Bombay using telephone lines. The remote access technology was later used for conducting the one-year post-graduate course in software technology of the centre. Since it was meant for working professionals, classes were held in the evenings and over weekends at the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (VJTI) in central Bombay. Its TDC-316 computer was connected to a PDP computer located in TIFR in Colaba using telephone lines. It was the first such experiment in computer networking as well as remote learning in India.

Around the same time, Dr. N Seshagiri, founder-director of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), spoke of ‘information communication as a substitute for travel.’ While experimental studies were underway in Europe to test the feasibility and efficacy of audio and video conferencing as a substitute for business travel, Seshagiri envisaged something revolutionary – teleworking. He proposed in December 1980 that:

Computer programming can be done very effectively through interactive terminals, and such terminals can be installed in one’s house through portable terminals connected to a telephone kind of outlet. And, it is possible to develop. I have myself done it and many of my colleagues have also tried it in the US and other countries, through interactive means of programme development and software development. The time of software development gets reduced, even to the extent of one-tenth. The second thing that direct data entry systems are coming in large numbers, which means data can be keyed in through keying stations that will be remotely located. … I am giving these typical examples where the type of workforce and the description can change in the next 10 to 15 years when we come to terminal operating systems with very great facilities (allowing) people to work from their homes.

Seshagiri not only foresaw offshore software development  - which was to bring billions of dollars in export earnings in the decades to come – but also business process outsourcing (BPO) and ‘work from home’ which would emerge in the new millennium. As a key technology policymaker, he helmed the software technology park (STP) scheme and the IT Task Force which together set India on the path to knowledge industry and digitization.

Yet another landmark in the transition from automation to computerization was the passenger reservation project of the Indian Railways, which introduced the country to the concept of e-governance much before the term was coined.  It was a unique application of technology to benefit people when access to personal computing devices was inconceivable (mobile phones were still a decade away). The passenger reservation project served as a showcase example for other public services such as banking where trade unions were against automation. Work on using computers in banks had begun in the early eighties amidst stiff opposition from trade unions which observed March 1 as ‘Anti-computer day’ and 1984 as the ‘Anti-Computerisation Year.’ Bank clerks used to deliberately put stapled papers in printers to make them stop working. This was even though manual banking was highly inefficient. Clearance of even a local cheque could take up to 15 days. When news agency, PTI, introduced a computer-based news processing system in April 1984, the employees union opposed the introduction of computers.

Initially, the Reserve Bank of India went ahead with the computerization of clearinghouses and also installed ledger posting machines. An agreement was reached between trade unions the Indian Banks Association (IBA) in September 1983 for ‘selective automation.’ It was agreed that banks with less than 500 branches will not install large computers or that no accounting machines will be used in rural branches and no electronic machines with memory will be installed in semi-urban branches. In 1984, the Committee on Mechanization in the Banking Industry chaired by C Rangarajan suggested the use of computers at the branch, zonal, and apex levels with ledger posting machines, microprocessor-based systems, and mainframe computers.

Another panel on communication networks for banks recommended in 1987 the setting up of a banking network between RBI and nationalized banks for data communication and to handle inter-bank fund transfers. The IBM mainframe computers available with RBI and some public sector banks were proposed to be used for this network. This gave birth to Banknet and led India to join SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) for faster transmission of international financial messages. Yet another panel headed by Rangarajan in 1989 opened up automation in the national clearing of inter-city cheques, branch level computerization and connectivity between branches, and setting up of a network of Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) in Bombay.

The next time you swipe your credit card at a restaurant, book a train ticket from the IRCTC app or pay your vegetable vendor using UPI, just pause and think of the arduous journey the country has traversed to reach this stage.

The IT revolution is seen as the 'miracle' of the new millennium: there are myths and hype; claims and counter-claims. The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India's IT Industry (published by HarperCollins Publishers India) is an attempt to set the record straight. It is a detailed and meticulously researched account of the computing and information technology industry spanning half-a-century. 

A fascinating history of how India became a major player in the global technology industry, mapping technological, economic, and political transformations. The international edition of the book, titled The Outsourcer, published by MIT Press is available on Amazon.

Dinesh C Sharma is New Delhi-based columnist and author. He is currently the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow working on a book on the making of modern Hyderabad. He was a Fellow of the New India Foundation in 2006.

The New India Foundation