February 15, 2024: Founder Story – Interaction with Government Agencies

The year – 1996. I was the librarian of HELP – Health Education Library for People. Many in or from India may remember that Internet access became available to the public from August 1995. It was Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) that was the only Internet Service Provider then. (VSNL was a Government of India undertaking). Understandably there was a large waiting list for connections.

Our library got its connection sometime in 1996, with what was then called the “Shell” account, (Unix based). A Shell account got us to see a black screen with white characters. No images, graphics, colours. This account cost us Rs 5000/- for 500 hours of usage. (If we needed a Browser based graphics account it would cost Rs 15,000/- for 500 hours!)

I got familiar with its use and soon after we had access to the Medline database too. PubMed was not yet launched then! The Medline access was available at a reasonable cost. Our library soon also became a centre through which we could offer Medline passwords to doctors or health professionals at a reasonable fee. All this happened thanks to the efforts of the Founder of HELP – Dr Malpani

Coming back to the VSNL – I started going there often for meetings that were held, to promote the usage of the Internet. I got to know Mr Syngal – then CMD of VSNL, and Mr A Kumar, then Director Operations, pretty well. When I was due to go to Chennai for a wedding, I wrote an email to both of them asking if the Chennai VSNL office could arrange to invite doctors for a presentation that I would make, on Medline. I got an immediate yes and it was done in no time. My notice was short and it was a week day, so there were just a few doctors, but they were delighted with the presentation. Two doctors immediately took the Medline access too.

Later, when our library’s Internet access expired, I made a visit to the VSNL Office and requested for a waiver or a discount as we were a public library offering health information services. That too was granted to us very soon.

On both occasions I was pleasantly surprised by very quick positive responses. Government offices have been good on so many occasions! Yes – we are aware of red tapism and more, but it is good to remember these stories too. Such stories help me stay optimistic today. 

A post script – In 2020, my husband and I got a copy of Mr Syngal’s book – “Telecom Man: Leading From the Front in India’s Digital Revolution” After reading it, I wrote him an email, sharing all these incidents and also telling him how the Internet access led me to eventually start a Trust like QMed.  He responded with a lovely “Thank you and best wishes”. We were supposed to meet at his book launch in March, but the pandemic and lock down followed. Sadly Mr Syngal expired a few months later and my wish to meet him did not happen. However he has left the optimistic streak in me!

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