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No ‘lost islands’ in Kerala

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Kerala is a well-wired state, it has all to be called a truly a digital state – connectivity till panchayat level, high mobile phone and land phone penetration and e-governance measures like e-district and departmental automation. Further being an urban-rural continuum, there are no ‘lost islands’ in Kerala.

In an interview with Mohd Ujaley, P H Kurian, Principal Secretary, Industries & Commerce, Government of Kerala, who headed IT department for over 8 years says, “I had a dream of citizen centric governance where the citizen does not have to ask for a government service; rather it would be delivered to him as a right. Thus he would not be required to run around government offices to avail a particular service. This would require seamless flow of information and close integration of various government departments. Though we have made big strides in this direction, it is far from my satisfaction.”

You have been IT secretary of the state for quite a long time. What changes did you see in your tenure and what were the few things that you wanted to accomplish, but could not?

We have witnessed the growth of the Indian IT industry from a nascent stage to a leading industry and be counted among the biggest in the world; but this has been mostly on the services side. Today we are witnessing a change in the IT industry from a services focus to a product oriented industry; from a few large players employing huge manpower to large number of small startups creating value through their products.

I was IT Secretary during two tenures and there has been considerable change in the way the face of the industry has changed and the way ICT has affected the lives of the common people. It was during my first tenure as IT Secretary, during 2003 to 2008, that we looked at the proliferation of the Akshaya centers across the state on an entrepreneurship model. That was the time when we laid huge emphasis on creation of the basic infrastructure – be it the connectivity backbone or the data center, well ahead of the government of India schemes. The period also marked remarkable asset creation by the IT majors in the State.

During my second tenure from 2012 to 2016, we looked at going digital. The digital road map was created for the state in 2012, wherein we tried to create a digital society. This needed electronic governance and also facilitating the common man’s life through technology. We planned to create an integrated system with access for citizens based on his/her authentication. Kerala completed 95% and above Aadhaar registrations by 2013-14 itself and started working on a citizen database. We attempted to create interoperability of systems and announced that the data, other than classified/personal data, will be shared among departments. The digital divide was attacked at a new level, i.e., by Internet-enabling citizens through an innovative project with the help of student police cadets. In this program, the student police cadets facilitated the basic learning and hands-on working of ‘digitally illiterates’ using a tab and a software developed for the same. They were issued awareness certificates and the data was centrally recorded.

This period saw a lull period in the IT industry in terms of real estate engagement, as the IT industry was on a consolidation phase and only the committed works were being carried out. However there was a thrust on the ancillary and auxiliary facilities (commercial and living spaces) close to the IT zones.

I had a dream of citizen centric governance where the citizen does not have to ask for a government service; rather it would be delivered to him as a right. Thus he would not be required to run around Government offices to avail a particular service. This would require seamless flow of information and close integration of various government departments. Though we have made big strides in this direction, it is far from my satisfaction.

The central government is focusing on the Digital India programme, there is lot of buzz around it, but the challenges on the ground remain same such as the last mile connectivity, digital literacy etc. As a seasoned tech-bureaucrat, are you satisfied with the results or do you feel that there is need to shift gears?

As I mentioned earlier, we attempted this in 2012 and called it a ‘Digital Odyssey’. The issues are the high Broadband connectivity, access to technology and the ability to absorb the technology changes. Kerala is well-wired and was declared a digital state based on a lot of parameters like connectivity till panchayat level, high mobile phone and land phone penetration and e-governance measures like e-district and departmental automation etc. Kerala in that sense would be an ideal case because of its high levels of education and other social indices, disposable income and high rate of technology adoption. Further being an urban-rural continuum, there are no ‘lost islands’ in Kerala. For other parts of India to reach such a stage, it would be a massive effort on the ground. This is based on my experience in doing it in a favourable space like Kerala.

Well, to be satisfied with technology is impossible because technology keeps reinventing itself – be it communication technologies or on any other front. But we have to keep pace and think ahead if we do not want to loose out. As a tech-bureaucrat and with good many years of experience behind me I am aware of the conflicting priorities a developing nation like ours face. This is a delicate balance that we have to maintain.

Kerala has been lamented for the lack of a congenial ecosystem for innovation. What action is being taken to address this challenge?

I do not subscribe to that point. Kerala has been promoting innovation in many fronts. Prominent research institutions like Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences & Technology, CDAC, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Central Tuber Crops Research Institute, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, etc have been institutes of good standing in their respective areas. There was a definite lack of educational institutions of Excellence, even through we were very good in basic education. We have been addressing this through the establishment of IITs, IIITs, etc.

As part of the startup activities, we have devised schemes to create the spirit of innovation from a very early age. The Learn-to-code Program that we launched two years back was a step in this direction to get the 8th standard students to work on a palm-size device (the Raspberry PI) and create projects. We have distributed 10,000 Raspberry Pi kits this manner and it is the second such effort – the first being Google’s distribution of similar numbers in the U.K. We followed it up with a tech challenge in association with INTEL, the winners of which were awarded by Kris Gopalakrishanan, Executive Vice Chairman of Infosys. The second such challenge has just started. Besides this, we encourage students into tinkering activities through our Boot Camps (we have established 137 bootcamps across Engineering colleges, polytechnics and Arts and science colleges). We expose the students to new and costly gadgets through our program called the Startup Box. We have been working closely with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for setting up two MIT Fab labs (rapid prototyping labs), and currently we are working with APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University (formerly Kerala Technological University) to bring design thinking as part of the engineering curriculum and also extend the Fab labs to the Engineering colleges.

P H Kurian, Principal Secretary, Industries & Commerce, Government of Kerala (File photo)

Recently Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) has appointed a consultant to undertake a study to reform the existing rules and Acts related to clearance procedures for starting an enterprise under the “ease of doing business” initiatives. What is the focus area of this study and what do you want to achieve? Have any modalities been worked-out for a future road-map on ease of doing business?

As per data released by the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, Government of India, Kerala occupies 18th position in terms of ease of doing business, with respect to other states. This is very disappointing, considering the social advancements being enjoyed by the state. Taking cue from this, the state government, after continuous deliberations with trade bodies, industry representatives and various other stakeholders, decided to undertake reform measures to help place the state on an equal footing alongside the leading states like Punjab and Gujarat. As a first step in this direction, the government, through KSIDC has appointed a leading consultant to study the existing rules and procedures (some of which are too retrograde and arbitrary) for providing clearances for starting an enterprise. The consultant will scrutinise the respective rules and procedures in the departments such as Registration, Revenue, Municipality and Panchayat Building Rules, Survey & Land Records, Factories & Boilers, Fire & Rescue, Local Self Government, Taxes, Labour, Water, Power, Town & Country Planning, State Pollution Control Board, Health, Environment and Forest, Coastal Regulation Zones, Mining & Geology and any other related departments/ agencies and suggest reforms and amendments to be made in the respective department for simplifying the clearance procedures. The consultant will study the existing systems, suggest modifications and submit report within a period of 4 months.

We had already identified specific areas of improvement in various parameters of doing business in the state. These include putting in place a centralized 24×7 helpline and web portal with details on all clearances required, availability of industrial land, regulatory procedures, and the incentives in the State for various enterprise types. A unified Online Single Window Clearance system will be implemented in the State, and a self-certification regime is proposed to be introduced for green category industries. The government will ensure that time frames prescribed under Right to Service Act are adhered to by all departments concerned. Action plans have been formulated in this regard, with the ultimate aim of bringing Kerala to the top 5 ranks under ease of doing business.

Kerala has a good startup culture and there has been decent buzz around it but most of the bytes around are around e-tailing. Why are sectors such as life science or engineering lagging behind? How can this challenge be addressed?

The IT industry has been growing at a constant growth rate for the last two decades and the reflection is bound to be witnessed in startups too. The disruption in business models by virtue of internet as an enabler, and the convergence of various technologies is manifested in the boom of startups in ecommerce /retail sectors.

There is a general notion that start up relates only to IT / Mobile apps. This is being rewritten. KSIDC has been focusing on non IT start ups and the companies to whom seed funding has been given, range from various sectors including food & agro, manufacturing, Life sciences, etc, in addition to IT. KSIDC has supported the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences & Technology in setting up an Incubator for Biomedical & medical devices. KSIDC is also setting up a Life Sciences Park in Trivandrum which will have a state-of-the-art incubator, testing facility and research area. KSIDC has been supporting NIT, Kozhikode in many of their engineering innovations. To make use of the various Central Government incentives and schemes, KSIDC is in talks with National Institute of Technology NIT and Agricultural University. Slowly but steadily the shift is happening to non IT sectors including life science and engineering.

Thus startups are not just IT but a convergence of mobile technology, innovations in electronics, advances in Fin tech, etc. Engineering and life sciences industries are also being disrupted by Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and health care, especially medical devices and diagnostics. It is just a matter of time.

It is said that electronics manufacturing can lead to generation of millions of jobs in India. What kind of job creation can be expected in this sector and how Kerala is doing in the area of ESDM sector?

Electronics manufacturing is a USD 400 million market in India, and this is for domestic consumption alone. All of these are not high end technologies. So the varied skilled levels of manpower available can be engaged at respective phases of product development. For example, I am a firm believer that the educated youth of Kerala are good in design of high value – low volume electronic components and this could be one area where we could afford to pay a high cost in terms of labour, whereas the assembly units might find themselves better placed in states with abundance of land and a less skilled but cheaper labour. Kerala has potent players in this sector and we are joining hands with them to create the Electronics manufacturing clusters and also to establish niche centers of excellence in partnership with global giants. The Electronic Manufacturing Cluster of Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (KINFRA) and the Electronic Hardware Park of KSIDC are upcoming projects in this sector. A state-of-the-art Electronic incubator by the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala (IIITM-K) is all set to be operational. Once the essential infrastructure is in place companies from Taiwan, China, Japan, etc., will be invited to set up shop here.

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