'Make in India’ before it became a slogan

On the birth anniversary of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, on August 20, we reproduce excerpts from innovator, technocrat, author Sam Pitroda’s recollections of working with the man, a fellow dreamer-doer

'Make in India’ before it became a slogan
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Sam Pitroda

I happened to be with Rajiv Gandhi one day when a call came in from Washington. When Rajiv got off the line, he looked concerned. It was Reagan, who had told him that the approval for the Cray purchase was being denied; the Americans were afraid that we would use the technology to develop a nuclear weapon on our own.

‘I don’t think that’s a problem,’ I told Rajiv. ‘We can build our own supercomputer.’

‘What do you mean? How much would something like that cost?’

‘We have the ability to do it ourselves.’ Off the cuff, I said, ‘I’d estimate $30 million—about as much as we’d have to pay for the Cray. I think we could get it done in three years at the most.’

When Rajiv agreed, we took the project up with the Scientific Advisory Council and established the Centre for the Development of Advanced Computing, or C-DAC, in 1988. As with C-DOT, we made it a point to hire young engineers. We worked on parallel processing, and ultimately developed India’s first supercomputer, the PARAM. By 1990, we had produced a prototype, which we demonstrated at that year’s Zurich Supercomputer Show.

Our machine was placed second after the United States. Vijay Bhatkar, a leading computer scientist, was our original CEO, and I served for a while as the chairman on the C-DAC board. Today, the centre has over a thousand engineers and is a leader in several fields of supercomputing.

'Make in India’ before it became a slogan
'Make in India’ before it became a slogan
Rajiv Gandhi
File photo of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with Sam Pitroda

The Soviets collaborated with us for the initial development of PARAM… one manifestation of these ongoing ties was that back in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed to hold science and culture festivals in India and the USSR. The government had allocated funds to put on a large, wide-ranging sci-tech exhibit as a part of the ‘Festival of India’ scheduled to be held in Moscow, Leningrad and Tashkent.

The problem was that the ministries involved told Rajiv that it was impossible, that there just wasn’t enough time for it. This resulted in Rajiv asking me to do it. He was as frustrated with the country’s bureaucracy as I was.

The science-and-technology exhibition was going to be huge— the Soviets had allotted about 200,000 sq. ft for us, which meant we had to fill all that up. The first thing I did was call Air India to book two 747s. Then I worked backwards. Along with Gulshan Kharbanda, a museum technology expert, I designed layouts for the space.

Then I called a meeting with the heads of the various science and cultural departments and industries. ‘The PM said this has to be done,’ I told them, ‘So, we have to do it well and on time.’ I described the overall scheme and the space allocations for each category. ‘Aeronautics and space industries, you have 4000 sq. ft; Technology, I want two robots…’

The Festival of India and the science-and-technology exhibition were a great success. The skills, creativity and talent it displayed were striking. As I saw it, the effort it took to design and create the exhibits was equally exceptional. The only thing I had to do was lay out the requirements and provide people with the necessary motivation and direction.


I told Rajiv that I’d like some private time with Gorbachev during his upcoming visit. I wanted to present some ideas to him along those lines. Rajiv didn’t think that would be a problem. ‘I’ll arrange it,’ he said.

Shortly afterwards he called. ‘Sam, it turns out you can’t meet with him after all. It’s a matter of protocol. My meetings with him are devised as purely one-to-one. There’s just no opening for him to meet separately with one of my advisors. I’m sorry, you must be disappointed,’ he said.

I was disappointed, but I knew Gorbachev and his wife were coming to Rajiv’s house for a family dinner.

‘You could just say after dinner,’ I said, ‘when you’re going to have coffee, that you happen to have Sam Pitroda and a couple of other friends here, and that you’d like him to meet them. Something like that. Don’t tell the foreign officer, protocol guys or anybody else anything.’

That appealed to Gandhi. ‘Good idea,’ he said, ‘let’s do it.’

That evening while the Gandhis and Gorbachevs were having dinner, I was in another room setting up a slide presentation with Jairam Ramesh and Dr Ashok Ganguly (then chairman of Hindustan Lever) and Dr V.S. Arunachalam (then chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation).

At 10 o’clock Rajiv ushered everyone into the room and introduced us. We had a few minutes of casual talk. As soon as I could, I turned the discussion to IT, telling Gorbachev that I believed that perestroika and glasnost, in essence, were about information technology. That might have sounded a bit presumptuous. Rajiv passed me a little note. ‘Remember, you’re talking to the President of the Soviet Union.’

I read the note, tucked it in my pocket and went into my presentation. ‘We can help you develop IT,’ I said. ‘We’re good at it. We can also provide you with consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, computers, etc.’ Dr Ashok Ganguly talked about what we had to offer in consumer goods. Then Dr Arunachalam told Gorbachev about India’s research on hypersonic aircraft, suggesting how a collaboration on that project could benefit both countries.

We spent an hour with him, and when we were finished, Gorbachev asked, ‘What, specifically, would you like to see happen?’

‘I would like you to send a team of experts to Delhi,’ I said, ‘to have further dialogue with us on all these issues.’

‘Done,’ said Gorbachev. And, sure enough, a month later a group of Soviet scientists and government officers arrived in Delhi—people from different sectors of Soviet civilian and military life. We connected them with people in the right fields and places, and suggested a couple of new programmes.

Rajiv’s body was being carried on a flower-decked gun carriage, the tricolour flag of India draped over him. Overhead, a helicopter released clouds of orange blossoms to rain down on the assemblage below. Then the body was placed on the pyre and the logs set aflame. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka were visible in white near the fire—an image that will remain etched in my heart and mind for eternity.

It seemed to me that the world was coming to an end. Rajiv was gone. Everything I had done was because of his political will and his support. Now he was gone and his support had disappeared with him, evaporated in an instant…My future looked bleak and uncertain. My hope and dreams for India were shaken.

All the investments we had made in C-DOT, telecom, the Technology Missions and the many other initiatives may never materialise. Maybe India will fall behind by a decade. These were scary thoughts…

(Reproduced from Sampitroda.com)

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Published: 20 Aug 2022, 8:24 AM