India’s IT Guy


F.C.Kohli says it is time for the government to encourage domestic software development—especially software that can “speak” Indian languages. “Only then can we develop India-unique application systems to improve efficiencies within the country,” he says. “Then the computer can become a real instrument for national growth.”Since retiring in 2000, Kohli has been working in an honorary capacity with the Tata Group to find ways of using computers as tools for India’s development.

A voracious reader who devours thrillers and statistical reports alike, he was appalled by estimates in 2000 that India had close to 150 million illiterate adults, spread across 500,000 villages. With a linguist’s help, he determined that adults would need to recognize 500 words, on average, to start reading the newspaper. His programmers then created software that uses images to teach adults complete words before teaching them the alphabet. In a 10-week pilot program, 25 adults in Beeramguda, a village near Hyderabad, began to read newspapers in their native tongue, Telugu.

This experiment, on hand-me-down computers, was repeated in different regions and languages. By 2009, the software had helped more than 120,000 people become functionally literate. Today, the Indian government is using that software as a large-scale intervention to help eradicate adult illiteracy.

Kohli, who turns 89 in February, continues to takes on some of the vexing problems that his country faces. IT happens to be part of the solution in many cases, he says. “And besides,” he adds, laughing impishly, “what else would I do with my time?”

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