After water comes communication  
  An Indian radical explains his passion for bringing an impoverished
population online to Supriya Singh.

Mr Tripuraneni Hanuman Chowdary, 68, is fumbling at his email in
Honolulu. "My 13 year old grandson kept telling me to practise," he says
wryly as he hands the mouse over to me. A short, alert man, he says, "He
even gave me a step by step list of what to do. But it takes too much time.
My three secretaries look after it for me." However, as Information
Technology Adviser to the State Government of Andhra Pradesh in India
since 1997, Chowdary has played a key role in the state’s transformation
into the second most important software development hub in India.
Five years ago Hyderabad’s claim to fame was the fading legacy of
Nawabs, the Salar Jung Museum and a grape industry. Now Hyderabad
is becoming Cyberabad with its own web site
Every week two Information Technology companies get registered in
Hyderabad. It has attracted the likes of Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Motorola,
GE Capital, Lucent Technologies and Metamor. Real estate prices in the
vicinity of Cyberabad in the last three years have risen from IR400 per sq.
yd to IR10,000 per sq. yd. A privately funded and managed university, the
Indian Institute of Information Technology has been set up with 60 per cent
of its faculty drawn from multinational IT companies.
The chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has headed a campaign that
has seen 80 per cent of government records computerised. He himself is
known and feared for his use of his laptop updated daily with information
on every district information system.
Indian newspapers report the chief minister is given to calling his officers
at 6.30am saying, "This is Chandrababu Naidu speaking." Since
November 1999, these morning calls have been supplemented by
scheduled video conferences at the same time. These early morning calls
do not faze Mr Chowdary. By then he has already done his one hour of
physical exercise and 45 minutes of yoga and is ready for his chief
Chowdary’s role in the transformation of Andhra Pradesh continues his
22 year passion for ensuring that every village in the state has a
telephone. His achievements have earned him the nickname, Telecom
Hyderabad Chowdary.
Chowdary comes from a family of farmers – 25 acres under padi and
pulses – in a small village called Angaluru, 50 kms from Vijayawada, the
third largest city in the state. He is proud of his family history, for his
grandfather was a social reformer and a poet in Telegu and Sanskrit. His
statue in Hyderabad marks him as one of the 20 makers of modern
Andhra Pradesh. Chowdary himself became an engineer and the first
person in the family to work for the government.

Power of the public phone

Mr Chowdary worked for the government however on his own terms.
When he was the general manager of telecommunications in Andhra
Pradesh, 1978 to 1983, the first thing he did was to move public
telephones from the post office to the village grocery shop.
"The post offices were open only for four hours and the phone often did
not work," he says. "I wanted a public telephone in every village that
worked all the time." So he moved the phone to the information hub of the
village, where there was an adequate supply of young boys and girls to
run messages.
He wanted every irrigated village to have a telephone, drawing from
Hindu scriptures the dictum that communication follows water.
Every village that was part of the state’s booming poultry industry also got
a telephone, ensuring that villagers were able to fix prices uniformly and
not get fleeced by persons in the middle. They were also able to
telephone the relevant authorities in case of power failure, for if the power
failed for an hour, the entire hatchery operations were destroyed.
When Chowdary found the government allocation of IR 100 million did not
build enough telephone exchanges in villages, he went to the villagers
and said, "Give me money, give me land, and I will build you an
exchange." Twenty villages gave him IR 50,000 (in those days equal to
$US10,000) so that they owned their exchange. It was money that was
repayable by the government over 20 years. Three hundred villages
donated land.
The building was sometimes constructed with government money, and
sometimes with village money. "People would offer to build the walls,
make the frames. I would write on the building, ‘This land was donated by
so and so, and this building was donated by so." In full flow, he pauses
and says, "The money involved was not much. The villagers must have
pride that they are participating in development. They have to say this is
our building and not a government building." Everywhere he involved the
political representatives.
In the villages, this sense of belonging is particularly important, he says.
"When there are political disturbances, telephone exchanges are
guarded by the police. In the villages, who will guard them? But if the
building belongs to the village and the name of your grandfather is written
there, the family and the villagers protect them."
He instigated a desire for telecommunications by sending linesmen to
villages to ask them to apply for a public telephone, to explain the benefits
of the phone. "For every application, I gave my officials IR 10, taking it
from the IR 50,000 he was allowed to spend for things not specified
These unorthodox methods resulted in three attempts to dismiss him. But
each time they failed at the level of the parliamentary inquiry, with the
politicians hailing his activities. In the five years Chowdary was in Andhra
Pradesh, he had 2,000 public telephones installed in villages every year.
When he left Andhra Pradesh in 1983 to take up his post as Deputy
Director of the Department of Telecommunications in New Delhi, he left a
state where 35 per cent of the villages had a public telephone against an
all India average of seven per cent. By 1990, every village in the state had
a public telephone compared to the present figure of 60 per cent for India.

Battling bureaucracy

His voice rises with passion, his speech becomes faster than usual when
he talks of the force driving him for telecommunications reform. It is a
mixture of pride in India, pride in Hinduism. "I make no distinction
between Andhra and India," he says. "For me it is Bharat, Bharat,
Bharat." An early enthusiasm for communism was shattered partly by the
failure of Indian socialism. "A socialist government thought it knew best,
that it alone could implement change, that people cannot be trusted to
know what is good for them. It insectified the citizen."
When in Delhi, he says he was able to push an early initiative in 1981 of
setting up telephone booths to give people access to local and long
distance calls. "Now there are 850,000 public call booths in India,
including 330,000 in villages. I am proud of this.
Fighting the bureaucracy took its toll and there were times when he
wanted to give up. "My wife," he says, "is a noble soul. Every time I would
say I want to give up, she would say ‘Give up? Give up? Why should you
give up?’ Their wages do not matter. You can earn more outside.’" As an
after note he says, his wife thinks he is a "bogus engineer, for I can’t fix
anything in the house."
So he continued his public activities. His campaign to end the
telecommunications monopoly in India had to be done covertly through
political leaders of all persuasion when he was a government servant. But
on his retirement in November 1989 as Founding Chairman and
Managing Director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL), the Indian
Overseas Telecommunications Corporation, he was free to publicise his
views and lobby politicians.
He set up the Center for Telecom Management and Studies in
Hyderabad with support from 150 companies at IR 5,000 a piece. He is a
fellow of Tata Consultancy Services and of Satyam Computer Services,
the second largest software company in India and the country’s first
private ISP. In return they give him office and secretarial support for he
says as soon as he accepts money from a private company, he loses his
public role.
He continues to write at least one article a day which gets published in
one of 14 publications – national newspapers, Telugu weeklies and his
centre’s monthly journal. Through these different channels he rails against
the Department of Telecommunications, argues for the removal of
Ministers of Communication that fall short, and pushes his agenda on
liberalisation and competition. Going back to his fumbling email, he says,
"I don’t want to waste time typing. I dictate at 110 words a minute. I have
three secretaries in three offices and a grandson to help me."
Chowdary’s record as a public advocate for liberalisation for
telecommunications in India and an increase in services to villages made
the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N.T. Rama Rao, seek him out to
chair the Andra Pradesh Electronic Development Corporation in 1990.
This role did not last long because soon after Rama Rao lost in the state
elections. When Rama Rao did come back to office, Chowdary together
with many others withdrew support from him.
Rama Rao is said to have instigated the divorce of a young woman who
had come to write his autobiography. He subsequently married her.
Chowdary says, he feared that as in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, an
old man’s folly would ruin the state. In September 1995, Chandrababu
Naidu, 50, deposed his father-in-law and took over as Chief Minister.
Naidu inherited a backward state with no money to pay the civil servants.
Chowdary says, "He stumbled, but then he started hearing about IT from
various sources, including me. Somehow he got convinced that IT –
applied everywhere – will lead to better government. He asked me to be
his IT advisor."

The vision for Cyberabad

The first thing Chowdary was involved in was the IT vision 2020, inspired
by Malaysian and Singapore plans. The Chief Minister made himself
accessible to telecommunication and IT companies. By 1997, they had
the vision of Hyderabad becoming Cyberabad.
In this transformation, Chowdary says the Chief Minister is the salesman.
‘What do you want?’ he asks the companies and then gives it. They built
a 500,000 sq feet cyber tower, creating space for companies to plug and
play, while they built their own buildings. In the first phase, 158 acres were
earmarked for Cyberabad. It is now 93 per cent occupied and a second
building is planned.
Chowdary admits that the danger is that the state could fall victim to its
own hype. It is believed that only 10 per cent of the state’s government
officers are computer literate. Hence the push is coming mainly from the
top, with orders being issued at the bottom, but not necessarily being
implemented. "Of course," Chowdary says, "we are hyping too much. But
if we don’t hype we cannot catch the imagination of people. If you don’t
hype it doesn’t happen."
It is the cultural change that is going to be difficult to achieve. But the
media is a powerful ally. District Magistrates, municipal councillors,
Members of the Legislative Assembly from the chief minister’s Telegu
Desam party are required to appear regularly on local cable TV, where
they take telephone calls from all over the state. The Chief Minister
himself appears every Monday on TV and radio from 6pm to 7pm.
Fears that the chief minister had taken on too many vested interests to
survive at the polls were put to rest by his victory in the 1999 elections.
"This is despite the fact that the incumbent is always defeated," says
Chowdary. He is obviously an enthusiast and campaigned for him openly
through his centre’s journal. Chowdary sees the chief minister as being
able to implement the philosophy he himself has espoused in
telecommunications, to listen to and empower the citizens.
Chowdary says the chief minister’s philosophy "is that the moment a
citizen is required to come to a government office, that is the beginning of
corruption. Let him (sic) do everything he (sic) wants with the government
from a kiosk on an information network." Hence the proliferation of 1000
Internet booths in Hyderabad and another 1200 in villages in the state.
Andhra Pradesh’s record in telecommunications and IT is within the
context of increasing expertise in IT and the liberalisation in
telecommunications in India. The country produces 200,000 IT
professional a year. Competition in telecommunications has slowly and
haltingly been introduced in local and mobile telephony. There are 125
licensed Internet Service Providers, with 50 already operating. There are
600,000 Internet registered account holders though the number of Internet
users is closer to one million.
There are some 30,000 Internet booths in India. Chowdary warms to his
favourite topic that in India people must have access to the latest IT and
Internet booths or tele-cottages are the way. In a country with a per capita
annual income of US$300, and a continuing burden of great illiteracy, it is
inconceivable to provide every household can have a telephone and a
PC at home. At these tele-cottages or Internet booths, a person can get
help and have his or her own email or voice mail box.
Chowdary says by the end of February 2000, all the 500 district centres in
India will have a Department of Telecommunications Internet node. So
any Internet call in India will be a local call. But that is where the problem
lies, for local calls are timed at IR 1.25 for every three minutes, working
out to IR25 an hour. This is in addition to the Internet access fee which at
its lowest is IR 11 an hour.
So his next campaign is to have untimed Internet calls. He says pointedly
that the dominant party of Andhra Pradesh has political clout at the
national level with 27 members of parliament. What about Internet
telephony? This gets him going in full flow against the shortsightedness of
the continued monopoly of VSNL over long distance calls in India.
"Internet Telephony will only happen when the DOT (Department of
Telecommunications) is dead," he says.

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