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March 13, 2000


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N Seshagiri on life, philosophy and why he resigned the top job at the National Informatics Centre. 'Does anybody in the world know what's triggering IT?'

Dr N Seshagiri, former director general, National Informatics Centre has always maintained a low profile. But he managed to make the news recently for his role as the member -convenor of the high profile IT taskforce set up by the prime minister, Seshagiri is better known as the force behind NICNET, a satellite-based nationwide computer communication network with 1,400 nodes connecting state capitals and district headquarters.

Email this story to a friend. Seshagiri, who set up NIC nearly 25 years ago, quit his job on January 31, 2000, just four months before his due date for retirement. He says he took the step to ensure a technical person headed NIC instead of the usual IAS bureaucrat.

Seshagiri's unexpected resignation created ripples in the industry and led to speculation that the resignation was prompted by the government's decision to bring NIC under the ministry of information technology. The reports suggested that he had resigned because he did not want to lose his independence and report to the ministry and effectively undergo a demotion.

But in this interview with Priya Ganapati, Dr Seshagiri talks about why he had to resign, his relationship with the government over the last 20 years, and his future plans.

You had only four months to go before your retirement on May 31. Then why did you resign as the director of NIC?

You see, I built NIC -- Starting from conceiving the idea of NIC to nucleating the process to growing it to the level it is today. That was 25 years ago... From 1975 to 2000. That's 25 years I have given to this organisation. This has been my platform. I didn't want to leave it in such a manner that succession becomes difficult. I did not want it to pass off into the hands of some IAS officer. So I had to endure a little self-sacrifice.

My main aim was that my successor be a technical person. This organisation has 600 officers. It is a huge organisation. There are 3600 professionals working here. I know that no one other than a technically competent person can handle this place. Having handled this for 25 years, I did not want some IAS babu to take over.

So I met with the secretary at the ministry, Mr Jayakrishnan. He is a gem of a person. He is a straight forward, straight-thinking person. Also now we have a very dynamic, progressive minister in Mr Pramod Mahajan. I cannot forecast what will happen four months from now. Will the situation be as good as it is today?

When I realised that this is the best time for making a transition, I had detailed discussions with Jayakrishnan. I had detailed discussions with Pramod Mahajan and I immediately put in my papers. What I have done has now finally borne fruit.

One, the person who has succeeded me is Dr Vijayaditya. I was the one who recruited him 25 years ago. He has been with NIC since then... Now the government is looking for brass track IT professionals to head NIC. It may be Dr Vijayaditya himself. But the main thing is there will be no IAS babu heading it.

But if you had waited for four months, wouldn't there have been the same atmosphere within the government?

Well, there were some rumours that Jayakrishnan would be replaced. I don't know how the situation would have changed. Now the situation is good. Four months later will it will be good or bad I don't know. I will be taking an unnecessary risk then. If it's a normal kind of retirement in May they will make a normal kind of posting. But by doing what I did now my calculations have come correct. If I go four months earlier there is obviously some pressure on the government not to precipitate matters.

They have to try to make it appear that the whole thing is not vindictive, (scotch the impression) that technical people is this country are not encouraged etc. I did discuss this with the cabinet secretary. It's not like I did it in a hurry.

There have been reports in the media to the contrary. The reports suggest that you resigned because the government is planning to bring the NIC under the ministry of information technology. And you did not want this as it would mean a demotion for you ....

That is not correct. You know the media. Many people want to be sensational. Truth is always a casualty then. I am known to be a careful person even within the government. And they know that I will not do anything in haste. I took this step after discussing it with all the officials.

Did the government not offer you any alternative post then?

I am basically a technical person... What people would consider as a prestigious post is not what appeal to me. Three times all the governments -- be it Congress, BJP or JD -- at some time or the other had considered or even offered me the post of secretary in the department of telecommunications. But I was not inclined.

I was the additional secretary for nine years and then for seven years I was the secretary. I was even offered the secretary's post back in 1977 when Prof M G K Menon left. I was considered, but I made it clear that I didn't want to be there.

You see, if I had taken that, there wouldn't have been an NIC. There wouldn't have been most of the projects that I have worked on. There wouldn't have been most of the policies that I was responsible for.

The post of secretary at the ministry was offered to me when Rajagopal was the cabinet secretary. He told me he wanted to make me the secretary. I told him, 'If you want to do that, make me the secretary at the planning commission'. He said that the planning commission already has a secretary so I'll put you as a special secretary there.

Everyone also knows Rajiv Gandhi was very close to us. He learnt his computers from us. I had a very good relationship with Morarji Desai also. Even during Deve Gowda's time I was offered the post but I did not accept it. This time also I was considered. But during Deve Gowda's time I gave in writing to the principal secretary to the prime minister that I didn't want to be considered for the post of secretary. Because of that I wasn't offered that position this time.

Why were you so against accepting that post?

The post of the secretary of ministry of information technology is really that of a secretary. It involves more of the secretarial kind of work, like answering parliamentary questions, answering questions on policy formulation... But was I ever excluded from anything because I didn't have that post?

In 1986 when the policy on software exports was formulated I was there. You think of any major policy decision; I was there. When the BJP government came and formed the IT task force they made me the member-convenor. I steered the taskforce and pushed it and wrote the first part myself right here. When the telecom policy was made, did they exclude me? NO. So, I have no regrets whatsoever about my decision.

How did it feel to walk away from the organisation that you have built and been associated with for nearly 25 years?

I am a yogi. I do serious forms of pooja, yoga and meditation. My mind is conditioned to as a karmayogi. I have no attachments whatsoever. When I left the office I was smiling and laughing. On my last day I was joking and laughing with everyone. I have absolutely no regrets of any kind. Whatever I have done is for the good of the organisation that I have built.

Would you continue your association with NIC in some form or the other?

No. I will not. I should not. Because there are competent people here. Dr Vijayaditya is a PhD from the US. He is a student of Prof Bose. The same Prof Bose of the Bose-Chaudhari code fame. You know that? Dr Vijayaditya has been with NIC for nearly 25 years. He is very efficient. After Vijayaditya there is Dr B K Gairola. He has also been with us from 1977. Then comes Dr Y K Sharma, who is a very competent engineer from IIT Delhi. He is very articulate and technically very sound. He is in charge of the training division. He trains nearly 25,000 people every year. You think only in terms of NIIT and Aptech when it comes to training.

But these are very highly competent people who would have got five times their present salary in the private sector. So there are like these 10 people behind me. They are all well-known internationally and they are all quite loyal to the organisation. So I will leave the running of the organisation to them.

Why do you think that the government would not have continued this line of succession?

This is what is called the general cadre. And we come under the science and technology cadre. The person appointed to the top post is on the level of an additional secretary upgraded to that of special secretary. There was no way someone from the organisation would have been chosen if it had been a normal retirement. If it had been a normal retirement then it would have been a normal secession from the secretariat. And they could have interpreted the rules to put any IAS man here.

Does it mean that now you will completely cut off your association with NIC?

I have to look at the larger angle. I should not continue personally also. I have to be sensitive to people around me and their ambitions.

Not even a consulting role?

The minister and the secretary have said that I could be involved in a consulting role. But, you see, there is also a kind of personality issue here. My personality has been impressed on the organisation. There has to be a systemic procedure. If I don't break the umbilical cord like I am doing then they'll hold onto the apron strings. I have consciously made the decision to not involve myself. Let the style of leadership of others come into play. Once in a while there must be a paradigm shift. If that shift is blocked then the organisation may dwindle.

Let there be an infusion of new ideas and people. I don't want the banyan tree effect here. I would be moving to Bangalore or Hyderabad -- I haven't decided where....

What is your vision for NIC after you?

Whoever my colleagues are let the vision for NIC after me be from them. Life can be glorious if you have a broad mind and positive, optimistic approach. I don't want to do like what A P J Abdul Kalam did. Up to the age of 68 he was the secretary, R & D. The people below him are very frustrated. What is the point in demoralising an entire force just to prop up one person? You have to be sensitive to the ambitions of those below you. That is why I did not even ask for an extension. I am happy to go and leave the organisation to those who are equally capable of running it.

Now what next for you?

I cannot settle into a total retired life ever. I have been pursuing certain hobbies in addition to NIC and IT. I have done a number of research papers on the mathematical modelling of the universe. It is also called the 'M' theory. I will have it published soon. It deals with a 11-dimensional space-time continuum. I have developed the maths for it.

Ever since my days at TIFR I have been working on things like mathematical modelling and computer simulation of protein tertiary structure folding. Protein tertiary structure is quite complex and my work on it has been cited in some textbooks. I am an electronics engineer by profession. My PhD was in 1964, in computer communication, from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. I am basically an electronics and communications engineer but I have pursued other subjects as my hobbies.

Apart from this I have translated a Sanskrit book called Yoga Yagna Valkya. I found the manuscript of this rare book with a pandit in Darbang and translated it into English. The original is in Vedic Sanskrit, which makes the job more difficult. Another book I am working on is the concept of the Brahman. I'd decided to name the book that too. But in my discussions with Mr Jaswant Singh (I am fond of discussing these philosophical issues with him as he is an author too), he said, 'Simply, call the book Brahman instead of the concept of Brahman'. I am also doing a new interpretation of the Vedas and the 108 Upanishads after studying them.

So will it be no more of IT?

I don't believe in doing just one thing at a time. There have been many instances where people have asked me would you not like to do IT on a full-time basis. I said NO. Now, gone are the days when I think of micro-level implementation of IT. I want to involve myself with the macro level of IT. I want to look at the philosophy of IT.

Is the current trend of IT good? X has sold his portal for $ 850 million. Y has sold his for $ 500 million. Or why Azim Premji doesn't know how he became the second richest man. Any kind of upsurge in a narrow area means a change of priorities. Finally, it will boil down to the fact that neither the world at large or India can eat and clothe IT. We have to concentrate on other sectors also. Does anybody in the country or the world know what is triggering IT? There is no economic philosophy governing it.

No one knows why things are happening the way they are. Has the world or the Indian government thought of the impact of the hype of IT on their economic policy? Are we caught in a self-triggered chain reaction? Is there is a new economic theory required where the rest of the economy has to be dovetailed to IT? These are the kind of problems that I want to tackle. Along with one of my students Dr K Krishnan Kutty, the ex-CMD of CMC computers... I was his guide when he was doing his PHd... I am working on a new brand of econcomics. This is the macro level IT that I want to work on from now.

How long do you think that the hype in the stock markets about infotech scrips will last?

The stock market today has reached a situation where it can be labelled 'mad'. My own feeling is that it is going to rock, and rock violently. Companies like Infosys and Wipro are in for a beating because they are at the leading edge of the unknown.

It is difficult to come out once you enter the domain of the unknown and probably the unknowable. You take, for instance, the Infy scrip -- it is now getting two components. One is the real money and the other is virtual money. When the supply of black money in the economy exceeds that of white money the impact on the economy is unpredictable. In the same way when virtual money exceeds the real money supply it will unbalance the economy. Unless, in some way, the virtual money is brought into circulation in the economy... Just as there is a cycle of hype there will be a cycle of disillusionment.

For example, consider Infosys. If the investors have put in so much money on the company then they expect Narayana Murthy to do something. So he has to go out and buy companies to show that he is doing something with all the money. But then if he had got the same climate as Bill Gates in the US things would be different. If he wants to buy a company, the Reserve Bank of India can say, 'You cannot do that. The finance minister can say you can't do that.'

By the time he comes through all the problems a lot of time will have passed. And today the reaction time should be very small. Else, he will rot with the kind of money he cannot invest. then the investors will give him a beating. It remains to be seen how much of this beating would be because of bureaucratic shackles. My feeling is that in less than a year all these companies will start taking a beating.

Looking back on your tenure in NIC what do you consider as your biggest achievement?

My biggest achievement has been the setting up of the NICnet network using VSAT bandwidth at a time when the name was not even coined. VSATs were called micro earth stations then. I had seen it research papers in IEEE and communication journals that a new technology is coming with very small apertures.

That appealed to me as I thought that it is one path by which we can have low cost communication. I then went to the DoT and told them about it. The DoT officials told me that it was not possible and they worked out a network for Rs 4.8 billion. When I worked out the same network it came to Rs 750-800 million. A lot of people almost tried to prevent it.

I am a fighter and so I talked and got this project across. India then became the second country in the world to have this network after the US. Initially the company in the US, Equitorial Inc that we were talking to, refused to sell the 100 VSATs that we had asked for.

They said they didn't want to take the risk of selling it to people they were not sure could maintain it. We then gave them the assurance that if anything went wrong we would work it out. We set up this network, which became the third VSAT network in the world after the two VSAT networks in the US.

I put a team to then work on the software for the network. That's how it spread throughout the districts. A team from Australia and the then West Germany came in 1988 to see what we had done. They were very impressed and went back to their country to do the same thing. Only in 1993 or so was the term VSAT was coined. It was a great achievement, brought about only because some of us are in the habit of reading research paper and journals.

Again, we were the first ones to bring video conferencing to the country. The government is supposed to be backward in its views. So I thought, why not bring the latest technology to those most backward in their views? That's how I was responsible for the entire computerisation of the government.

I also feel good when I see people like Chandrababu Naidu. He was sitting here a few years ago when his father-in-law was still the chief minister. I had then given him a two-hour presentation on e-governance. Now he's become a great champion of IT. I feel good when I think that in some small way I have been responsible for it.

Are you happy with the support that the government offered you when you were the director?

I have no regrets. None at all. I have been given opportunities and I have lived them to the fullest. I know this doesn't sound sensational and people may not believe me if I say that I have got everything. You can take any PM... Mrs Gandhi called me personally and said that I am promoting you as the additional secretary in 1984.

Rajiv Gandhi was personally very close and gave us a lot of encouragement. When he became the PM he asked me what happened to my big dream of putting a network across the country. The next day I gave him a presentation. V P Singh who was the finance minister then was also present. One week later I got Rs 1.5 billion for my project.

When V P Singh was the FM he helped me to computerise the budget. The entire eight volumes of it was printed out here at NIC.

I used to go to Narsimha Rao's house and told him that the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 has to be repealed etc. He told me that there were 4,50,000 employees in the postal services and they'd stop work if he did that.

"My government will fall," he said. But, for NIC, he passed an act making it independent of VSNL and DoT. The Bharatiya Janata Party government has also supported me all through.

What do you plan to do now after moving out of Delhi?

This is what I was thinking seriously about. I will continue serving on committees if I am asked to. I am known to believe in freedom of speech and action, both within the government and outside it. The National Institute for Fashion Technology wants to start a major IT project and has asked me if I could be the chairman of their IT unit. I'll also take up the post of a honorary researcher at the Raman Institute. I may take up consultancy projects from the private sector.

There are a lot of groups that are looking to diversify into the IT industry. I can advise them on that. Already two to three proposals from medium-sized groups have come. I will take up a full-time job in some private company only if they don't curb my freedom. I am clear that I will do no administrative work. I should be there in the form of technical advisor. But again I must be given total freedom. They should say that on paper.

And by freedom I mean even the freedom to help their competitor if necessary.

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