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Published on: Nov. 30, 2020, 4:59 p.m.
F.C.Kohli, The Frontiersman
  • Photo credit: Palashranjan Bhaumick

By Shivanand Kanavi

Faqir Chand Kohli was a frontiersman literally and metaphorically. He was born the youngest son of Gobindram Kohli and Bhagwanti Devi on 19 March, 1924 in Peshawar, North West Frontier Province of undivided India (now part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan).

His eldest brother, Devraj Kohli, mentored him and encouraged him to take academics seriously. When Kohli topped his matriculation from the NWFP, his brother pushed him to join Government College, Lahore. On graduating from college with flying colours with a BA and a BSc (honours) in Physics in 1944, Kohli was distraught because he had just lost his father during his exams. He was chosen by the Government of the North West Frontier Province for a scholarship to study Engineering at the Queens University, Kingston, Canada. Kohli chose Electrical Engineering at Queens and after graduation had a short stint at General Electric, Canada.

He then stayed back and self-financed his study at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts for a Masters in Power Engineering.

On completing his masters at MIT, he joined Ebasco International, in New York. They were then a leading consulting company for power projects in North and South America and were also technical Managing Agents for Tata Electric Companies at Bombay. He had intensive practical training with them in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, etc. before leaving for India in 1951.

In the interim his family had lost all their property and business during partition and had moved to Lucknow and Delhi. But the Kohlis were a forward-looking family. He took heart from the positive attitude of his mother and elder brother who was also his mentor, and plunged himself into the new life at Tata Electric Companies. He was given the task in Mumbai to modernise Load Dispatch. He did an admirable job of it and the proof of the pudding is in the high quality (stable voltage and fixed frequency) of uninterrupted power that Mumbai City gets for the last five decades or more. It has been rated by many power aficionados as equal to or better than that of New York City.

After having studied the issues regarding power transmission in Mumbai and India he wrote a technical paper in 1961 recommending that in order to build a national power grid the government should invest in 400KV or 500KV transmission lines to achieve maximum efficiency. The result is what we see today as public sector PGCIL (Power Grid Corporation of India).

  • How did Kohli go about solving the problem of large project execution or scaling up business? Here he put to use his knowledge of System Engineering learnt at MIT

He pushed for the creation of a community of engineers to solve both technical and societal problems. IEEE recently honoured him with its Founders Medal. The first Indian to be thus honoured.

The biggest achievement of Kohli has been the building of TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) which is today neck and neck with Accenture and the fabled IBM in terms of the number of engineers working in it (nearly half a million) as well as market valuation. Making it the unrivalled Jewel in the Crown of Tata Group.

After seeing Kohli’s pioneering adoption of computers to power engineering, J.R.D. Tata, Nani Palkhivala and P.M. Agrawala invited Kohli to join the fledgling TCS in 1969.

It was their and India’s good fortune that Faqir Chand Kohli more than measured up to their requirements and indeed systematically laid the foundation for the giant success that it is today. In the process he created the technique, the systems and human resources and the ecosystem of a whole industry that has caught the rest of the nations by surprise and filled with admiration or envy. Today, in the world of global business, India is a synonym for IT services.

Slowly, recession-hit global companies after the OPEC oil shock started trusting him and TCS stood and delivered, to the delight of clients. He sent S. Mahalingam to open a TCS business office in the UK and S. Ramadorai to open the offices in New York for the North American market. It was slow and painstaking but relentless work.

How did Kohli go about solving the problem of large project execution or scaling up business? Here he put to use his knowledge of System Engineering learnt at MIT.

He realised that programming was an essentially artisan-like activity. Each programmer had his own logic and way of devising solutions. It was not a team effort. It could not be replicated and it could not even be fixed or improved by a different person. So, the challenge was to industrialise software development.

  • He advocated focused efforts to develop Indic Computing so that over the 90 per cent of India’s population could cross the digital divide

That involved setting up programming standards, quality standards, modular architecture, breaking the problem into components that could be developed by several people simultaneously, creation of libraries of software components, automating many aspects of software development and maintenance, and so on. This later came to be known as software engineering.

This created a phalanx of able software architects, project managers, performance engineers, quality experts and people managers inside TCS. It also created a couple of hundred leaders. In a couple of decades, others outside of TCS started following similar methodology and succeeding. Indian IT started taking shape.

The sheer number of TCSers who went on to found new IT companies or who became CEOs and COOs of other IT companies shows that Kohli not only built TCS but the human resources created by him also helped create a whole industry.

Today Indian IT industry is approaching $200 billion and IT exports are essentially financing India’s large energy imports.

In the last two decades China opened up its doors to TCS and other Indian IT companies and rolled out the red carpet precisely to learn from them and get their engineers trained. Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao admitted as much when he visited TCS in April 2005.

This foundation laying took 25 years or more. Then, in the early nineties, Kohli spotted an opportunity; the impending Y2K problem for global users of computers. Equipped with their software tools Kohli, S. Mahalingam and S. Ramadorai set up a software factory in Chennai and fixed over 700 million lines of code to the clients’ satisfaction.

In the bargain they had gone into the heart of all the critical systems of most of the Fortune 500 companies. So, when the Y2K problem was fixed, they went back and proposed other improvements in clients’ software whose innards were already known to them! TCS never looked back from there and within three years, in 2003, under the leadership of S. Ramadorai TCS hit $1 billion in revenue. The first Indian IT company to do so.

In the year 1999 Kohli formally retired from TCS. But not from mentoring and problem solving, not only for Tatas but also for the nation. Many professionals from diverse fields and companies including the current chairman of Tata Sons, N. Chandrasekharan, have publicly acknowledged how they benefitted from his mentoring.

One of his passions was to remove the scourge of illiteracy from India in a short period of time. He applied himself to the problem and using the assistance of P.N. Murthy and Kesav Nori came out with a brilliant solution that could teach any adult to learn to read any language with just 40 hours of instruction using the most elementary discarded second-hand PC.

At the turn of the century, some politicians started calling India, quite prematurely, an ‘IT Superpower’, in their own inimitable style. However the man who started it all was far removed from such pompous statements. He advocated that India cannot be a significant player on the global technology map without a developed hardware industry.

He encouraged IITs and other engineering colleges to start MTech courses in Chip Design. As a result, India has become home to a thriving chip design and testing industry.

Kohli was not content with the current proliferation of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in India, though it has been spectacular. He advocated focused efforts to develop Indic Computing so that over the 90 per cent of India’s population, which does not know English and carries out its business in Indian languages, would cross the digital divide. “And then you will see a genuine ICT revolution,” he often said.

It is difficult to capture such a visionary and leader in a couple of pages in an obit. It suffices to recall that he worked in the TCS office on the 11th floor of Air India building at Nariman Point till 16 March, 2020. When he left to celebrate his 96th birthday with his family in his farmhouse in Alibag, south of Mumbai. Then came the lockdown due to the Covid pandemic and he was forced to confine himself to his flat nearby. I suspect the restrictions and not being able to go to his office and work pulled him down more than aging. I was sure that this Karmayogi would be a centenarian like another engineer, Bharat Ratna, M. Visvesvaraya. Our deepest condolences to his family and an army of colleagues and admirers.

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