Disentangling India's crossed phone lines. Electronics whiz accepts call to take India into the 21st century

For less than 10 cents a year, Sam Pitroda has taken on a formidable, some might say daredevil, mission: upgrading India's outmoded, overloaded telephone system. As one of Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi's new breed of technocrats, Satyen Gangaram ``Sam'' Pitroda shares the vision that technology can lead India into the 21st century.

``In five years, we will have modernized telecommunications of world standards,'' predicts Mr. Pitroda, who left India more than 20 years ago and became a millionaire in the American telecommunications business.

``Already we see light at the end of the tunnel,'' he says. While he speaks, in the corner of his office an assistant is repeatedly dialing a phone number in an attempt to get a call through.

Horror stories about India telephones abound: Often it's difficult to get a dial tone. If a call does get through, it may reach the wrong number. Static or crossed-connections frequently drown out conversations.

Many companies hire employees just to make phone calls and keep long-distance lines open. International calls are transmitted via satellite, but domestic long-distance calls get routed through equipment that, in some cases, is more than 50 years old. As a result, it's easier to call Bombay from overseas than from New Delhi.

Obtaining a telephone can take up to five years without knowing someone in the ponderous bureaucracy. More than 1 million hopefuls are on the waiting list. Bribes have to be paid for routine telephone repairs.

``I don't don't know why I even answer the telephone anymore because it's always a wrong number,'' fumes Gita Wimal, a government secretary, as the phone rings in her home. ``Hello... Hello... Wrong number!''

In this country of 750 million people, there are only 3 million telephones, including 36,000 pay phones, the government reports. Ninety percent of the phones are in cities, where only 25 percent of the people live. (By comparision, the Soviet Union has 29 million phone connections for its 280 million people. The United States, of course, outstrips both - with 92.4 percent of homes having connections.)

In Bombay, known for having the best connections, only seven out of 10 phones work at any one time. New Delhi, the nation's capital, has six of 10 working at once. In Calcutta, three of 10 phones are operational.

Many Indians were amused - and privately applauded - when one exasperated government official took matters into his own hands about 18 months ago. Incensed when he could not get a call through to Bombay, Prakash Chand Sethi, a member of Parliament, stormed down to the telephone exchange in August 1986.

Pistol in hand, and reportedly drunk, Mr. Sethi verbally abused the telephone operators and threatened the woman who failed to expedite his ``VIP'' call. Pandemonium reigned. Police eventually carried Sethi out; the outraged employees went on strike.

``At one time [or another],'' says a local businessman, ``most of us have felt like doing exactly what P.C. Sethi did.''

Enter Sam Pitroda, after 22 years in the US. The 45-year-old electrical engineer had helped develop digital switching for General Telephone and Electric Co. (GTE) and later set up his own switching company with two partners.

When the firm was sold, Pitroda - who claims 90 patents ranging from telephone gadgetry to playing cards - stayed on as a $550,000 consultant. But the deal prohibited him from doing anything competitive in telecommunications for five years. So Pitroda turned elsewhere.

Having written a book on telecommunications in developing nations, Pitroda visited China, Brazil, and other countries to spread his message that better communications are crucial to the third world.

``I'm basically a technical man. But I've developed a little better feel for the larger goals of society,'' he says. ``Information is not elitist. Telecommunications is as important as water, roads, agriculture.''

When India set up a commission to modernize communications, Pitroda made a pitch to the late prime minister Indira Gandhi to overhaul the phone system.

His ideas that phones are not just for the rich, and India should develop its own telecommunications equipment rather than import caught the attention of Gandhi's son, Rajiv. When Rajiv succeeded his assassinated mother in 1984, Pitroda (by that time a US citizen), moved his family back to India to spearhead the telecommunications effort - for a salary of one rupee (about 8 cents) a year.

However, Pitroda is a man in a hurry in a country where change moves as slowly as the ox-carts that ply the roads. His brusque, unconventional style and blunt criticism of the establishment have alienated many. Some are suspicious of the Western management lingo that peppers his speech, and put off by his incongruous appearance: unruly hair, goatee, Western suit, cowboy boots.

The telephone bureaucracy and militant unions don't take kindly to Pitroda's call for change. Politicians are jealous of his closeness to Gandhi and fear he has political ambitions. Many are skeptical he can raise the $40 million needed to expand the system to 30 million telephone lines and 3 million pay phones by 2000. They say he has overstated the achievements of his government sponsored think-tank.

Still, Pitroda has met his goal of developing indigenous digital exchange equipment that can withstand India's heat and dust and be installed in rural areas. Recently, Gandhi rewarded him by expanding his purview to include all the prime minister's technology initiatives in education, water, energy, health, and transport.

Pitroda insists that change is coming to India despite resistance. This year, the country will begin mass producing reception dishes for satellite communications. This month, India even put out its first computer-assembled ``yellow pages.''

India ``has technology coming out its ears,'' Pitroda says. ``We just have to learn how to organize, mobilize, manage.''

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