When I come to the end of my journey
And I travel my last weary mile
Just forget if you can, that I ever frowned
And remember only the smile
Forget unkind words I have spoken
Remember some good I have done
Forget that I ever had a heartache
And remember I have had loads of fun
Forget that I have stumbled and blundered
And sometimes fell by the way
Remember I have fought
Some hard battles and won
Ere the close of the day
Then forget to grieve for my going
I would not have you sad for a day
But in summer just gather some flowers
And remember the place where I lay
And come in the evening
When the sun paints the sky in the west,
Stand for a few moments beside me
And remember only my best.
– Mrs. Lyman Hancock
Bidding adieu to the Telecom Man of India Mr. Brijendra K Syngal, the Former Chairman of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL) left his heavenly abode on July 9, 2022 at the age of 82. Acknowledged as the father of Internet & Data Services in India, he led the Digital revolution in the country and has been in the telecommunications industry for more than four decades.
Hailing from Ambala, the son of a civil servant father and homemaker mother who migrated to India in 1947 in the wake of the partition, Mr. Syngal pursued his B.Tech & M.Tech from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (EC/1962/RP). He was an avid cricket lover and stamp collector who started his schooling at DAV Model School in 1945 in Lahore. After the partition in 1947, he moved to Delhi with his family.
In his career span, he served as the Chairman of Reliance Telecomm and as a Vice Chairman of BPL Communications; Chairman of Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (London); Governor of INTELSAT Board, Washington DC and as a Councillor for the INMARSAT Council in London. He was also a member of the London Court of International Arbitration. He surprised his family and friends by quitting a job with INMARSAT in London and moved to Mumbai in 1991 to head Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), which was a feudal and a dormant public sector company.
He took the charge of VSNL roughly around the time when India liberalized its economy. He evolved this archaic company by heading through the diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles which led VSNL to grow into a $1.65 billion communications giant from $515 million with gross revenues rising to 215 percent. Under his chairmanship, VSNL launched the first publicly-available Internet plans in India in 1995. During that time, VSNL also issued the biggest Global Depository Receipts (GDR) out of India and the third-largest out of Asia and eventually got listed on the London Stock Exchange. Syngal’s main goals at VSNL were to lay the 18,190 kilometre South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-2 (SEA-ME-WE2) undersea cable from Singapore via India and the Middle East up to the UK SEA-ME-WE2 which is affordable, convenient, fast and provides quality ISD services for Indians to connect to the world and meet the rising demands of the fast-growing software industry. He navigated through various challenges and restrained attitudes to re-brand VSNL as an internationally renowned indigenized organization.
Mr. Syngal navigated through financial uncertainties, economic instability, and political turmoil to introduce the Internet in India. His efforts played a direct role in expanding the software industry from a 60 million USD industry in 1991 to a nearly 2 billion USD industry in 1998. One of his major accomplishments included assisting Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Department of Space with the launch of their satellite in 1992, when US-imposed sanctions prohibited the use of US-based facilities for tracking of satellites during the most crucial launch phase. He was also the head of the Consulting and Advisory team of Telecom Experts in the disciplines of Licensing, Regulation, Policy formulations and Government affairs. He and his team created a bank of servers and got the phone department to improve connectivity, pushed modem makers to ensure quality devices, moved from copper to fibre-based cables, and slashed tariffs by half and more. He found his state-run firm was weak at marketing, so he got private franchise to sell internet services. He took ideas from British Telecom and AT&T, and even an early group of Indian internet enthusiasts that included Bollywood actor Shammi Kapoor to make the service more robust, user-friendly and popular. Kapoor was among a handful of Indians who had been using the internet since 1994 on a gifted beta online service account launched by Apple that year.
He encouraged societal upliftment and inculcated the ideals of nationalism. For his Alma Mater, he instituted the Goralal and Kamlavati Syngal Memorial Scholarship by donating a sum of INR one crore and has been instrumental in setting up the VSNL Chair Professorship at IIT Kharagpur. In 2000, on a holiday, the owner of an upscale handicraft shop in Rajasthan recognized him and asked, “Are you Mr. Syngal who brought the internet to India? It changed my life”.
He was awarded the Telecom Man of the Decade Award by Wisitex Foundation, India; Partners in Progress Award by the Government of Maharashtra and International Excellence Award in 1994 for his contributions in telecommunications sector both in India and abroad. A recipient of the Ambrose Fleming Medal for achievements in Communications conferred by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), UK, he was named as one of ‘The 50 Stars of Asia’ by Business Week magazine. He was named ‘Life Fellow of IIT Kharagpur’ for his outstanding achievements and contributions to the Institute and society.
Known for his strong character and feisty fearlessness as a decision maker, he quoted in his memoir that it was a great honour for him to take over the helm of VSNL contributing to the humanity’s progress over the last two centuries which is challenging and most satisfying work in his life. He built a strong institution aimed at democratizing digital access to one billion Indians and revolutionized the technological drift initiating digitization in India.
In his remembrance, IIT Kharagpur mourns the sad demise of our beloved alumnus. May his soul rest in peace. Our heartfelt condolences to his bereaved family to bear this irreplaceable loss. We pray for the eternal peace of his departed soul. He will always be remembered in our thoughts, prayers and actions.
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