Brijendra K Syngal, former Chairman of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL), passed away on Saturday after a prolonged illness. He was 82.
Syngal, who has been acknowledged as the father of the Indian Internet, was known for his strong views and fearlessness in taking on the establishment. As the Chairman of VSNL, he was unofficially known as the ‘bulldozer’ for his ability to push through bureaucratic hurdles, as a result of which VSNL grew from a $125 million company in 1991 into a $1.65 billion communications giant by 1998.
Born in Ambala a year after World War II broke out, he started his schooling at DAV Model School in 1945, in Lahore. After the partition in 1947, he moved with his family to Delhi. During his school days, he took a liking for cricket and stamp collection. In 1957 he got into the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, where he pursued electrical engineering.
After stints at multinational companies in London and Budapest, he surprised his family and friends by quitting a job with Inmarsat in London, and moved to Mumbai in 1991 to head VSNL, then an old-style, stodgy public sector company. According to Syngal, this was the most “challenging and satisfying” work in his life. “It was a great honour for me to take over at the helm of VSNL for it placed me at the very centre of Indian telecommunication, and telecommunications, more than perhaps anything else, has contributed to humanity’s progress over the last two centuries,” Syngal wrote in his memoir, Telecom Man.
One of Syngals’ biggest challenges and accomplishments was bringing the Internet to India in 1995. Until then India had a rudimentary version of the internet, called ERNET, but this was limited to educational institutes. Syngal was told to do everything possible to enable the government to launch mass Internet on August 15, 1995. Many news reports termed it a second Independence Day and there was a lot of euphoria around the service. But it turned out to be a damp squib with lot of technical glitches, and Syngal was blasted for the fiasco. Syngal called a press conference and said “I goofed up. I goofed up big time”.
Syngal created a team in VSNL to rectify the issues within 10 weeks. He himself woke up in the middle of the night to check if the service was working. “After that, we never looked back and continued to provide wider connectivity, which ultimately resulted in private sector participation,” Syngal recollected in his book.
After his successful stint at VSNL, Syngal became an advisor and confidante to many in the industry, government and media. With his experience in navigating the regulatory regime, he was sought after by the private players, including Mukesh Ambani-backed Reliance Industries, and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the current Minister of State for Information Technology and Electronics, who was earlier the promoter of BPL Mobile. “ He was the original Telecom pioneer of India,” Chandrasekhar tweeted on Sunday.
Over the last few years of his life, Syngal was always available to anyone from the industry, government and media, who wanted advice on policy matters or even personal issues. “Will miss the advice that he used to give. His advice to stick to the truth will always be with me,” said Balaji Krishnaswami, an exeuctive working with Amazon.
Manoj Gairola, a senior journalist wrote on Twitter, “ When I passed out from IIT (Delhi), I realised that I had only textbook knowledge. Real-world was very different. Mr. Syngal, an alumnus of IIT (Kharagpur) taught me real telecom. He taught me nuances of business. He was a great visionary.”