I remember a scintillating discussions we had over breakfast at my residence. He had brought along his illustrious sibling S Rangarajan (Tamil writer Sujatha) and we discussed subjects ranging from philosophy, literature, politics to science and technology.
When MTNL was at its peak...
Rajagopalan took telecom in the two large metros to great heights in the 1990s. When other infrastructure sectors, including power and transportation languished, the telecom sector recorded spectacular growth! At the swanky office of MTNL, one could feel the corporation catching up with state-of-the-art. I interviewed him during April 1998. MTNL was then at its peak performance. On a turnover of Rs.4500 crore, it earned a net profit of Rs.1000 crore. MTNL then accounted for 20 per cent of total telephones, of around 180 lakh lines in operation, with 90 per cent digital. MTNL truly set the pace for the telecom revolution. The long waiting list that extended to 15 years, vanished and a telephone was made available on demand!
S Sundaresan who worked as Director Finance, at that time recalls: “SR set the pace not just for expansion; but also for improving efficiency and performance all around. He adapted the CDMA technology for mobile phones. The ensuing competition resulted in the crash of cell-phone charges and made it accessible by the masses. He also initiated steps to list MTNL in the New York Stock Exchange.”
IE invited SR as the chief guest at the annual function to present the IE Business Excellence Award 1998 to TVS Suzuki Ltd. SR presented the IE annual lecture on Growth during a period of instability and slow down. He traced the changes in the economy over the previous 50 years and the evolution and the future of the telecom sector. It further kindled interest in the inequity of keeping Chennai and Kolkata telephones outside MTNL.
Empower and recognise the performer....
SR was prophetic in his reference to empowerment of staff and recognition to performance: “if you are not going to do this,competition will do this.” The present mind set and behaviour of front office personnel in most telecom systems do not make for business sense. The customer will just walk out if he has a choice. “A system of incentives for performance needs to be placed in position. The government is impersonal and almost inhuman. The role of a good performer is unappreciated and unrecognised. This needs to change and change fast.” (IE 15-20 May 1998).
Sadly, this warning went unheeded. There was the added factor of the political class making unreasonable and perhaps unethical demands. SR stood firm and resisted it. The Minister was vindictive. He planned to suspend this upright technocrat on the day of his retirement on 30 June 2000.
Another upright officer who was closely involved in telecom development, N Vittal, who was then the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, alerted SR and advised him to hand-over charge ahead of the suspension order.
This brilliant technocrat opted to settle down in Srirangam where he was born and grew up. His services and leadership were not utlised in the crucial years when the telecom policy went through a series of abuses cumulating in a mega scam. Yet another sad instance where the state leadership which had such an important part in the national government, did not bother to assess and appreciate the massive contribution of one of its tall technocrats.