The IIIT Hyderabad community is extremely saddened to learn about the passing away of Shri F C Kohli, who was rightly hailed as the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian IT industry. He made early and critical steps to build the IT industry that contributes to about 8% of India’s GDP today. His indirect contributions will continue to enrich the IT sector as well as the country at large in the years to come.
The outsourced IT/ITES industry owes everything to the genius and doggedness of Shri Kohli. He envisioned and exploited its potential as the CEO of the Tata Consultancy Services in the seventies, when the business environment in the country wasn’t very positive. The country was struggling for foreign exchange and importing computers was next to impossible. Shri Kohli has recounted the story and the difficult situation countless times. He points out the luck of software not being a physical commodity that the government could tax or restrict to paralysis. He definitely played the most important role in the birth and nurturing of the software industry through from start. He was also its leading ambassador for the past five decades. The industry is today worth over 180 billion US dollars, contributes to about 8% of the country’s GDP, and employs about 45 lakh individuals directly and a few crores indirectly. Its economic impact is best seen in the transformed cities of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gurgaon, Pune, and others.
A deeper impact of the IT industry should also be recognized. It redefined India in the eyes of the world as a powerhouse and source of talent and solutions. The role of our IT industry changed from being software exporters till about the year 2000 to being product builders for the world thereafter. Today, it claims the role of a vibrant, innovation-driven sector that is both outward focused and inward focused. The world is looking to India for its most advanced digital solutions. The country itself is banking on its IT section to provide solutions to several of its shortages and shortcomings. In short, the land of snake charmers is transformed into a land of Python programmers! Shri FC Kohli waved the magic wand that started this process about 50 years ago.
When I graduated from IIT Kharagpur with a Computer Science degree, TCS was already a respected employer in which some of my classmates took up jobs. I heard much about Shri Kohli from friends who had worked there when I went to graduate school. His son Madhur Kohli was a PhD student in our department in the University of Maryland working in logic programming. I can’t claim to know him personally as Madhur graduated soon after I joined but did interact a bit with him. However, I watched the growth and impact of TCS with owe like everyone else.
IIIT Hyderabad worked with TCS on a few projects in the 2000s. The Machine Translation and the broad Indian language computing effort at the institute was quite close to Shri Kohli’s heart. Enabling IT and computing in Indian languages was a theme he harped on frequently. The institute had requested TCS for support early on for infrastructure and research. A non-governmental institution of high research ambition needs the direct support of all who benefit from such an institution. F C Kohli, S Ramadorai, and N Chandrasekaran were sympathetic to it and brought it to Shri Ratan Tata’s attention. The efforts came to fruition in 2015 when the Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems (KCIS) was created with an endowment from TCS. KCIS aims to coordinate and accelerate research in the broad areas of Intelligent Systems or AI at IIIT and in the country. Shri F C Kohli and Prof. Raj Reddy headed the Advisory Board from start. The two share a very warm relation going back to late seventies.
Shri Kohli visited the institute five times recently for the inauguration, advisory board meetings, etc. He seemed as fit as someone 20 years younger and gave inspiring and optimistic talks here. His wife Smt Swarn Kohli accompanied him on those visits. Both took great interest in KCIS and the rest of the activities of the institute. He took time to interact with and to be interviewed by a team of young undergraduate students during one of the visits. He told me that he would come to the institute “as often as you will invite me”! Once, he even expressed gratitude that IIIT named the centre after him. It is, without doubt, a rare and unparalleled honour to the institute to have an effort named for him.
IIIT Hyderabad feels it lost one of our own with the moving on of Shri F C Kohli. The institute seems to have had a tiny place in his large heart filled with varied experiences. While departures are sad occasions, the right tribute to a man like Shri Kohli is to reflect on his contributions and to carry the flame forward as he did for 50 or so years. KCIS at IIIT Hyderabad is especially proud to bear the name of Shri F C Kohli, who has done much for the country. KCIS will strive to carry forward the pioneering spirit and perseverance embodied by him! KCIS is open to anyone with a desire to work on several important missions involving Intelligent Systems and AI.