Kohli, the first CEO of TCS, says India’s focus on English language computing has had limitations in the spread of computers and advocates adoption of computing in regional languages.
In 1968, Tata Electric Co installed a computer system to control the electric line between
Mumbai and Pune. It was the third utility in the world to adopt computers and Faqir Chand
Kohli, the engineer who implemented the project, was chosen to lead Tata Consultancy
Services (TCS), then a fledgling division of the Tatas.
As the company celebrates 50 years, Kohli, the first CEO of TCS, says India’s focus on
English language computing has had limitations in the spread of computers and
advocates adoption of computing in regional languages. “Your hardware industry is for 150
million people (who use English), (but) you are more than a billion people,” 94-year-old
Kohli, who is called the father of India’s software industry, told ET’s Raghu Krishnan in a
phone interview. Excerpts:
Your thoughts on 50 years of TCS and India’s software industry?
It is a great journey. We have been working on TCS for 50 years. It has done well and has
been a leader in exports. When I started at TCS, I did not bring anybody from outside. I
trained everybody within the company. I took them from colleges directly. That continues
and all our (four) leaders are from within the company.
What were the challenges when you started building TCS?
After I set up TCS, I had covered all the backlog (of computerisation). In 1971-72, all the
banks were nationalised. I had no work. I went up to Mr (JRD) Tata to tell him that I wanted to go back to the power field. It so happened
that I got elected as a director of the Institution of Electric and Electronic Engineers in New York. I made eight trips to USA, that is when I
developed contact with (US computer maker) Burroughs Corp. They gave the first software work to us and also came to (set up
operations in) India.
Could we have done better as a nation in software?
You know why there is no computerisation in India, because it is limited to English-speaking people. There are 800 million people who
do not know English, but would have done better with computers. There has been no effort by the government to spread computer
(literacy) in regional languages. We have 24 official languages in India. In how many languages can computers work? In France, they
don’t talk to computers in English. Do they? It should have been done in India too.
While focusing on software services, should India also have built its hardware industry?
For hardware industry to grow, the computers have to be in Indian languages not (limited to) the 150 million people who speak in
English. You are more than a billion people. Hardware industry can grow only if the hardware can speak my language. In Russia, they
don’t use computers in English. Computers have been there for over 60-70 years.
You have been focused on education and training in the last few decades?
I had done work for adult illiterates. There are 100 million adults who can’t read and write. We did it in 10 languages. TCS did it, we have
trained up about a million people, (and) they can read newspapers in their languages. It has to be expanded and the government should
take up this model. I have been involved in the college of Engineering in Pune. We have shown that you can train and make people the
best. This should be replicated in other colleges. If one college can produce 600 PhDs, imagine if we can grow this by ten times, see the
impact it would have.
With no big local internet companies, there is a concern that India could be a digital colony for global companies...
Let us not conjecture anything. Our aim should be, why can’t I bring my country up? Let us not talk about we becoming second-rate
country and (a digital) colony. What matters is the intelligence of the people and how we help them to take the country forward.