Pankaj Mohindroo, National President, Indian Cellular Association

The first thing that Pankaj Mohindroo tells me when I walk into his office is to pronounce my own name correctly and not in the anglicised way that I say it. “I know 40 Dhillons in Punjab and that’s not how you pronounce Dhillon,” he tells me. His own name caused some confusion too. With its double “oo” I assumed he was from Kashmir, but it’s the normal Punjabi Mohindru except the family de­cided to replace the “u” with “oo”.

Once the names have been sorted out, the interview begins but Mohindroo keeps an eye on the TV in front of him. It’s the day that RJIL has just announced its disruptive tariffs – a new 4G long term evolution network on which all local voice calls will be free forever, data will be anywhere up to 40 per cent cheaper than incumbent telecom companies and a host of other services can be used at the world’s cheapest tariffs. Analysts on TV were discussing how RJIL will ever break even with such low tariffs.

Sensing the need for a specialised body to serve the emerging mobile industry in India, Mohindroo founded the Indian Cellular Association (ICA) in 2002 as a knowledge-driven, policy advocacy platform, which would work in cooper­ation with various stakeholders and serve as a brid­ge between the government and the industry while undertaking innovative initiatives to help create a vibrant mobile business and policy eco­system in India.

As founder and national president of the ICA, Mohindroo is at the heart of the developments taking place in the mobile phone industry owing to the government’s focus on Make in India and Digital India. Mohindroo’s pioneering work has contributed im­mensely to make India one of the largest and most vibrant mobile markets in the world. Today, he is a leading voice of the mobile industry. As national president, he has been responsible for a crackdown on the grey market and steering regulatory and legislative changes with a far-reaching impact on the industry.

In 2004-06, Mohindroo was chairman of the Manufacturing Advisory Commi­t­tee Stage-I, which was instrumental in ­creating a robust mobile phone manufacturing ecosystem in the country. He was again appointed as chairman of the Manufacturing Advisory Committee Stage-II, which was established in 2010 with the objective of taking the mobile phone design and component manufacturing industry to the next level.

The government recently appointed him as chairman of the task force on mobile phone manufacturing to rejuvenate India’s mobile manufacturing ecosystem with a view to producing 500 million units of mobile handsets by 2019. But Mohindroo is already looking beyond this target to the next phase. “This is where we can become a true world power in manufacturing. We are currently working on a full-blown programme, which not only looks at mobile phones but all the subassemblies to see how we can become relevant and understand the various elements involved in putting together this whole thing,” he says.

“India is culturally and academically not geared up for vocational skills and we are fighting that whole mindset. Given that we have to step up manufacturing, we need design capabilities.”

As he acknowledges, much of the pre­paratory work to meet these goals was carried out by earlier advisory committees on manufacturing and the national policy on electronics. These policies demanded a lot of cooperation and thought from the state governments and Mohindroo says they stepped up to the challenge of devising an electronics policy with a special focus on mobile phone manufacturing. During 2015-16, the industry achieved approxima­tely 200 per cent growth in domestic handset manufacturing. Over 35 new mobile handset manufacturing plants have so far been established, and 50,000 direct and 90,000 indirect jobs have been created.

With so many different responsibilities on his plate, Mohindroo is up early at 5:30 a.m. After some yoga, he is mentally ready to face the day. The abiding motivation for him is “to discharge his debt to his parents and country, which is top priority, and build the industry and contribute to nation-building”.

Now, with the goods and services tax (GST) being rolled out, the ICA is apprising the government on key issues. For instance, the differential duty dispensation of 12.5 per cent versus 1 per cent to promote domestic manufacturing needs to be maintained in the proposed GST bill. The industry is apprehensive about further investments till the duty differential prin­ciple is settled, which is necessary to realise the Make in India vision. Further, a reasonable state GST (SGST) rate at merit rate is a must to promote Digital India and to prevent the grey market from rearing its ugly head. Besides, a merit rate SGST coupled with domestic central GST (CGST) of 1 per cent (without goods tax credit) on domestic supply is re­quired to ensure a minuscule grey market.

Mohindroo’s other main focus area is equipping people with the skills needed by the industry. He has been a moving force behind the establishment of the Telecom Sector Skill Council (TSSC), a body which has been created under the auspices of the National Skill Development Cor­po­ration and with the coming together of the ICA, the Cellular Operators Association of India and the Telecom Centres of Exce­llence. The council has been established with the mandate to train over 5 million people in the telecom industry over the next 10 years. This is expected to act as a major catalyst for the overall growth and sustenance of the industry.

“India is not culturally and academically geared up for vocational skills and we are fighting that whole mindset. Given that we have to step up manufacturing, we need design capabilities. We have to bridge the skills gap that exists in every vertical. The biggest gap is in the manufacturing and design skills required for industrial design, mechanical design and software. We need people who are appropriately trained. Design is critical. If you don’t have design, you can’t build a components industry and with no components industry, you can’t have a design industry,” says Mohindroo, who is currently serving as secretary of the TSSC’s governing council.

“Talking is just the start. There is a huge effort under way to bring all 22 languages on mobiles. That way, all the millions who don’t speak or read English will be empowered.”

Groups of people will be taken to Taiwan for skills training. “We have to deliver on the prime minister’s Make in India and Digital India vision. A huge amount of employment can be created in this industry. We are doing well and the government has been responsive, but we still have a long way to go,” he says.

Mohindroo is pleased with the magazine My Mobile, started in 2005 at a time when there was no publication to inform, educate and empower mobile users. He is chairman of the company My Mobile Info­media, which publishes the magazine. “It’s a very honest effort. So honest that the phone that was given the lowest rating by the maga­zine once was the i-mate. I was chairman of the company that made it! My global chairman, Jim Morrison, almost cho­­ked with shock when he saw it,” he recalls.

His career began after he completed his MBA from the Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi. His thesis was on the diffusion of innovation in community biogas. He worked on a project in a predominantly Gujjar village outside Delhi where 40 per cent of the women suffered from asthma because they had to cook by burning wood. A biogas plant was created that was connected to all the houses, an idea that has proved very successful in many parts of India, especially in Punjab.

Before joining the telecom industry, Mohindroo held a range of top positions at reputed and large corporate groups including president, Spring Convergence Servi­ces; chairman, PM Powerpack Solutions; president, Nahar Industrial Enterprises; president, Oswal Fats & Oils; director, Zee Essel Group Board; and chief executive offi­cer, Agrani Convergence.

When he was working at Nerolac Paints in the 1980s, he ended up having a new varnish named after him. The papier mache artisans in Kashmir who create exquisite artefacts were fed up with not having a delicate varnish especially designed for paper, rather than wood. Nerolac decided to take up the challenge and produced, using a special resin and after many technical trials, the Nerolac Synthetic Clear Varnish, PM. The initials stand for his name. “Taking Nerolac to new heights was very satisfying because Asian Paints was the dominant company in the areas where I served and we ended up becoming stronger than Asian Paints,” he says.

Mohindroo divides his time between Delhi and Chandigarh, which has been his home for many years. His wife Bindu is a homemaker and they have one son and two daughters. His schedule is so busy that only Sunday lunches are sacrosanct family time.

He says telecom has been a game changer for the country but stresses that much more remains to be done in this sector, particularly for those who are still not connected. “Talking is just the start. There is a huge effort under way to bring all 22 languages on mobiles. That way, the millions who don’t speak or read English will be empowered,” he says.

Amrit Dhillon