Vimal Wakhlu | Chairman & Managaing Dircetor, TCIL
From the alleys of Bana Mohalla in Srinagar to the decently furnished office of TCIL, Vimal Wakhlu has come a long way. Currently, as the Chairman & Managing Director of the TCIL, he is still in touch with his roots and his culture. Career may have been his high on this agenda, his connect with Kashmir has been an undeclared priority, no reason the family still converse in the Kashmir and he is still in touch with his friends from the Valley.
Excerpts from an interaction with Rajesh Prothi, TheCherryTree.in
You are one of the very few Kashmiris who is heading a telecom company of such repute, How has been the journey so far?
The journey so far has been quite exciting. I have enjoyed every day of these 38 years in the domain of Telecom and IT. I started my career with NHPC in 1977 at Salal Hydro Electric Project in J&K. I moved on to Overseas Communications Services (OCS) through Engineering Services in 1979. OCS subsequently became VSNL (and now Tata Communication Limited). Though I left this organization in 1983, my career took shape here and its work culture became part of my future professional pursuits. During the same time, I also got international exposure.
Seventeen years with the Department of Telecommunication, Government of India (DoT) (1983-2000) was also quite eventful. I was lucky enough in getting opportunities of working on state-of-the-art technologies. With the formation of BSNL in 2000, we found ourselves in a new corporate culture. Here I got to work on the Mobile networks when BSNL’s maiden services were launched in Maharashtra. My stint in the North East was one of the interesting phases of my career, where I got a first-hand feel of the challenges that people living in those states are faced with.
The last eight years in TCIL have been really exciting, It took me beyond the frontiers of Telecom into domains like Education, Health, Governance, Agriculture, Water management, etc. It also gave me a perspective on how challenges in developing countries are similar. The desire to solve people’s problems leveraging ICT became more of a passion than focussing on the core business of Telecom. This has been the phase of coming out of the well of Telecom and entering an ocean.
I feel that one should keep moving like a river, hurdles in the way decide the course of the flow, which is determined by one’s destiny.
Being a Kashmiri how difficult was it for you to adjust to this part of the country? What kind of cultural adjustments you have to make?
One thing that I have learned in life is that at the core, all human beings are alike. There can be cultural differences, but so long as you respect the other individual and his culture, one can feel at home anywhere on this globe. I develop a liking for the people of all the countries I visit and love all parts of this world. Yes, sometimes I do miss Kashmir, probably because it happens to be my birthplace, and I have spent a substantial portion of my life over there. Besides this, it is so beautiful.
How did you decide to study engineering or was it the choice of your family?
In Kashmir, in my young days, there were three options when it came to choosing a career- engineer, doctor or officer/clerk in a bank. My father wanted me to become a doctor to serve the people, while my mother, impressed by the lifestyle of the engineers of those days in Kashmir, wanted me to become an engineer. Since I was supposedly good at mathematics, engineering became the obvious choice. I am fully satisfied with the choice, but then my mother must have got disappointed on realizing that becoming an engineer was not enough to have a standard of living that had impressed her!
Did you face any struggles when you started your career?
Since my childhood, I have been quite adventurous. As a kid, if I had a number of options to choose from, I would always choose the toughest one. This helped me in my career as well. When I reached Mumbai railway station at midnight in 1979, to take up a new assignment at OCS, I decided to stay in the waiting room, as I had been doing in other places. At about 2 am the TT woke me up and asked for the ticket. On seeing my ticket, I was asked to quit. When asked the reason, he told me that the waiting room in Mumbai is supposed to be only for outbound passengers. I tried to argue but in vain. Finally, I took a newspaper and slept on the platform. The next day I reached to join the office, with a bad cold, totally out of sorts. This was just the beginning, as it was a challenge looking for accommodation in Mumbai city. After a few days, I started wondering whether it was the right decision to leave the previous job, where I had a nice flat, a good company of my friends, so close to my hometown. It seemed I had created a challenge for myself by deciding to take up a job in this city. It was quite a frustrating time in the beginning.
But there were some things about this city that drew me close to it, and finally, I could manage to settle down. Destiny had pulled me to Mumbai. Though I left on a posting to Srinagar after about a year or so, I returned back a few years later only to spend 25 years in Mumbai, in 4 to 5 stints. Looking back at that initial period in Mumbai, I feel happy and satisfied that I could endure the challenges of that period. This phase was important in shaping me as a professional.
Which area in Kashmir do you belong to, and share some memories of those days?
I was born and brought up in Srinagar city. Life was relatively simpler for me as a kid, but then seeing my parents work, I knew that life was not so easy.
My father was a teacher, and in the government set up, he would have to go to far-flung villages in Kashmir on posting. I still have memories of those winters in Kashmir, when my father would leave home before dawn, with special shoes on, to walk on the hard, slippery snow in the lanes and the roads. Back home my mother would be busy the whole day with the household chores, under sub-zero temperature conditions, with practically no electricity. ‘Kangri’ was the only solace available to bring the literally frozen limbs back to normal. Life was really tough for them.
On the positive side, I was fond of trekking and hence used to make a daily trip to Shankracharya, as a student. I and my cousins Arun, Vinod, Bharat, Susheel have good memories of some longish trips to Mahadev and other peaks in Kashmir.
I quite often am reminded of the social system in those times. Our barber on the main road- Sanaullah was like a family friend. He would escort all the ladies of our home, from the main road to our home, in case they would get late. My father in turn used to guide his sons with their studies.
We had another special member in our home, Ramzan. He started as a servant at home, and finally got a government job, where he was officially known as Ramzan Wakhlu (our family name). He continued to stay with us and would do some sundry jobs at home. He was my father’s age and used to take a lot of care of me.
Tell us something about your school and college days, about your friends and teachers?
I studied at the DAV Higher Secondary School, Gogjibagh in Srinagar. I still have fond memories of the teachers over there. We had an English teacher in the 6th class, Mr. Janki Nath Krandoo, who made sure that I learned grammar well. Though he was a hard taskmaster, yet thorough in his subject. I had a number of friends over there. Ashok Kaw joined the school in 6th and we continued to be together in the Engineering College. We are still in touch. Thanks to Facebook, I recently got in touch with Rajan Kaul, another friend from my school days.
Engineering college days were quite eventful. We lost one year on account of strikes. But, on the whole, I have a lot of pleasant memories of that place. There are some professors who can never fade out of my memory. Prof. AM Wani was not only a mentor but also like an elder brother. Prof. H.L. Jalali, Prof. Shinde, Prof. G.L.Kaul, and Prof. Yousuf Khan, were some others who helped shape my skills.
It is nice meeting some of my classmates from the Engineering college days off and on –Shiban Kaul from IIT Delhi, Niaz Shah, a businessman in Kashmir, Ziad Al-Abed, a professional in Kuwait, Ramesh Kaul from BARC.
Tell us something about yourself? What are your hobbies? What do you do in your free time?
I love reading. I also enjoy music, particularly Indian Classical and devotional. I am interested in the Ancient Indian Sciences and intend to work more on that in the future.
I also love meeting people of different countries and origins and try to discover the common thread that binds us all.
I still love doing electronics-related projects.
How good are you when it comes to speaking in the Kashmiri language?
I love speaking Kashmiri. My wife Purnima also is a Kashmiri, hence we speak Kashmiri at home. My children, though they have never stayed in Kashmir, understand the language fully, and speak as well, though not all the time. Let’s whether my grandson would be able to speak Kashmiri, as he has another language to handle- Marathi, as our daughter-in-law is a Maharashtrian.
I feel that the only thing that identifies us with Kashmir is the Kashmiri language, and I keep telling people that we need to ensure that we continue to teach this language to our children. Otherwise, a generation later, for people outside the valley, the language, and the identity would be lost.
Tell us some anecdotes of Kashmir that you still enact?
We used to play with cowries during the Shivratri festival. We have been continuing with this tradition to relive those memories of our childhood. Also, the long walks from my home in Bana Mohalla to Shankracharya top were quite rejuvenating. I try to substitute with long, brisk walks over here.
What is your message to the new generation who want to be a part of the telecom industry?
For the new generation who want to be a part of the telecom industry, I would like to tell them that they should look for the problems, that people are faced with, particularly in the developing world, and try to look for solutions to those problems, leveraging Information and Communication Technology. Do not get caught in the routine jobs.
The new areas that are going to be game-changers in Telecom and IT include technologies like LTE/4G, FTTH, Big Data and Data Analytics, M2M and IoE( Internet of Everything), and e-Networks, 3D printing, Drones for medical emergencies. These technologies are going to transform every facet of our life in the next decade. We are living in exciting times, and the sky is the limit for applications, and innovations. The future is bright in this industry.
Also, it is important to collaborate with one another and not compete. Decades back we had some management experts speaking to us on the ‘Sustainable Business’ in Mumbai. To my utter surprise, these people happened to be monks from the Ramakrishna Mission. They mentioned something about competition that I could not digest, but for years remained at the back of my mind. It was- Competition is for the Mediocre. For an outstanding person, there is no competition. After a lot of pondering, I am finally convinced that this statement is absolutely correct. A leader sets the benchmark, others try to copy him, as it makes a lot of commercial sense. The leader knows that it is time for him to start something else, which is unchartered territory.
For the young people who are contemplating entering the telecom domain, my message is –take a plunge, you are in for exciting times over here!