Kerala is proving increasingly attractive as a high-tech destination, as infrastructure improves and skilled human resources come `on tap'.
WHEN five lakh young schoolchildren appear for their school leaving examination this summer in Kerala, they will take the first `soft' examination held in India: a 20 mark section of the compulsory paper in Information Technology - in itself a path-breaker in the country's education system - will be conducted online simultaneously across the State. Another 10 marks will be awarded for a practical test and the balance 10 marks for course work.
"We had teething troubles. There were logistical problems in attempting such a massive exercise," says Biju Prabhakar, executive director of the State's IT@ School Project. "Last year, we had to convince many sceptics, students, teachers as well as other interested parties, that the computer-driven test was free of bias and errors. But now we are geared to do it again. And we are getting better at it all the time."
"Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it!" This remark about the weather by Mark Twain might well apply to the pious pronouncements on teaching IT at the school level that so many States have been making. In sharp contrast, Kerala has quietly gone ahead and put its limited money where its mouth is. It has turned out a whole generation of IT-savvy school leavers, added computer and communication technology to the State school curriculum, helped each government-run school to acquire a few personal computers (PCs), and put the entire course content of Class X, in five mediums of instruction, on a compact disc (CD).
In a State where intense discussion surrounds every development initiative, Kerala has been careful in many of its IT initiatives to take lay citizens and the full spectrum of political interests along, even as it woos international and national players to its strategically placed technology parks. "Perceptions are slow to change," says Information Technology Secretary P.H. Kurian, whose responsibilities extend to investment promotion and stewardship of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC). So the unanswerable logic that Kerala offers - the most wired State, the lowest real estate and infrastructure costs, the best health and quality of life statistics in the country, a concentration of higher education institutions - can sometimes lose out against a "gut feeling" that it is still a State of militant labour, bandhs and hartals. Kurian said: "In fact, we have not lost a single day's work due to strikes for some years now... and almost every major company that has functioned within the Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram has sought extra space or land to put up its own unit."
This is true. The total built-up area within the park, arguably the most stunningly beautiful of the IT parks in India, is now some 1.5 lakh square metres and the land area has been doubled from 156 to 342 acres of undulating, palm-topped hillside. Among the newer occupants, the Tatas who house the global training facility for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), the largest such captive centre in the world, are already expanding their software development centre on a 25-acre campus within Technopark and creating a facility for Tata Elxsi on a 3-acre plot. Other early-comers who stayed, prospered and expanded are U.S. Technology, IBS, NeST and SunTec, providing the sort of testimonial to Kerala's compelling attraction that a hundred road-shows cannot achieve. Both Infosys and Wipro, the two biggest success stories of desi IT, now have struck firm roots in Kerala across multiple locations.
In fact, Technopark has delivered on its promise. And the State is hoping that its two new initiatives in the infrastructure and incubation business - Technocity and Smart City - will prove just as big winners. Technocity is based near the State capital: 500 acres of an integrated township on the section of the national highway that leads to Kollam. It is not a pure play IT venture and hopes to leverage Kerala's strengths in the health care sector. Part of the existing InfoPark in Kochi will now be seamlessly merged with the up and coming Smart City, a 300-acre self-contained IT and IT-enabled services township that is being developed by the State government in partnership with the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority. With two major international broadband pipes terminating off Kochi, the attraction of the city for IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) players extends beyond what Smart City offers. Private parks such as Technopolis, promoted by the Muthoot Pappachan group under the guidance of a Singapore infrastructure player, have created 353,000 square metres of "intelligent IT space". Smart City was the subject of much heated discussion earlier this year, since the State government, which has a 9 per cent stake, was perceived in some quarters to have given away too much in order to bring in the Dubai player. In retrospect, it would appear that any concessions made to clinch the deal is in fact the price that Kerala has to pay even today for its `negative image' built up over half a century of labour-management conflict. If Smart City and Technolopolis and TechnoCity are success stories, they may finally succeed in wiping out for ever that clichd image.
MEANWHILE, quiet revolutions are occurring on two fronts: connectivity and professional education. Three years ago, Kerala's colleges turned out about 7,000 engineering graduates. Today - thanks to the private sector - the number is 23,000. Th long list of educational institutions include the innovative Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala (IIITM-K) and the Kozhikode-based Indian Institute of Management (IIM-K). The Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) is not quite there in the IIT-class, as a visiting central committee decided last month but the institution bears within it the seeds of greatness. The Smart City alone is expected to create over 30,000 jobs once the gestation period is over. So the roadmap for Kerala's institutions of higher technical education needs a few more pit stops. Unlike some neighbours, education and development are largely non-party issues in Kerala and regardless of which `front' wins the next time around, the government of the day is unlikely to upset the status quo merely to score political points.
Having learnt valuable lessons from the path-breaking Akshaya e-literacy experiment in Malappuram district, active since 2002, the State has extended the scheme to seven other districts and hopes to commence it in the remaining six districts by April 2006. "By 2007, we hope to declare Kerala as the nation's first e-literate State," says Kurian.
A dose of realism has seen the number of Akshaya e-kendras reduced slightly, but, more importantly, there is awareness that such projects cannot be flash-in-the-pan events. The young entrepreneurs who came forward to make Akshaya a feasible initiative and a winner of multiple awards across the world deserve the means to sustain the initiative. In late December, the Kerala State IT Mission launched a second e-learning project called "Internet to the Masses", which extends the offline study materials of the earlier experiment by harnessing the district-wide wireless connectivity executed by the Delhi-based Tulip IT Services.
The Kerala IT Mission's Manager (e-governance), Anvar Sadath, explained that once more individuals will shell out just Rs.40 while the main contribution of Rs.100 comes from the peoples' plan money vested with the panchayats. The ten lessons in the course will cover the gamut of Internet-based operations. It will come in handy when banks use the Akshaya kendras as e-payment windows.
In other districts, the State has decided to take advantage of the huge available bandwidth it has helped establish by giving right of way to half a dozen telecommunication service providers along the national highways. This broadband resource will fuel the State-Wide-Area-Network (SWAN) which Kerala hopes to deploy in a meaningful way to deliver a full slate of citizens services down to the village level.
The new year (January 31-February 4) will see a major IT Kerala event in Kochi, which will focus on business-to-business events and IT for the common person, while providing a showcase for digital lifestyle products: something dear to the upwardly-mobile, socially ambitious Malayali. The IT mela will run back to back with the National CEO and e-Governance Summit - a rare combination of events, which will allow Kerala to tell the world: "Come back; times have changed, and so has Kerala. We have more to offer than stunning scenery and an oil massage... and we mean IT."