At age 26, Sachin Pilot became the youngest member of Parliament in India when he was elected to the 14th Lok Sabha (Lower House) from the Dausa Parliamentary constituency of Rajasthan in May 2004. Today, as minister of state for India’s Ministry of Communications and Technology, he is a member of the Indian National Congress and represents the Ajmer constituency of Rajasthan. Among his concerns is bridging the technology gap between urban and rural areas so that all of India can participate in, and prosper from, the country’s economic growth. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton at the 2010 Wharton India Economic Forum, Pilot discussed the digital divide, the future of telecommunications in India and his move into politics.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What does a minister of state for communication IT do? What are your responsibilities?
Sachin Pilot: I am minister in the department, and we have three Government of India departments in this ministry — the Telecom Department, the Information Technology Department and the Department of Post. These are the three areas that we look after in this ministry.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What kinds of things are you responsible for?
Pilot: We look at those three areas of work, but primarily the telecom sector — mobile services, land line services, any form of communication in India comes under this ministry. For the IT sector, it’s the software, the hardware manufacturing, all the IT-enabled software services, BPO [business process outsourcing], so on and so forth — anything to do with electronics, the Internet and the hardware of IT.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You went from General Motors to the Wharton School and then into politics, winning your first election when you were 26 years old. Can you tell us about any lessons you may have learned from those transitions?
Pilot: When I look back, it seems to have happened quite on its own, but once I did my MBA at Wharton, I went back to India and I took some time out to think about what I should be doing. All that I’ve seen growing up in a family that had politicians in it, all my experiences, what I have learned, what I have seen in India, [while] traveling and so forth — I thought all of those could be used in a platform for politics. Because I had worked in the private sector and I had this wonderful degree from Wharton, I really wanted to put it to best use. Therefore, after a lot of thought, I decided to run for [office] and people were kind enough to elect me for the first time in 2004.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What kind of strategies from your business school days are you using to solve problems that you face today?
Pilot: I think good education always holds you in good stead, especially from a college and university [like] Wharton. [It has] really added to my world view and how I have seen various things develop and the many challenges that we face … Most of the challenges today are quite global in nature and one has to have a perspective where the horizons are very wide and where we are able to understand the issues so that you are best able to deal with it and best suited for the kind of policy that you want to initiate. So I think the experience and the education I’ve had, especially with the faculty and the kind of exposure that I had at Wharton, have made me better prepared to take on the challenges, especially in the economic arena … I think education of any sort helps you in policy making, whether you are a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, but I think an MBA degree has been very, very useful to me.
India Knowledge at Wharton: I read somewhere that you spent a night in a remote village in Rajasthan, that you slept on a wooden cart and had your meals with the villagers. What promoted you to do that and what did you learn from it?
Pilot: Well, growing up, I’d always been doing it with my father when he was a member of parliament and traveling across India because ultimately those are the people that I represent. Being with them and spending time with them and understanding more of their sorrows and joys and being a partner to them is very, very important because in India politics is very emotional and very physical. You have to be there with the people that elect you and I think a lot of people, lot of my peers, a lot of other politicians do that. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise as to why to someone did that. I think it’s very natural way of … being able to relate to the people who have put you where you are.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You also said that India must bridge the digital divide so that the ‘other’ India can be the part of the growth story. Can you tell us what prompted you to launch that project?
Pilot: We’ve had tremendous growth in the last 15 years. I also personally believe that we have to make sure that the goods and the services of the government [are] distributed equitably. I think every Indian has a right to be a part of the information technology revolution that we’ve had in the last 15 years. It should not remain isolated to just big metro cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. I think people in smaller towns … and smaller villages have as much of a right to participate in India’s growth story. I think the Internet, the information technology, the telecom services can be a great bridge between people, whether they come from urban areas or rural areas, whether they are rich or poor, young or old. I think all of these divisions and all of these fault lines can be transcended if you use technology and put it to good use. I think in the coming years we’ll see more of this. IT has to be used as a catalyst to transform and change people’s lives, especially those who don’t have the resources to get access to that kind of service. So the government is really working hard to making sure that there is no divide, especially no digital divide, by giving people more access to information technology. We hope we’ll be able to achieve that.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What kind of challenges are you facing?
Pilot: If you go back and look at 1995, our Delhi density — density basically is the number of phone lines per 100 people — was about 1.5% because we were dependent on wires being dug up or put out so that people could get telephone connections. Once wireless technology came in, and mobile phones penetrated the Indian market, today we are adding about 15 to 18 million mobile subscribers a month. We have about 550 million mobile users in India. So it has really leapfrogged India’s connectivity because of the wireless mobile technology coming into India. I think the same is about to happen for the IT sector where we will have broadband access to all villages in India in the next three years. Once you’re able to create that infrastructure [with] wireless technologies or microwave technologies, I think that will really help us surmount the challenges [created by a] lack of infrastructure.
The second point I would like to make is that India is a country which has 22 official languages. Hindi and English are dominant languages but almost half of the nation does not speak Hindi or English. So we have from my ministry tried to give software and free font downloads of all these 20 languages so that people who speak Urdu, or Bangla, or Kannada, or Sindhi, or Gurumukhi are also able to take advantage of having a PC and having information available, because if you can’t read off the screen, it’s really not of much use.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Let me switch back to the digital divide question for a second. You have two very disparate audiences that you are trying to address; sort of the haves and have nots. What kind of strategies are you using to get buy-in so that you can move forward in this project?
Pilot: I think the [haves] you are talking about are the ones who have enough disposable income, who have mobility, who live in large cities or large towns. I think [in that case], the market forces will help deliver those services. There is enough private sector participation for us to meet our objectives. It’s the ones that have been left out; those are the areas that we have to focus on. We have deployed enough funds [and] our policy-making, our budgeting, our fund allocation and our programs are quite targeted to the segments of our society that have not really seen the fruits of the economic growth that we have witnessed in the last decade.
There are villages that are sparsely populated [and] private companies will only go to areas where there is profit to be made. They will not go into rural areas, rural parts of India. That’s why the Indian government has now decided to put up mobile towers and give the backbone infrastructure to areas [with] populations in villages of less than 500. In areas like the Northeast part of India, the hilly terrain areas, the tribal areas, the really poorer states, those are the areas where the private operators really are not that comfortable going in, but I think we as the government have to ensure that even those people have a right to be a part of the telecom revolution. To that end, we have got this fund that is [worth] more than $4 billion. All of that is going to be used to make sure that we ensure connectivity in bordering parts of our country, in the desert areas, in the tribal areas so on and so forth.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Obviously, the private sector is important to the success of any enterprise anywhere. I don’t know if you seen the World Bank report on doing business that said that the number of processes you need to start a business takes about 30 days in India while it’s about 6 days in the US. What would be the one thing that you want to do to spur innovation and growth?
Pilot: I do think that it does take longer to establish businesses in India. There are other hindrances like … the infrastructure and the efficiency of power and road networks, but I can assure that the government is fully aware of that fact and we are working quite aggressively [toward] ensuring that we are able to [provide] the airports, sports and railway networks and the highway network, as well as reforming our processes so that people don’t face the kind of troubles that you had mentioned. It’s an ongoing process. I think we’ve had some success but I think more needs to be done. We are very well aware of it, but we do have to work with multiple agencies. There is the central government, the federal government [and] then you have the state governments [and] then you have the local body governments. There has to be compliance of everybody but we are making sure that our bureaucracy and administration gets leaner and more efficient.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You said in a recent interview that if India were more wired then the country would have fewer problems. Can you elaborate on that point?
Pilot: I think a lot of the issues that people have in rural India have more to do with getting certifications or getting paperwork done or running from pillar to post to get a document that really belongs to them. That leads to a lot of corruption at the lower levels and a lot of delays. People in India have many ethnicities, many languages, many cultural differences, different geographies and different climates, but if you’re able to get everybody to participate in the IT sector and really use the digital mode to communicate, and to meet and interact with each other, I think some of these differences will recede. A more connected India, a more educated India, a more exposed India and an India that’s more aware of the [digital] services that are being made available … will certainly change the way governance happens. … It’s very, very important that we partner with private entrepreneurs, with Non-governmental organizations, with civil society. It has to be a collaborative effort. I think no single government can claim to deliver all the services. So we have to partner with people who are also equal stakeholders.
India Knowledge at Wharton: It’s widely accepted that the telecom sector’s success was a huge deal in India. It has made available to a lot of people services that they ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. What are the factors that contributed to that success?
Pilot: When we first started off with mobile telephones in India in the early 1990s, it was prohibitively expensive. The handsets were expensive and the call rates were very expensive. I am happy to say today that we have one of the cheapest call rates in the world. Our call rates average $0.01 to $0.02 a minute, which is the lowest in the world. The handsets have become much cheaper because the economies of scale have made sure that there is enough competition and, even though the margins are less, it’s a volume business now. People have really taken to mobile telephoning and our tele-density today is more than 50%, as opposed to 1.5% in 1995, so there has been a huge leapfrog in our connectivity through mobile telephones. Because the call rates going down so low, because of the availability of the infrastructure and people realizing how mobile connectivity is able to [help] their businesses [and make] their interactions much more effective and much more efficient … people … have taken to it very keenly.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Where and how do you draw your entrepreneurial inspiration?
Pilot: I don’t think I am that much of an entrepreneur but I do think that if you have the initiative and if you let people work together; there is enough creativity in India. Young people have so much to offer, they have the capacity and the skill sets to perform and beat anybody. … [It’s] a real advantage and a real bonus for a young country to have a workforce that is talented, that is committed, and I think there is nothing lacking except that we have to give the young people in India a platform and a direction so that they can go in the right way.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What is the one untold success story from India?
Pilot: I think there are a lot of successes and also a lot of challenges we faced, but in the last five or six years we’ve been able to really focus on the priorities that the Indian people wanted us to focus on. We’ve [instituted] a law known as the Right to Information Act. People have a right to know [about] all transactions of the government [and that] has made the whole governance of India very open and transparent. We’ve had a compulsory employment guarantee scheme in India, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, that [says for] every able bodied person in one family; one person will get 100 days of [work] guaranteed by law. I think these are fundamental path-breaking resolutions that we have passed in our government.
We are working on a bill that ensures food security for all Indian citizens. We got a Right to Education bill passed. These are basic things that should have been done some time ago but India never had the wealth and the economic strength to implement some of these hugely expensive programs….
India Knowledge at Wharton: What does the telecom sector look like in 2015 and how do you get there?
Pilot: That’s difficult to say because the telecom sector changes very month, if not every week, [but] I think the landscape looks pretty bright. I think there is enough competition. We still have a hunger for connectivity, it’ll go on for a few years, but the challenge like I said to you earlier, is the urban connectivity. Urban Delhi density is 140% — that means we have 140 phone lines for [every] 100 people in Delhi, Kolkata, Bombay — but in the rural areas it’s 20%. So there is a mismatch there but we need to fix that. Even the private operators now realize that there is money to be made in the rural markets so they’re all, after having saturated the big cities, now pushing towards the smaller towns and villages, which again I think is a good thing. So I think the Indian telecom sector is bound to grow. We will have many more value added services. We are looking at ways of exploring mobile banking, for example. We have our 3G auctions going on right now [and] then you’ll have video conferencing, live television, all of those things one never thought of 10 years ago. It’s an ever changing world and I think it will only bear fruits for the Indian society and the Indian economy.