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R.K. Upadhyay, CMD, TCIL
Rakesh Kumar Upadhyay exudes the calm authority of a man who is in total command of his subject, knows every aspect of his organisation’s work – having worked in the field of telecom for 30 years – and feels pleased that he has taken TCIL’s turnover from Rs 4 billion when he took over three years ago to Rs 7.32 billion.
Every resource of TCIL, a prime engineering and consultancy company, is geared towards winning projects and finishing them on time, without cost overruns, to the satisfaction of the client. “Running any public sector company is very challenging and in our case, we are a project organisation. Most of our projects are won through open tenders. We have to choose carefully which areas we will bid for, put together a competitive and innovative bid and make sure we win the tender,” he says.
TCIL, which is under the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), was set up in 1978 to share Indian telecom and IT expertise with developing countries on a commercial basis. Upadhyay took over as CMD in March 2007, after serving as functional director, projects.
An officer of the 1975 batch of the Indian Telecom Service, he is proud of the company’s distinctive work culture, characterised by much less red tape than most public sector organisations and a more single-minded determination to win and efficiently execute projects. “The motivation levels are high. I do my bit to keep them high by empowering people and decentralising responsibility. I like to tell my staff that each person, in his own area of work and responsibility, is a CMD. My role is to be there to support them. We keep our staff motivated by constantly giving them training and organising refresher courses so that they are on top of things,” he says.
He adds: “We are not very hierarchical. Even where there is hierarchy, it is only for the efficient functioning of the organisation, for problem solving rather than being a problem in itself.”
Problem solving is an area where every member of TCIL can make a contribution that will be appreciated. Any suggestion that can help improve a tender or speed up completion of a project is readily entertained, no matter how junior the person. When ideas are taken up, it increases employees’ sense of ownership of a project or bid.
The organisation has had its ups and downs. Business boomed when there was an explosion in the landline business and TCIL was run off its feet setting up telephone exchanges and laying copper cable networks in other developing countries as if there was no tomorrow.
Around 10 years ago, it suffered a crisis of confidence and a crisis of identity when the mobile revolution erupted. It plunged into introspection, wondering what its future would be. Should it adapt to wireless telecom? Or should it focus on IT? “This was our most difficult period and a real challenge. Luckily, we adapted and now the landline business comprises just 5 per cent of our work,” he says.
TCIL employees have to work in countries where the living conditions may be tough, particularly in some of the 33 African countries where the company has many projects. Often, owing to poor connectivity, the simple act of getting to their destination can be exhausting. No one, however, complains. As Upadhyay says, they all know that they have to earn their living out of projects and they have to be taken up wherever the location.
Having visited most parts of Africa, he says that the crucial thing in a project is for the client to see your honesty of purpose. “People recognise sincerity and respond. Our policy is to share our knowledge with the local people. We want to hand over the project to them as soon as possible and leave, not perpetuate our presence. Clients appreciate that and often give us repeat projects,” he says.
TCIL is also very active in the Middle East where it is taking optic fibre to homes for broadband connections. Here, the challenge is to meet very high expectations, both of quality and of deadlines.
Upadhyay says he has thoroughly enjoyed all his assignments but has a particular soft spot for his time in Jammu & Kashmir in 2000 when he was with DoT. People were desperate for telecommunications. There was a long waiting list. Hardly any of the exchanges near the Line of Control functioned and it was difficult to get reliable connectivity.
“Installing a stable communications system in that area was quite a challenge. We got all the 100 exchanges functional and connected to the district centres. People enjoyed STD facilities for the first time. It was not just the terrain that was difficult, you name a problem and we had it, including insurgency. But we had the full cooperation of the local people. If you provide good leadership, there is no dearth of followers,” he says.
Another satisfying posting was in Yemen, in 1996-99, when he was on deputation from DoT. This was his first as project head of TCIL in a foreign country. He was able to execute the turnkey project to the satisfaction of the client, from inception to training the staff to take over after TCIL had left.
When Upadhyay chose to get into telecommunications decades ago, he had no idea of the explosion that would take place 15 years later after liberalisation. He graduated in electronics engineering from Banaras Hindu University in 1974 and obtained an MBA from Indira Gandhi Open University. But some instinct told him that he had made the right choice, if only because he had found something he enjoyed enormously.
“I have found it very satisfying to be a part of this tremendous revolution in people’s lives, the way it has transformed the way they work and earn a living. This industry’s appeal is its amazing innovation. The technologies that telecom operators brought to India were not new, but the way they adapted them to the needs of the Indian market was original and bold,” he says.
He points out that the government also played its part in making the transformation possible by adapting its policies, such as abandoning the licensing regime and the practice of both parties paying for a call.
As for the telecom companies, they worked hard to make handsets cheaper. Both operators and the government worked in tandem to make the revolution possible.
For over 20 years, he worked in DoT in the areas of planning, installation and commissioning, commercial administration and operations. He still feels excited at the approach of a new day because he knows that telecom will continue to offer Indians so much more than it already has.
Apart from taking mobiles to the rural population, Upadhyay believes the next big leap will be making the mobile more useful to the consumer than merely making a call or sending a text. Banking is one obvious area that he alludes to.
“Why would any bank open a branch in a poor rural area where it is not going to make much money from a farmer?” he asks. “Micro finance is the solution. Telecom operators will set up new companies that employ agents to dispense cash to the millions who do not have bank accounts. For operators, it will be a new revenue stream, which will be welcome given how small their profit margins are. And because they are going to make money from it, they will know how to sell it and make it work.”
He also predicts that telecom will play a big role in education and medicine. In education, it can help those who have no access to formal education even if it is just advice on sanitation and personal hygiene. In medicine, he foresees the mobile being used extensively for medical help, often in live-saving situations. As long as a doctor is connected to a central server, all a poor villager will have to do in case of an emergency is click on the icon on the mobile and get connected to a doctor for advice.
Upadhyay laughs when he is asked where he grew up. “The famous or infamous Azamgarh,” he says. “But in my time, it was a peaceful place and my schooling at the missionary school was fantastic. The teachers looked after you like your parents. That degree of commitment and enthusiasm is rare now. You have swanky buildings with air conditioning and gadgets, but what’s really needed is a passion for teaching.”
When not reading – he is currently reading The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin S. Sharma – he is busy thinking about what business opportunities he can keep pursuing for TCIL. “I am always on the lookout for new opportunities so that I can keep the order book full.”
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