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Vipin Tyagi, Executive Director and Chairman of Board, C-DOT

October 30, 2018
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My responsibilities include all those tasks that are not done by anybody else,” says Vipin Tyagi in jest. “That includes lab visits, talking to engineers, motivating them to file patents, speaking at conferences and playing a part in a 5G High Level Forum constituted by  the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India.”

As executive director and chairman of the board of the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT), Tyagi is being modest with that short list. The real list of responsibilities and challenges is daunting. He is right at the heart of where India will find itself in the future in terms of technology and telecommunications. This is a very complex environment in R&D. He likens it to being a tarot card reader, guessing the future, for both urban and rural India.

Tyagi finds the current moment in telecom utterly compelling. He says that telecom’s earlier phase of expansion has now become one of redefinition, that is, redefining the networks, the services, the impact factors and the reach. That makes for a very interesting time – a “tectonic shift” he calls it – for an R&D organisation like C-DOT.

The change, he says, is driven by a couple of factors. The first is that the speed of the broadband networks is going through a massive upgradation with the proliferation of optical fibre-based communication and the advent of some technologies that are gigabit order technologies. Wi-Fi is getting into the gigabit area. C-DOT has built all these technologies, so it can see these shifts in the landscape clearly. The expansion of data is happening because of the upgradation of technology.

The second factor is the availability of new ways of doing work through more involved software-based systems. “Automation is happening in almost all areas, starting from the home. People have started to think of how we can use telecom to get into the next phase of home services. Similarly, automation is happening in almost all sectors of the economy – the railways, automobiles, intelligent healthcare, electricity and water management,” he says.

All this means that a next-generation method of data collection will be created. Plain old telephony and data transfer services are inadequate. In its work to understanding the future, C-DOT has built the first Machine-to-Machine (M2M) platform for the Internet of Things based on the  oneM2M standard. “The difference is that now we can team the complexity and applications on a single common platform. Also, we can share the information across all platforms,” he says.

It’s like a sensor and application exchange where you can have a system by which you transfer some information and it goes to another application, which can be configured, and it goes to other sensors. “We are at the stage where we are seeing how to have better and more secure communication, how to have better identification of devices, how to have proper AI utilisation with ethics. There are also the 5G technologies that will happen in a couple of years. These are all the sectoral challenges of telecom R&D,” he says.

Tyagi’s goal is to keep India in the van of all this change. For example, 130,000 villages have already been connected under  BharatNet. There are around 10 million NGN-based landline connections. Likewise, C-DOT has a Wi-Fi portfolio that will connect all the villages. The organisation, he says, is already geared up towards a gigabit society and can provide it on any platform to end users.

As to trends, here is what he foresees: telcos will redefine their services to suit the needs of different sectors and they will do it for better monetisation; consumption in India will be higher than in the rest of the world because of its population, which will lead to a greater exchange of information; more analytics and AI will be deployed; security will become a key issue; and there will be more intellectual property generation and products built because of India’s competent software and hardware engineers.

Tyagi is confident that India has the capacity for patenting and creating new world-class products, thanks to an educated society and specialised knowledge. “What we lack is enough motivation for research as well as for students to go for intellectual property creation because it is a very formal and complicated process. Consequently, it requires some degree of backing. Companies are filing patents for their stuff. But this backing can only take the patents so far. You need to build products based on those patents. Then those patents become valuable.”

For experimentation and creativity to flourish, people need to be given some space, he says. So he approves of the new National Digital Communications Policy as being comprehensive and forward-looking, but points out that it is one thing to provide a playground but what if there are no players? “Provide a chance to the Indian R&D force, to engineers and manufacturers to experiment with certain things. You have to build pride in the community. What is missing is that there is no pride in doing something in India. We do not think that what we have done can be put on the global platform. Till the time we achieve that change in thinking, society’s confidence will not evolve, especially that of the student community,” he says.

The interview then turns to his interesting concept of “khadi electronics”. Tyagi says that during the freedom struggle, Indians burnt English clothes made from Indian cotton. Gandhi urged people to do this because the British had destroyed India’s traditional weaving and cotton industries. What was important about Gandhi urging people to wear khadi was not the actual wearing of it, as Tyagi points out, but the fact that it demonstrated that Indians were no longer slaves.

“Similarly, we have to have local design here. We have to have electronic board manufacturing done by Indian manufacturers. We have to give this job to youngsters in every district, who are unemployed or underemployed engineers and who can become entrepreneurs. You will create an ecology that has deep penetration, you generate jobs, you generate a sense of ownership, you upgrade skills and you engage the entire country,” he says.

But for this to work, mindsets have to change. People need to start valuing an Indian product as much as one from an MNC. C-DOT has already done pioneering work in the area of design and manufacturing. Today, it is capable of generating those boards. Local people are being trained so that they can service a village on their own. That’s what he means when he talks of khadi electronics.

The fact that he conceived of the notion of khadi electronics is not surprising. Tyagi’s family was steeped in the freedom struggle. His grandfather was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. His father exemplified all the qualities of hard work and ethical conduct that Gandhi exhorted in Indians. “My father was a teacher, a highly value-oriented person. For him, if you failed in a class, it did not matter, but if you didn’t say namaste to somebody you would get a thrashing. I got educated by these very strict teachers in the family,” he says.

Tyagi was one among six brothers and sisters. He studied mostly in “lower grade” government schools. Because his father never refused a posting, Tyagi often ended up going to live in villages that had opened a school or college for the first time. It also meant that sometimes he had to double as the teacher. When he was in Class 8, he taught mathematics to his peers because there was no maths teacher. “I would study in the night and then come back and teach the class. What I learnt was that when you go through difficulties, you become much better than when you get help from someone.”

He topped various examinations. It was then, he says, that he realised he was “somebody”. After school, he went to study electronics at an engineering college. “I wrote programs when there was no computer and even when I passed there was no computer in the college. But we used to write computer programs on a piece of paper,” he recalls. Later, he finished a master’s in technology from IIT Delhi in computer science and did an MBA.

Over the next 35 years, Tyagi went on to become an innovation and business leader in the IT and telecom industry. He founded and led a company out of New Delhi for 12 years as a board member and global CEO. He headed the global business in India, Japan, Australia, the US and Europe, and worked actively in R&D to create large systems, organisational development, and the creation of high performance teams. In 2009, Tyagi joined C-DOT.

With his happy childhood and own strong family bonds, the family is, for Tyagi, the foundation of any society. He says that if he had to choose just one parameter to explain what makes Indians successful abroad, it is the family. “This is because, when you are working in a very hard professional life, we do not have to worry about so many other factors in the family because the bond between the husband and wife is trustworthy,” he says.

His own bond with his wife, a teacher,   is very strong. This bond is what accounts for his success, he says firmly. Tyagi enjoys travelling, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. He reads extensively and enjoys kavi sammelans, drama and live music, including opera. He does not maintain a work-life balance. “I think it’s best to let life flow and try to be your best in whatever field you have chosen. Allow yourself to flow free. If you try to control everything, it can create problems,” he says.

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