How India’s high-tech journey started on an ox cart
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How India’s high-tech journey started on an ox cart

By M.A. Arun

It’s 1985. An ox-cart sets off from the customs house at the Bangalore airport, which was then landing planes at the heart of the city. It is carrying large cartons made of cheap wood, the kind you can crack open with one blow.

It is quite a spectacle; the cart is pulled by a lazy ox sauntering carelessly; it is escorted by two new ambassadors, one of them carrying a tense-looking white man in white shirt, who is sitting in the front seat to keep a close watch on the cart.

In contrast, the man perched on the cart holding the reins is relaxed. He knows that his animal is familiar with the route well enough to find its way in traffic. He switches on to auto pilot and tunes his radio to play a loud Tamil song.

Life will be good, he thinks, if he gets customers like this everyday. The people, who had approached him the previous day, had paid well without haggling. They only wanted him to mind the ox well and steer it carefully without any incident.

He doesn’t know that he is making history.

The convoy heads towards the Miller’s road, nine kilometres away. It covers the distance in two hours and reaches the Texas Instruments India (TI) office at the Sonar Towers. The driver gets off with a hum and, with the help of a few workers waiting for him, quickly unloads India’s first privately owned satellite dish. He has just flagged off India’s technology revolution.

It was not easy for TI to get this equipment to the country. It had taken a year to get 64 different approvals from the officialdom to set up the office in Bangalore, overcoming resistance at every step. The trickiest issue was the satellite dish, which the bureaucrats treated as a national threat given that anyone could send any information outside the country without their approval.

Till then all satellite dishes in the country were under the government control. But TI was adamant. The country’s telephone lines were too unreliable to transmit data. It didn’t have the patience to burn the codes on a magnetic tape and ship them to the US, the way TCS had been managing its projects till recently.

It wanted a near real-time communication link with its HQ in Dallas if the India plan was to work. Luckily, the Prime Minister’s office had taken fancy to TI; it stepped in and worked out a compromise with the Pyongyang-returned bureaucrats, who weren’t used to such blatant transgressions of the rule book, which had been personally drafted by Kim II Sung.

When TI imported the dish to the country, a few babus put up the last bit of resistance. According to the rules, they said TI could not carry the imported equipment in a closed container. But TI officials had come too far to go back now. They thought quick like Indians and hailed an ox cart.

The officials agreed to let TI have its dish, but they weren’t going to let it eat it peacefully. They made TI keep the dish in a room built as per their specifications and posted a dish control officer to keep a close watch on the work.

Every evening he would scrutinise the software TI employees had coded during the day and printed on bond paper. After checking the printed matter line by line, making a comment here and there, usually on the quality of paper or cartridges, he would approve the transmission in writing.

TI’s baby steps in India were considered a success and many others followed its lead. By the late ‘90s a sprinkling of technology companies had set up base in India. But none of them set anything on fire.

When TI booked a passage to India, it was not alone. Its move was part of a global quest launched by many Western companies in the ‘80s.

Hundreds of manufacturing companies moved to Singapore in that decade. Unable to meet the demand for land, the small city state persuaded Indonesia to open up Batang, an island in its vicinity, for business.

The early investors in Batang cleared virgin forests and wildlife to make way for workers brought in from the nearby Java and Sumatra islands. Batang, once an outpost of thick wilderness, is today an economic marvel hosting 1.1 million people.

This was indicative of a wider trend worldwide. Swiss firm ABB had 700 employees in Thailand in 1980. By early ‘90s their number had leapt to 3,000.

Guadalajara was emerging as the Silicon Valley of Mexico drawing investment from HP, Intel, IBM, Texas Instruments, among others. Foxconn became one of the first foreign companies to open a manufacturing plant in mainland China in the late ‘80s.

The go-global itch started with manufacturing, but slowly spread to services.

Typing mills were beginning to sprout in Philippines and China. You could get them to type 10,000 words for anywhere between 20 and 50 cents. Book publisher Simon and Schuster was paying Indians $50 a month to digitise its books by typing them manually into computers.

Jamaica was the emerging back-office of the airline industry; 3,500 Jamaicans were working round-the-clock to make airline reservations for the US customers.

About 25,000 electronic documents flew between Kingston and several US cities daily. What made Jamaica hot was any company could get a satellite dish easily without having to haul it on an ox cart.

But the emerging software and call centre power of the time was Ireland, then called the poorest of the rich. Almost everyone went to college in that country, which also had phones that worked, unlike in India. A dozen back-offices sprouted around Ireland to settle insurance claims and provide customer support.

Citibank, Motorola, IBM and many others followed TI to get software from Bangalore.

By early 1990s, academics, journalists and stock brokers, God bless those perceptive souls, could sense that something big was happening; services jobs were steadily moving from rich to poor countries. As the trickle turned into a torrent, they scratched their head to explain what was causing the leak.

Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, China, India, Philippines, Ireland were the countries where these jobs went. But there was nothing to hint that the torrent would turn into a tsunami and of all these countries, India would turn into a vacuum cleaner of Western jobs.

– Excerpted from ‘Blast off – the rise of India in Outsourcing’ by M. A. Arun. The book tells the story of India’s high-tech industry and is available at Amazon for $9.99.