The dawn of computer age in administration in Karnataka

Karnataka is renowned for its software professionals in the last few decades. The world looks to Bengaluru for its software needs. Citizens expect the government to serve them using computers. Ration cards, driving licences, examination results, tickets for travel by air, train or bus, are all processed on computers. 

In short, computers have become ubiquitous in the work of the government. However, it was not always so. It was only 50 years ago that the first computer was purchased by the Karnataka government, which was among the first states to embark upon computerisation. That little step taken five decades ago has led the state government to its present status as the doyen among computer savvy states in India. 

As Bengaluru reaches the significant milestone of 50 years since it all started, I recall my own personal experience of that pioneering year. The year was 1971. Apollo spacecraft sent by USA had landed on the moon in 1969 and sent the famous message, ‘The Eagle has landed’. Neil Armstrong’s message that he had taken the first little step for mankind on the moon was still fresh in public memory. 

There was high trust in computers and their ability to do superhuman tasks. Karnataka was still Mysore state. It was under a spell of President’s rule. Dharma Vira was the governor. R J Rebello was the chief secretary; G V K Rao was development commissioner and Mani Narayanaswamy finance secretary. 

That year, an IBM 1401 computer and its accessories were purchased by the government to computerise treasury accounts. The computer was set up in the Bureau of Economics and Statistics headed by Sampathkumaran. Parthasarathy, a railway officer with experience in computers, was the manager of the Computer Centre. In August 1971, I was appointed as the Special Officer for the Computer Centre.

 For computerising the state accounts, codes had to be designed and standardised for converting the treasury data into digital format. Staff in the treasuries had to be trained to enter receipt and expenditure transactions into coding sheets. These sheets would be transported to Bengaluru. 

Data entry operators would punch the data into cards. Another set of operators would verify the correctness of the data. Card reading machines would read the data from the cards and send them to storage devices for storing on magnetic tapes.

System analysts had designed the set of programmes that would process data as desired by the finance department. Programmers would write and check the programs needed to operate the system. We had to identify officials, who were willing to learn computer programming. IBM would give them an aptitude test. Those who did adequately well in the test would then be sent for learning the programming language.

Development of the system for treasury accounting would take time. In the meanwhile, government wanted to consider computerising other types of repetitive works like tabulation of marks, processing of driving licences, vehicle registration certificates, ration cards and similar applications. 

We used to hold meetings with heads of departments, make a presentation about the capability  of computers and invite them to identify tasks in their department, which could be computerised. Depending upon the response, we would invite them to send willing personnel from their departments for the aptitude test. These would be the nucleus staff for computerisation of that department.

Punched cards

In this way, seeds were sown for the eventual computerisation of treasuries and many other departments.  Looking back, it appears very ambitious on the part of the state government to have tried all these when the status of technology was still primitive. The IBM 1401 computer had a memory of only 8k. The input processing through punched cards was laborious and prone to errors. 

Scanning devices were not yet available. Desktop and laptop personal computers and graphic user interface technology had not yet been invented. Laser printers were not yet available. Communication was primitive. Mobile phones had not been invented. Only landlines with limited capacities were available. There was no worldwide web. Programmers were difficult to find. 

When computers made their entry, there was fear of loss of jobs. This fear created a lot of resistance to computerisation in the initial decades. Negotiation and persuasion were required before staff unions would accept computerisation. That is why the realisation of the government’s computerisation goals took many years, during which great developments took place simultaneously in computer hardware, software, communications and availability of manpower with the new skills. 

Eventually, it was realised that though the computer-rendered many old jobs redundant, it created many new ones. What was more, the new jobs paid much more than the jobs they replaced. The new jobs were also in demand all over the world. Degree and certificate courses in the new skills attracted a large number of young men and women. 

Karnataka built up a huge pool of manpower which attracted companies from all over the world. New companies based in Karnataka have also established themselves as globally respected large software houses. Many foreign companies have come here while many others have hired manpower from here in large numbers. All these developments have brought prosperity to individuals, families, cities, states and the country.

 While we see and admire now in 2021, the achievements of Karnataka in the field of computerisation, it would be good to remember that a beginning was made by some pioneers 50 years ago. This milestone of 50 years since 1971 is a good occasion to remember and thank those visionaries who foresaw the needs of government in the 21st century and took those little steps, which have resulted in this giant leap for the state.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer, Tamil Nadu cadre)

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