Sam Pitroda pays tribute to Brijendra Syngal, India’s telecom and internet pioneer

Ritu Jha-

Brijendra Kumar (B.K.) Syngal, a pioneer of India’s mobile telephony and data services revolution in the mid-1990s passed away on July 9. He was 82.

Syngal was handpicked by another Indian telecom legend, Sam Pitroda, to head India’s Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL), a company that was to put India front and center of a revolution that forever changed its stature in the world.

Pitroda, who lives in Chicago, spoke to indica over the Phone, to pay tribute to Syngal. “He was like a general during war,” Pitroda said. “He was always focused on his work and his singular aim was to see a developed India.”

“I had to convince him a lot to come to India. He eventually did, but after months of negotiation,” Pitroda said. “For someone who was settled in London at the time (Syngal was working at the INMARSAT Council in the UK capital), it was a massive challenge to work in India. But he wanted to help India and see the country grow.”

Syngal was an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur where he completed both his undergraduate and graduate degrees before heading to the UK and the US to earn three more degrees. When he returned to India after successful stints abroad, India launched its first public internet service under his leadership.

Pitroda recalled how he had also convinced economist and planner Montek Singh Ahluwalia (then special secretary to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) to not import optical fiber but manufacture it locally. Ahluwalia spoke to the PM, following which a cabinet meeting was held where a proposal to build India’s own optical fiber facility was put forth.

“We decided we are going to set up a factory to produce optical fiber in 1988,” Pitroda said, “and the Prime Minister gave us political support.”

Pitroda, now 80, said he hired Bhagwan Das Khurana from Punjab Wireless Systems to take charge of the optical fiber manufacturing facility at Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. This factory put India on the list of a few countries in the world that manufactured its own optical fiber. Khurana joined as chairman and managing director at Optel Telecommunications Limited.

“Everybody in the world said there is no way you can set up an optical fiber factory [in India] without the knowhow or the technology.” Today, Pitroda added, India is among the largest producers of optical fiber in the world.

In his book, Syngal writes about the launch of public internet services in India in 1995: “We (at Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, or VSNL) started planning as soon as we got the green light. We also started talking to our correspondents, like British Telecom (BT), MCI Communications Corp. and AT&T, about how they had gone about it. The building blocks were soon put together. The essential component was the connectivity to an internet service provider outside India. Simultaneously, we started setting up the hardware.”

“Honestly speaking, we thought we had done a reasonably good job. We started the beta testing about 45 days before the launch date, which we had set as 15 August 1995—actually the day before, so that the announcement would come on Independence Day.”

“Finally, the D-Day arrived and we launched the service simultaneously from five cities. I was in Calcutta, and the media coverage was extensive. In fact, some news reports termed it as a second Independence Day, after 15 August 1947! There was a lot of excitement, euphoria even. And we were happy that the public really appreciated that internet had been launched in India.”

Pitroda said that because Syngal was the chairman of VSNL, all international telecommunications were his responsibility. “VSNL connected India to the outside world,” Pitroda said. He added that VSNL under Syngal was responsible for installing India’s first software hub in Bangalore, and it is because of this that the Karnataka capital became India’s tech center and was took India’s software to the rest of the world, including the US.

“Syngal was a thorough family man,” Pitroda said, and that he was dedicated, talented and hardworking all at the same time. “All the people we chose were experts and they just needed the freedom to work. And that is what we provided.”

In 2008, VSNL was sold to Tata Communications. However, before that, under Syngal’s leadership, Under Mr. Syngal’s leadership, VSNL’s gross revenue rose 215 percent from $515 million to $1.6 billion. Stock market capitalization rose 355 percent, from $0.9 billion to $4.1 billion, profits rose 666 percent, and gross revenue per employee rose 204 percent, switched-voice traffic rose 354 percent, and data traffic rose 1091 percent. Later, VSNL conceived, planned and executed what was at that time the biggest Global Depository Receipts (GDR) issue out of India. The issue was oversubscribed about ten times.

Pitroda recalled how Syngal called him several times as if he considered him his family. “While he was with the government, he never looked at telecom within India, but after VSNL was sold, he wanted to leave the country again, but joined Reliance instead,” he said.

“You must remember that India was not a tech hub then. It is a different world we are living in now, and much of the credit goes to Indian talent that was discovered then,” Pitroda said.

He added, “He was like an army general… and he was committed to contribute to India’s growth. That is why he stayed back in India after VSNL’s sale. Sometimes in life, joy comes from doing things, and not necessarily because of earning money. The joy of doing things occupied many of us.”