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Turning the page

Rasheeda Bhagat
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Mr Mohandas Pai
Mr Mohandas Pai

As soon as his decision to quit Infosys as its HR Director became public, emails and text messages started pouring in. "I received about 300 mails and 200 text messages," says T.V. Mohandas Pai. Most of them were from distraught employees; one from Aruna read: "You are aware of the respect and admiration you command in many of us; we were broken-hearted and I think the immediate selfish response was ‘now who will understand me? What will I do, who will look after me?'"

As soon as his decision to quit Infosys as its HR Director became public, emails and text messages started pouring in. “I received about 300 mails and 200 text messages,” says T.V. Mohandas Pai. Most of them were from distraught employees; one from Aruna read: “You are aware of the respect and admiration you command in many of us; we were broken-hearted and I think the immediate selfish response was ‘now who will understand me? What will I do, who will look after me?'”

Two weeks have gone by, and the storm of speculation over why the man who had worked at the IT major with great distinction for 17 years wanted to call it a day has finally abated. But Aruna C. Newton, Associate Vice-President, Education and Research, Infosys, cannot control her tears as she talks to me in Pai's office at the Infosys headquarters in Bangalore. “I still feel empty inside; the last time I felt like this was when I lost my father,” she says.

Pai himself is relaxed and happy that after mulling over the decision to quit for almost a year, he has finally done it. And excited at the kind of time he will have on his hands “to do, or not to do, whatever I want”.

To work in a company like Infosys was a “dream come true, and after living that dream for 17 years, I have a sense of fulfilment and contentment,” he says. But he is certainly not mulling retirement at the age of 51. Endowed with a rare combination of a razor-sharp brain, a passion to do something for less-fortunate Indians, an ability to cut through the fog and clutter of details and look at the larger picture, and a vision to usher in change at the national level, Pai is brimming with ideas on his future roles.

For the less-privileged

While he will not “start or run any company” and will join the boards of some that he will “pick and choose”, he would love to work with Central or State governments in the areas of higher education and skill development. He is a moving spirit behind the Akshaya Patra Foundation, which gives free midday meals to nearly 13 lakh schoolchildren every day. He continues to be a big donor here; what is little known is that he gives 40 per cent of his income to social causes “because you cannot remain an island of prosperity amidst rampant poverty. You have to reach out; all of us are so fortunate to be born to good parents who struggled and gave us a good education.”

When he sees a child begging, he often thinks, ‘It could have been me', and this strengthens his resolve to “give back to society in a large measure”. In the area of higher education, he feels that if the Government could set aside Rs 25,000 crore, “which is peanuts as our annual Budget is Rs 12 lakh crore,” 5.5 million less-privileged Indians could graduate every year, including half-a-million engineering graduates.

Massive skill-development required

Next, India has to address the massive shortage of skilled people such as plumbers, electricians, drivers, housemaids, hospitality staff and security guards. “Everywhere there is a huge skill deficit arising because the economy hasn't been configured to grow at 8 per cent.” At 3 per cent growth everything works, but not at a continuous 8 per cent; so the economy is stressed, our roads, ports, airports are all choked. There is not enough power or water because things haven't come up at appropriate speed for an 8 per cent growth.

“Contractors say projects get delayed because there are not enough skilled people; truck manufacturers suffer from a constraint of drivers. We need a massive skill-development programme and I want to work in that area in terms of policy, to scale up and demonstrate that it can be done.”

China comparison

Pai, who as a member of the Anil Kakodkar IIT panel recently visited China, says it has nearly 1,000 universities, each with 25,000-30,000 students. “They have 30 million young people — 15-20 years ago it was only 1 million — in the university system; we have 13 million. You can say the quality is bad in China, but it is improving. China will churn out qualified people and in 10 years become an innovation-cum-intellectual superpower.”

The Chinese are very nationalistic; their idea of China is of a dominant global power, not militarily, but through intellectual capital. Their focus on higher education is bearing fruit; “China has the second-largest number of patents in the world and will overtake the US soon; it produces 50,000 PhDs a year, the highest in the world,” adds Pai.

Unfortunately, over 60 years, our Government in its “intellectual arrogance has decided it will be the mai-baap of the citizens, and has kept a bulk of Indians poor. Poverty is lack of purchasing power. Those employed have some means or assets; others are poor because they have neither land nor employment,” he says.

People have to be empowered through purchasing power. Instead of free ration, power, and so on, the Government could transfer money into the bank accounts of women in disadvantaged families, and let people decide how to spend it, on their children's education, food, a house, or whatever. “People are smart, why should the Government decide everything for them? Let's not make poverty a lack of freedom…”

Fighting corruption

Pai believes it is the moral duty of educated, enlightened citizens to take up cudgels against corruption. “This is our country, so how can we step away from this fight? Our money is being misused, our country is being hurt and our people are suffering. So let's not bribe, whatever the provocation; let's stand up against the bribe-takers and expose them.”

People should work with Anna Hazare and demand appropriate legislations and empower institutions to fight corruption. “We have to accept that in the 2G scam the corporate sector has bribed people, so why can't we have anti-bribery laws as in the UK, or the US? When we work in the US or the UK we strictly follow all rules, then why not here? But we badly need role models and the youngsters… the students… have to get involved. Students should always be anti-establishment.”

Also, Government discretion should stop to end corruption, he says, giving the example of the opening up of the telecom and aviation sectors, power sector in many States, introducing online railway bookings, and the like. The central processing centre put up in Bangalore by the CBDT 18 months ago, under which electronic returns are being filed and speedy refunds got, is a wonderful example of one good policy revolutionising I-T returns. “In 18 months, nearly one crore refunds have been given to people. People's confidence in the tax administration goes up, taxmen have more time to go after defaulters, and an automatic database is built up.”

The biggest source of corruption is, of course, land and land registration, and Pai surmises that 20-25 per cent of bribes paid revolve around land. Here, too, taxes need to be reduced and registration shifted out from the registrar offices to banks. An exhaustive land survey should be done; going by Karnataka's collection of Rs 4,500 crore a year as land registration charges, and presuming Karnataka constitutes five per cent of India, Pai assumes that every year India collects land registration fee of Rs 1 lakh crore. “At a rate of 5 per cent, this means Rs 20 lakh crore of property is being registered every year in India. Even if the bribe is one per cent, we can eliminate Rs 20,000 crore in bribes through better policy.”

He is optimistic that things will change… but that would call for a much more responsive, honest and better-administered justice system. With a shudder, Pai recalls his experience in a lower court in Delhi about 15 years ago, where “the clerk seated below the judge's table was openly taking money to just put the file up. What kind of respect will I have for such a judicial system?”

But for all this to happen, good and intelligent people should take up social and public causes, says Pai. “In the Gita, Krishna told Arjuna that if good people stay away from involvement in society, evil will flourish and if you don't fight evil you're not doing your duty and are party to that evil.”

In this context, Pai admires Rahul Gandhi for going around the country, “inspiring young people to join politics and public service, and stop being apathetic”. If enough young people do that, India will change, as the young can bring in passion, energy, fresh ideas.

“Our political leadership is geriatric and without energy or passion, and there aren't enough youngsters to represent 650 million Indians below the age of 30. India requires a young political leadership,” says Pai, who has met Rahul Gandhi a few times and finds him “an extraordinary person. He is extremely polite and well-behaved, listens to people, always smiles, always thinks of his country, is willing to learn, wants to improve things and is optimistic about India's future. We need more people like that.”

Between the lines

Pai has some exciting plans for life beyond Infosys. Not the least of these is to spend more time with his family, particularly his elder son who will soon head to Stanford. “My younger son says ‘hopefully you'll now find some time to talk to me, mentor me'.”

One thing is for sure, he says, all smiles: Soney ke pinjrey se panchi ud gaya (The bird has flown out of the golden cage). He now looks forward to a “life without deadlines”, and wants to read the books he has bought over the years; “I buy at least 3-4 books every week that I'm not able to read. When I was a kid I would spend eight hours in the library to read two books a day. I now want to read everything… science, technology, history.” Among literary giants his favourites are Charles Dickens and Rabindranath Tagore. A recent book he enjoyed the most is The Ascent of Money by Niall Fergusson.

But writing a book is certainly not on his agenda. “I don't like the discipline of writing; I'll write whenever I get the mood, I don't want the discipline of deadlines. My life has been full of deadlines for 17 years,” he says.

Sure enough, his phone is buzzing with invitations to serve on the boards of companies, but he will decide on that only after “Infosys stops paying my salary after June 11”.

Surely some State governments also want the benefit of his razor-sharp brain?

The reply is a broad grin: “Yes, I have been getting calls; a lot of people are talking to me.”

Is Narendra Modi, quick to grab such opportunities, one of them?

“I can't talk about all this now, not till June 11,” he says, adding, “but I already work with the Government of Karnataka; have done it for five years to create the Karnataka Skill Development Corporation, and with the former government of Rajasthan.”

(This article was published on May 5, 2011)
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