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Prakash Kumar, National Technology Officer, Microsoft India

August 25, 2014
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In the white, bright, spacious and ultra-modern Microsoft India office on the 10th floor of DLF Epitome in Gurgaon, all the meeting rooms are booked. It’s a busy day. Prakash Kumar opens door after door in the corridor only to find the rooms occupied. Finally, he finds one that’s vacant.

“The company policy is to have no rooms or desks. You get a locker to keep your things but when you walk in, you simply find a place to sit, anywhere. Studies of sales organisations have shown that because 50 per cent of the staff is in the field or travelling or on leave, it makes sense not to provide dedicated desks. It started in the US and now many companies are following this practice,” explains Kumar.

He is probably the one person at Microsoft India who least needs a desk; he is a freewheeling, roaming, one man think tank on technology. His job is to develop a technology policy strategy and engagement plan for Microsoft India that addresses existing and emergent technology policy issues.

As a former IAS officer with 23 years’ experience, he engages with the government through his consulting work as a Microsoft India expert, to help it work out what it needs to deliver its services to citizens more efficiently.

Kumar engages constantly with the government on technology. “What excites me about my job is the idea of making services available to people through multiple channels including mobile devices that they carry with them. People should not need to go to a government office to get a birth /death certificate, to file their tax return, to pay their taxes or get a caste or income certificate. My job is to help government agencies move to a situation where people do not need to visit the offices,” he says.

When he meets civil servants and technocrats, his mission is not to sell company products but to understand their challenges and suggest how technology can help them to achieve their goals.

In doing this work, he ends up often helping bureaucrats and ministers frame policy. For example, four years ago, when he was with Cisco, he wrote two white papers on cloud computing at a time when the government had no policy for it. Kumar explained what it is, how it works and the implications for the government of having data stored on servers that are not its own and are located elsewhere. “What if the data is compromised? What policy would it need for that? I conducted workshops to explain the different scenarios to officials. I was invited to be a part of the committee which drafted the cloud policy, which was adopted by the government and named as “Meghraj”. The next item the committee worked on was the policy to consolidate state data centers and networks to enable government offices to get compute, storage and connectivity on demand,” he says.

Kumar has a B.Tech in electrical engineering from IIT Kanpur, and a master’s degree in policy analysis from the National Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo. As an IAS officer, Kumar enjoyed a series of diverse postings, including senior policy and management positions. He worked as secretary to the Government of Delhi, looking after information technology and technical education from 2002 to 2006, before moving to the central government as joint secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences. In the 1990s, he worked as additional commissioner (systems) of sales tax and secretary to the governor of Arunachal Pradesh. At the beginning of his career with the government, he worked as the deputy commissioner of two districts in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Although 13 of his 23 years were spent in Delhi, some of his memorable assignments were in remote areas such as Arunachal Pradesh, where he led the local people to build a sports stadium in Lohit district, using locally available material.

“We did it without taking any money from the government, just by galvanising locals, students and the local industry. People are very good at sports there, especially football, but they had nowhere to play. The idea was to use boulders from the Lohit river and build a masonry stand,” he says. After an engineer designed the stadium, all they needed was labour and cement and transport to bring the stones to the site. Everyone volunteered their labour and local timber companies lent some of their trucks to transport the stone from the riverbed to the site. The stadium, he has since heard, is still there.

Kumar was also instrumental in building schools in tiny, remote villages – some of which were a three-day walk from the nearest road – near the border with China. “The walk was long and hard, but I was in my late 20s and was very fit. These villages had no schools, so we got them sanctioned, opened them and posted teachers,” he says.

When he was made in charge of IT in Delhi, it was a satisfying assignment for a person who took to computers from the moment they appeared. Kumar led the effort to automate the government. “I wrote policies for IT, developed IT road map, and arranged training for various departments on how to computerise their work,” he says. “I enjoyed working in an area that was transforming the way the government works and delivers services.”

Kumar concedes that the government has been slow in this field, but points to the progress made. So many things can be applied for online now, although some do still require an official’s signature. “Progress is slow in some of the state governments. The reason is that for automation, you need some adequate number of technical people inside the government and support from the top,” he says.

The right to information (RTI) was another path-breaking area that Kumar worked on as a civil servant. When he was asked to implement the new law in 2002, he had no clue about it. After Rajasthan and Maharashtra, Delhi was the next state to implement it. Kumar had to prepare training material and work out how best to enact the new law. He ended up as an expert on RTI and a great advocate of it. He wrote three books on RTI for government officials and for citizens on how to use the law.

During the interview, Kumar receives a call from someone inviting him to speak on RTI. He declines politely. “So much has happened since I was in charge of it. I do not want to go and talk on RTI if I am not totally up to date with the latest rulings and developments,” he says.

Kumar left the civil service because, once he reached the secretariat, he felt that he was pushing paper and that his career had plateaued. The next position was the chief secretary in the state or secretary at the centre, which would only come at the fag end of his career. He made the big move of joining the private sector, with Cisco, as director, global public sector practice in its internet business solutions group.

His focus was primarily on the public sector. He worked at the senior executive and political levels, on a pro bono basis, to help shape internet business solutions in the country.

Last November, he joined Microsoft India. A key telecom idea he is discussing with the government at the moment is how to connect all of India’s villages to the internet. When the government’s National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project is complete, it will connect 250,000 gram panchayats. But there are 640,000 villages in total. Many will not be covered by the project because they are too small and not close enough to a panchayat.

Kumar is urging the government to consider a new technology called TV white spaces – which are being commercially used in few countries and many are experimenting with it. “In between two TV channels is a small band that isn’t used for transmission. Its purpose is to be a separator, to ensure that there is no interference from one channel to another. Scientists have developed a mechanism whereby this unused frequency can be used to transmit internet data. One TV white space antennae can cover 1 km radius thus covering an average Indian village. If you use it point to point, you can get up to 10 km. It is easy to commission and runs on solar power. So, the optic fibre from panchayat under NoFN project could be one end point from where Internet connectivity could be provided to nearby villages quickly without laying fibre, which is time taking and expensive.

He and his colleagues have been to the Department of Telecommunications to explain the technology. They have been asked to do a pilot or proof of concept (PoC) to show that use of TVWS will not impact terrestrial TV transmission. Kumar is working with two organisations to conduct the PoC and present the outcome to the government.

“This could bring a paradigm shift in providing connectivity,” says Kumar. “I am optimistic that the government will respond positively. We can use this connectivity in education, health care, government services, etc. to transform people’s lives in rural areas.”

With the new government pushing technology, Kumar is hopeful that it will be used more widely and creatively to solve India’s problems. “If we can first give people connectivity and then give them what they need on their mobiles or kiosks, we will change the way we work, live and play,” he says.

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