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Let there be computing

Rajeev Anantaram  |  New Delhi 

Homi J Bhabha is famous as the founder of India’s nuclear establishment, but he also enabled India’s IT success. Rajeev Anantaram on a survey of the computer industry that is also a paean to its originator.

Homi Bhabha was a great man — by any yardstick. A brilliant theoretical physicist, who made seminal contributions to particle physics, most famously through a paper with fellow physicist Walter Heitler (“The Cascade Theory of Cosmic Ray Showers”) as well as other areas of physics like renormalisation group theory was also an accomplished painter, a sculptor of no mean talent and good enough to be a concert pianist. Sir C V Raman, India’s first Nobel laureate in physics, hit the nail on the head when he described Bhabha as a “modern-day Leonardo da Vinci”.

It is as a visionary institution-builder that Bhabha is most fondly remembered in India, although it saddened many when he abandoned his outstanding scientific career. The first major institution, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai, was conceived almost immediately after Independence, with the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948. The other centre of learning that Bhabha conceived of, built and nurtured, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), also in Mumbai, was arguably the first institution of its type anywhere in the developing world set up with the mandate of doing fundamental research. Modelled on the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, it has trained, nurtured and served as home to many of India’s finest mathematicians and physicists. Its proud international reputation remains undiminished to this day.

What is presumably less known is TIFR’s contribution as the cradle of the Indian computer industry. It was Bhabha’s vision, again, that led to the programme to construct India’s first indigenous computer, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator (TIFRAC). The motivation for TIFRAC was essentially to enable rapid computations related to the first nuclear reactors that became operational in the mid-1950s. When the computer was operational in the early 1960s, it was state-of-the-art.

Homi Bhabha and the Computer Revolution is a rich anthology of essays on the development of India’s computer industry. The book is divided into four sections: “Historical Perspectives”, “Self-reliance in Electronics and Communication”, “Innovation and Prospects in the Indian IT Industry” and “Future Perspectives”. The successful construction of TIFRAC had engendered confidence that the establishment of a thriving, indigenous computer industry was possible. The thrust was in developing both the software capabilities and the hardware industry to provide the all-round inputs that would take the Indian computer industry to the same level. The most enduring legacy of this thrust was the establishment of the National Centre for Software Development and Computing Techniques (NCSDCT) in 1971, which pioneered work in a number of important areas such as computer graphics, computer networks, systems software and theoretical computer science. The National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) evolved from NCSDCT along with a core group from TIFR in the mid-1980s to develop expertise in the cutting-edge areas of database management, data mining, decision support and knowledge management, among others. Above all, NCST’s biggest contribution is in developing the vast pool of human capital that formed the core of India’s IT/ITES industries beginning the mid-1980s. The contributions of the software boom to India as a whole are too numerous to enumerate here.

The experience with hardware has been a lot less satisfying. While the establishment of the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) seemed a natural progression after the success of TIFRAC, not much happened thereafter. This was truly unfortunate because many latecomer economies in East Asia (notably South Korea and Taiwan) with far lower capabilities in the 1960s went on to develop robust competencies, especially in semiconductor production, a singular failing of India’s computer hardware industry. The book mentions this fleetingly and fails to explain why the success in software could not be replicated in hardware.

While the attempts to build a thriving hardware industry may have floundered, India was able to leverage the experience in electronics gathered over three decades when India launched its “Technology Missions” in the mid-1980s as part of a new technology policy introduced in 1983. The chapter on the telecom revolution by one of its pioneers, Sam Pitroda (“The Telecom Revolution and Beyond”), is stirring. Even though far from complete, India’s telecom story is for real. It was an era when everything — software developers, manufacturers and systems integrators came together in a mission wholeheartedly backed by an able and willing bureaucratic leadership and, above all, a prime minister committed to radical technological change. While the sector’s takeoff had much to do with another landmark, namely, liberalisation, in 1994, the credit for laying the foundation belongs to the Technology Mission of the mid-1980s. It has arguably done more to transform India than any other policy innovation.

The third section contains chapters by some of the leading luminaries of the software industry in India — F C Kohli and S Ramadorai of Tata Consultancy Services, and N R Narayana Murthy of Infosys — on India’s software story. While the articles are expectedly rich in insight coming from the doyens of the sector, they are limited in that they do not adequately discuss the role of entrepreneurship in developing these world-class institutions. All the leading software firms were established in pre-liberalisation days, even though regulations pertaining to this sector had begun to loosen by the mid-1980s. Nonetheless, it was tough to be an entrepreneur, something the founders were undaunted by. It would help if the reader had been informed about how they grew their respective enterprises in such a restrictive regulatory environment. The chapters are also short on detail about the inability of the software industry to move up the value chain and, more importantly, the factors that are holding back progress.

The final section is very technical and is meant for the specialist. The chapters also may not have immediate applicability to India, where the level of high-end automation is still limited. Pravin Varaiya’s automatic vehicle project at the University of California at Berkeley is still to be fully commercialised, even in the USA.

The book, above all, is a paean to Homi Bhabha. While the book focuses on his least-known contribution, Bhabha as a heroic figure still shines through. India could ask for no more from this man of enduring greatness.

Editors: R K Shyamsundar and M A Pai
Publisher: OUP

Pages: 360
Price: Rs 695

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First Published: Sat, June 04 2011. 00:19 IST