E-governance, where and for whom?

This piece originally appeared in my column ‘Reality Bytes’ in issue dated 14th Oct, 2002 of the Free Press Journal, an English daily published from Indore, India.

In a recent seminar on “IT and communication challenges and opportunities in Madhya Pradesh” speakers, many of whom where amongst the who’s who of Indore’s IT fraternity, were extremely hopeful that MP could very well become the next Cyberabad. The official websites of MP do not lag behind in blowing the trumpet either. Sad fact is, the condition of IT in MP is a far cry from it even being regarded as an IT savvy state; leave alone the proposition of it becoming an IT destination.

It is a matter of grave concern that the second largest Indian state which could have become a hub of commercial activities owing to its geographical location, cheap man-power, low cost-of-living and good social infrastructure is nowhere near its IT ambitions. Thanks to the lethargic attitude of government the state of power and roads has not only marred common public but also reduced the Industrial bases at Mandideep, Urla and Pithampur to shambles and petrified the prospective entrepreneurs appropriately. Moreover the state government has been notoriously unsuccessful in marketing and establishing relationship with international companies (we are yet to notice the repercussion of the MOU signed with Microsoft).

It’s worth pondering as to how the state government plans to bring investors to MP. There seems no dearth of IT manpower in MP; it has 36 Engineering colleges of its own, apart from host of Private training institutes. But there has never been any government initiative to ensure that the courses in these institutions are industry specific and practical oriented and that IT training and education be granted some incentives. The state may boast of an optical fibre backbone of 20000Km across 45 districts, the highest coverage in the country, but lacks the backbone of political will. Despite of promising projections on ITES, the state has minuscule players in the area, with perhaps the LNJ Bhilwara group the only big one. Ironically, ITES providers from other states are continuously visiting and hiring manpower from MP while their own state’s capabilities languish in kumbhakarni sleep.

It’s said that the MP government is ahead of many other states in the area of e-governance. It plans to convert all its data into digital-form. That’s a good idea, though I wonder who will have the time to go through them. Fortunately, the showcase project initiated in the Dhar district won many accolades. However reports say that the warts have started to show now. The Gyandoot project worked very well till the person who headed it was moved to another post.

As a matter of fact this is the problem everywhere – programmes such as Gyandoot are hardly self-sustaining – they last only so long as a very upbeat administrative official at the top holds his position; they start to rot as soon as the officer under whom the programme is mooted moves out. Interestingly, the project at Dhar was to be funded by the panchayats themselves. Revenue officials had even collected a small amount from farmers towards this. But the farmers reportedly go to the kiosks to obtain certificates or other details for getting financial credit, and more often than not come away because the communication link is not working or there is no electricity.

Applying e-governance Mukhya-mantri ji is not a child’s play. You have to ensure that the idea itself comes from the local population. Two other very crucial problems are of maintenance and language. The maintenance of computers and kiosks is a very complicated problem in far-flung areas, not to mention the ubiquitous problems of crashing telephone lines and electricity supply. Meaningfully interactive software is still not available in Indian languages. It would be puerile to expect the dehati people, who cannot read or write their own language, cope up with English. The other problem pertains to the ruggedness of the terminal or kiosk itself. If farmers must operate the machines themselves, the machines are bound to develop wear and tear problems.

The pertinent fact is that the government must make a distinction between pure e-governance projects, which might be for the internal administrative convenience, and mass-use projects. The areas of concern in making MP an IT enabled state are, as one survey said, lack of proper IT training, resistance of staff and post-sales hardware support. Also the government should not think of being an IT destination while standing on the crutches of manpower and capabilities of other states. It has to train, empower and use its own people. At the same time it should extend its open invitation and incentives to all entrepreneurs and companies who fear to tread in here.

I hope by e-governance the government does not mean to simply prepare a graveyard of computers. To bring IT to masses it surely will need to ask the people first what they needed and then set about designing programmes. MP cannot overnight become the state of Cyberabad, the steps should be gradual but firm. Gyandoot was a good beginning but learning lessons from its fallout would be the greater challenge.

Interviews Technology

Strong infrastructure a must to market MP as IT destination: Avinash Sethi

India’s software industry is reaching its adolescence and facing challenges from several directions. While the main appeal of quality and low-cost service remains in place, price does not remain the only issue now. Customers are demanding more sophisticated services from their Indian outsourcers.

At the same time multinational competitors like IBM and Accenture have been nipping at their heels. With easy gains becoming a thing of past for the software organizations here Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Avinash Sethi, co-founder of Indore based software firm Infobeans to know the challenges a middle-sized company based at MP faces.

An Electrical Engineer from SGSITS, Indore Avinash began his stint with Tata Consultancy Services as a trainee. In 1998 he joined Intel Corporation, Oregon. The very next year he returned to Indore and launched e-Infotech along with his friends Mitesh Vohra and Siddarth Sethi, fulfilling the dream of building a software services organization of their own. In the year 2000 e-infotech was re-introduced as Infobeans.

Tell us in brief about Infobeans and its products. How would you classify the products and services?

Avinash Sethi
Avinash Sethi
InfoBeans is a dream conceived by 3 young enthusiastic entrepreneurs during their college time. We are a web-based solutions provider catering to the corporate needs of Fortune 500 companies.

It took shape in the US, where all of us were working there and wanted to do something together for Indore and at Indore. While working for our respective companies in the US, we started, a web portal dedicated to Indorians all over the world. Since its inception this e-Commerce portal has been immensely popular with the NRI community and helps them in staying connected with the pulse of Indore. Our other products include QGen, a questions paper generator software and RMS – a resource management system aimed at small and medium corporate.

As of now, Mitesh is taking care of all business development activities of InfoBeans in the US while Siddartha came back to Indore in 2002 to help the company get on the fast track.

What technologies is Infobeans currently working on? Is it easy to find trained manpower in these areas?

We have been working on varied technologies involving .Net Framework, J2EE and XML technologies for client server and web applications as well as Windows CE and Blue-tooth environment for wireless applications. It is certainly not easy to find right candidates in above skills in Indore. Recently we had to hire candidates from Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai in order to meet our growing needs.

As a long term solution to this scarcity of quality manpower we are planning to offer training focused on industry needs. This would be open for everyone who is interested in learning from experts in the trade. This is based on our belief that the skills that our company has gathered over the years should be shared with budding software engineers of the city. Our training programs would assist them in getting acquainted with the real world problems in the software engineering space.

Talking of your portal, how do you evaluate the challenges in terms of the size of Internet advertising market in India and bandwidth issues?

At we learnt to face the challenges of constantly changing customer requirements and maintain ease of use with increasing complexity while keeping the security implementation in mind. Internet Advertising is not that significant in India owing to the low Internet usage. Internet does not come that cheap and at the same time it is hopelessly slow. Bandwidth thus would be the next step in Internet revolution in India. Ample bandwidth is a must if one intends to meet the growing needs of users.

Performance of most of the IT companies last year, including the top players like Infosys, was insipid if not dismal. How tough is it for medium sized companies like yours to survive in these turbulent waters?

It is equally tough. A distinct edge that we have over large corporations is that we can address changing client requirements quickly and efficiently. Our customers work with us because we are always there to help them in their hour of need.

Many domestic software players have got into the business process outsourcing domain, does InfoBeans have any plans to follow suit?

Yes we have plans to venture into BPO. We shall float a separate division as it’s a different business altogether.

What sets InfoBeans apart from its competitors?

Our vision – Customer’s success defines our success. We want to go beyond just customer satisfaction. We want to help our customers succeed in achieving their goals.

Your marketing base is in US while the workforce is based here in Indore. So how does the information flow in terms of data and material happen?

Internet! It is such a wonderful channel for information flow. In case of urgency the telephone is always there. Visits to the US are also required for requirements gathering, client interaction, and product deployment.

What advantages and disadvantages does Indore have for a software development company?

Talking of advantages I might include a peaceful and friendly social environment, low cost of living and a good telecom infrastructure. Among disadvantages – scarcity of trained manpower, poor power infrastructure and lack of IT initiatives both from Government and local IT forums.

How do you compare the IT initiatives of MP Government to those of other state governments say Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka? What are your expectations?

Nothing compared to what you see in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Indore can become a IT hub. To do that, the government must market MP as THE IT destination while providing uninterrupted power supply, direct transport connectivity with major IT cities in India and by building state of the art IT park.

Tell us something about your growth plans, investments proposed and any interesting upcoming project.

We have identified three areas of growth for InfoBeans for next 2 years: Software services, BPO and IT Training. Presently we are working on a Conference Management Tool for Deutsche Bank. It is going to be used in huge conferences hosted by Deutsche Bank around the world.

Lastly, your comments on the current Indian IT scenario.

I’m positive about the overall IT scenario. India plays a significant role in global IT outsourcing and would continue to do that for decades to come. Post 9/11, IT spending was adversely affected. Today, almost two years later, both global and US economy seems to be back on track. Companies are looking at IT as a growth driver and IT spending is again looked at as a wise investment.

BPO is the next big thing that is catching up fast in India. That is another IT opportunity that would generate employment for millions of college going crowd. In cities like Bangalore and Mumbai a graduate in any stream gets to the tune of 10-15k per month as starting salaries in call centers. No other industry can offer this kind of salaries and glamour to a non-professional graduate.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 14 July 2003]

Interviews Technology

Infrastructure improvement should be top priority of MP government: Arun Maheshwari

Not many Indorians may be aware that Indore is home to one of the largest software and services companies in the world 25% of whose sales go to the US Government. A CMM Level-5 company, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) India Pvt. Ltd., ably steered by its Managing Director, President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Arun K. Maheshwari, has been awarded the best software exporters award by M.P. government many times.

Dr. Maheshwari has studied at IIT, Mumbai and IIM, Calcutta. He holds a Master’s degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, a Business degree from Columbia University (MBA) and a PhD from Wharton School of Business. His enviable career spans association with McKinsey, Reliance Insurance and Continental Insurance. He has also taught at Temple University, Wharton School, New York University and Bajaj Institute. In 1996 Maheshwari laid the foundation of Policy Management Systems India (PMSI) at Indore, a subsidiary of Mynd Corporation, the world leader in insurance software. In January 2001 Mynd merged with CSC and PMS India became CSC India.

Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Dr. Maheshwari about his company, its future and other issues.

Please tell us in brief about your company and its strengths.

CSC is one of the world’s leading software and services company with about 65,000 employees worldwide. It reported revenues of $11.3 billion for the 12 months ended Dec. 27, 2002. CSC specializes in consulting, systems design and integration, IT and business process outsourcing, applications software, web and application hosting. It is head-quartered in El Segundo, California.

Dr Arun Maheshwari
Dr Arun Maheshwari

CSC India is a wholly owned subsidiary of CSC and operates out of its state-of-the-art centres in NOIDA and Indore. CSC India has successfully completed software projects in many countries including USA, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia. We have excellent domain expertise in Property & Casualty Insurance, Life Insurance, Baking and Health-care Industries.

Please tell us about your products in various verticals.

CSC is a leading software and services vendor in many verticals such as life insurance, general insurance, banking and health-care. We have multiple product offerings in each of these verticals. Some (of these) are being offered in India also. In fact, CSC India does not have any different product for the Indian market.

How has the merger of Policy Management Systems (PMS) India in to CSC affected your business objectives and performance?

CSC acquired PMS India in December 2,000. Since CSC did not have an office in India, PMS India became CSC’s face in India and was renamed CSC India. All PMSI employees are today a part of the CSC family and have benefited tremendously from the global policies of CSC. CSC has grown in terms of qualified resources as a result of the acquisition of PMS India.

Having ambitiously begun the Noida centre, we heard about your plans for another development centre at Hyderabad. What are the growth plans for your India operations in general and Indore in particular?

CSC India is planning another centre in Noida, which should be operational by the 2nd quarter of next financial year. The company is also planning further expansion in Noida and a centre in the South but the exact location has not been finalized as yet. CSC grew by more than 70% per year in the last 2 calendar years. Plans for CSC India call for equal or even more aggressive growth in the next couple of years at least.

The BPO business sector has seen major upheavals; Spectramind sold to Wipro and CustomerAsset to ICICI; many other big and mid sized companies like Infosys, Cognizant and Polaris are in the foray too. What in your opinion prompted these companies, including yours, to virtually transform the BPO business in to “big boys game” ousting the venture-funded BPO start-ups?

BPO is a natural area of tremendous competitive advantage for India. The growth should have happened sooner. With the tremendous success of a few pioneers such as American Express and GE Capital, major vendors and companies have recognized the potential of this business and are all trying to catch up. For some, the best way to move forward is through acquisition and for others organic growth. We got into this business before many of the larger IT companies and plan to grow this organically although we are not averse to acquisition if a good candidate comes along.

MP has been trying to emerge as the next IT destination. The e-governance initiative in the state has also received acclaim in the past. How does CSC view this and wish to participate in the process?

We are most supportive of MP and other state governments to improve their services to their citizens with the help of IT. We are not interested in doing business with the public sector at this time although we are willing to contribute on a pro-bono basis to their efforts.

What do you think should be the strategy of the MP government to attract other entrepreneurs and generate more employment for state’s unemployed IT trained manpower?

Improvement of infrastructure should be the top most priority of the state government. Once infrastructure in MP is comparable to those in the other states, the state will have a better chance of attracting entrepreneurs and large companies. Making the companies that have decided to come to MP happy with the government’s support will also help as these companies will becomes the ambassadors for MP.

Please tell us about the “Advanced Software Technology Research and Information Centre (ASTRIC).

With the inexorable advances in technology and processes need for broad-based research to break new ground is bound to arise. We set up ASTRIC for such research work. The objective of ASTRIC is to nurture a research group consisting of permanent and voluntary participation from employees to help the organization with current requirements in research, study of new technologies and leveraging trends in technology and processes, thereby helping CSC improve its processes and methodologies.

Among other activities ASTRIC is involved in knowledge sharing, evaluation of new and promising technologies and preliminary feasibility studies of new projects under discussion with customers.

Would you like to tell us something about any interesting ongoing project and the future policies of CSC India?

CSC India has developed domain expertise in many industries and plans to get into new domains in the future. It has also recently ventured into BPO and is looking at infrastructure support services for the future. In terms of policies, we have excellent customer and employee focused policies. We have the highest-level – CMM Level 5 – software quality certification and we are pursuing the highest level of People CMM, which focuses on the employee side of the business.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 17 February 2003]