Taking IT into the big league

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The counter of FRIENDS, which facilitates the payment of a wide range of bills, at Thiruvananthapuram. - S. GOPAKUMAR

The counter of FRIENDS, which facilitates the payment of a wide range of bills, at Thiruvananthapuram. - S. GOPAKUMAR

By launching several pragmatic initiatives, Kerala has managed to make up for lost momentum in the field of information technology and related services.

The adventures of Tenali Raman are entertaining children wherever the Cartoon Network can be accessed on cable television. The 2-D animation series was conceived and crafted in the studios of Toonz Animation India, at Technopark, the State government-sponsored complex that provides infrastructure for and otherwise facilitates units involved in information technology-driven areas of business, in Thiruvananthapuram. Since 1999, the company, headed by a one-time executive of the Walt Disney Company, Bill Dennis, and substantially bankrolled by a non-resident Indian hailing from Kerala, has produced animated short films and features which have put it among the world's Top 10 animation studios. Recently, a 3-D clay-animation feature produced by Toonz, "Cute Bunny", based on an idea submitted by a Hyderabad-based Class IX student, Manasa Rao, took the Best Animated Feature award at the International Animated Film Festival in Riga, Latvia. And then it won the Gold award at the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International at Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S. Three other Toonz products also won prizes there.

THOSE who head the operations at Toonz or other similar ventures need little prompting to form an enthusiastic chorus line singing praises for the professional environment that Kerala provides for information technology (IT)-related work. Then why are others not rushing in to join?

The answer lies as much in the State's long history of apathy and neglect of developmental issues, as it does in certain political trends that have traditionally been perceived or projected by some sections as being anti-industry. Fortunately, the smack of firm purpose seems to cut across party political lines these days and the promotion of IT is no longer an issue for debate. But with the National Capital Region (NCR), Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, among other States and regions, surging ahead to corner much of the burgeoning international business in outsourced IT services, Kerala has had to play a frenetic game of "catch up" through 2001 and 2002. Thanks to a dedicated combination of bureaucrats and professionals at the top of the State's IT planning machinery and Ministers who were shrewd enough to appreciate the urgency of the matter, it has managed to make up for lost momentum - at least in part. The State has also received some help by way of national surveys sponsored by the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and other such bodies which threw up surprising but identical results: the undeniable attractions of Kerala as a place to do high-tech business; bolstered by an enviable surplus of key resources such as real estate, communications, and connectivity.

In order to create this investor-friendly environment, the State has encouraged private players such as Reliance, Bharti and Asianet to network the State with over 4,000 km of optical fibre cabling that will eventually provide broadband connectivity at over 15 gigabits per second (Gbps). The decision of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, which was then in the public sector, to make Kochi the terminal point for two massive lines of international bandwidth from South East Asia and West Asia has also been a matter of advantage for the State. The State can also claim with pride that every one of its nearly thousand telephone exchanges now have digital technology - all of them connected through fibre-optic links to the National Internet Backbone. One of the spin-offs is the State's tele-density - the highest in India, at eight per hundred people. This target was achieved three years ahead of schedule. Indeed, the Malayalee's inclination to connect has seen Kerala being transformed into a hunting ground for mobile phone operators, whose initiatives have created some pockets where there are more mobile phones than fixed-line phones in use.

Another pragmatic initiative has seen State-owned agencies such as the Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (Kinfra) create new IT parks to supplement the resources at Technopark. Kinfra has established near Technopark a Film and Video Park that is attracting key players in the emerging high-tech niches of digital post-production, animation and computer-generated special effects. Believing in the principle that when you are closest to the tap you get to drink the most water, Kinfra has located its largest IT park in Kochi: the first unit, spread over 12,500 square metres, is already `house full'. The corporation has taken up a Rs.26-crore project to create a second, futuristic 20,000 sq m facility by March 2004. Another IT park is nearing completion at Kakkancherry near Kozhikode. Today, in the Kochi park, IT-enabled services (ITeS) players like 24/7 Customer and Sutherland Industries already serve an international client base. To feed other outsourcing agencies that may choose to locate here, the State's IT Mission has created in recent weeks an ITeS Habitat, in the somewhat unusual surroundings of the Kochi International Sports Stadium. Here young Keralites are being offered basic training in call centre and business process outsourcing (BPO) services. And unlike some neighbouring States where regional chauvinism still inhibits a global outlook, Kerala has taken a number of steps to equip its young job-seekers with good communication skills in English.

While thus creating infrastructure for IT-enabled growth, Kerala, which has a high level of awareness among its people, has tried to take its citizens along. Two years ago the State launched itself into the creation of district-wise service centres to facilitate the payment by consumers of a wide range of bills. For many Keralites, FRIENDS (Fast Reliable Instantaneous Effective Network for Disbursement of Services) was the first welcome interface with IT. It created an awareness that IT could indeed provide some life-enhancing comforts.

Even more ambitious is Kerala's quest, articulated by Chief Minister A.K. Antony in his characteristically low-key manner, to become in the next three years the nation's first `IT literate' State, with at least one computer-literate member in every one of its 64 lakh families. The pilot scheme was launched in November 2002 in Malappuram district - something of a microcosm of the State with exactly a tenth of the total number of families (6.4 lakhs). Since then, over 250 Akshaya Kendras (centres) have come up in the district. This number will reach 650 by September.

Kerala's current mantra is: "wired to the future". And for Amina Begum of Kalpetta who has just learnt to exchange e-mails with her son in Sharjah, after taking a 10-day course at the local Akshaya Kendra, the experience is just as palpable - and a lot more life-enhancing.

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