UDFs big challenge: Making Kerala knowledge economy hub

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: May 16 2011, 06:50am hrs
The Congress-led UDF coalition in Kerala has its task cut out. With the state having failed to announce its presence as a knowledge destination of repute, despite enjoying the presence of one of the strongest, educated youth power in the country, the new governments first task would be to harness the states potential to become a knowledge economy hub.

Unemployment rate in Kerala has remained at staggering levels of above 25%, according to an RBI study. Unemployment of the semi-skilled and educated are also among the highest in the country, with the registers of the state employment exchange listing over 43 lakh job-seekers.

Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, says the sheer beauty of Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs call to newly elected MPs to respect the impatience of the young is that it is at once a political and development potion. If the voter decided to serve sweet revenge on those who dubbed us Amul babies of Rahul Gandhi, it was because they pinned hopes on youngsters understanding the aspirations of the unemployed in Kerala, says Hibi Eden, the Youth Congress leader who won the prestigious Ernakulam seat, with the highest majority in the district. Besides modernisation of city infrastructure, jobs for the educated youth are the priority, he says.

I am often aghast that literate Kerala, which is most attuned to the knowledge industry boom thats happening in the country, is yet to latch on effectively to its growth curve," says Union defence minister AK Antony. The state would do well in propelling research and development in information Technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Once UDF comes to power, it would be up to the government to develop the state into a knowledge industry and higher education destination, says, Antony, who is also a member of the CWC (Congress Working Committee).

The Assembly elections of 2011 saw the participation of as many as 260 candidates below the age of 40. Almost all of them, regardless of the political flag, campaigned on the employment-generation plank. For over 25 years in Kerala, there has been a migration of labour forces to the West Asia, Europe and the US. Ironically, the outflow of labour rises when the state is running short of agricultural and construction industry labour, necessitating inflow of migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Orissa to Kerala. This reflects in the educated Kerala youths preference for white collar jobs, while food crops like paddy and cash crops like rubber and pepper fall short of labourers, says V Ramachandran, former Vice-chairman, State Planning Board.

In the last five years.eight central PSUs had invested in the state, most in the defence-related technology sectors. Expansion and diversification plans in these units are likely to pick up pace, during the new UDF governments regime, industry analysts feel. There is also a need to have more institutions like the Thiruvanantapuram-based IISST, Indias first space science IIT, to propel it to an international higher education destination.

Sectors like biotech have been suffering due to government apathy, despite Keralas advantage in fostering two top research outfits like Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology and Sri Chithra Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology. The Left front government has been making announcements about the possibility of a biotech park coming up in Kochi. The latest tidings on it is that R30 crore has been sanctioned to get it going, but the project hasnt moved forward much. A decade ago, when Andhra Pradesh was climbing the bio-tech brandwagon, the Kerala government had tied up with Villoo Patells Avestha Gengraine Technologies, pioneering a PPP (public-private-partnership) biotech start-up that would emerge the nucleus of biotech industry development in the state. But this too, did not take off.

In IT, the state enjoys a high bandwidth advantage, which is the cheapest in India. Kochi is located at the landing points of both Sea-Me-We 3 and SAFE international submarine cables. This lead was not fully translated to replicating a Bangalore in Kerala, mainly because of the slowness, with which the state government undertook capacity-building in IT space. Nearly 85% of the built-up space in IT in Kerala is owned by the State-run parks like Technopark, Infopark and Cyberpark. When the IT space rentals in metros like Bangalore and Chennai fell recently, the state government did not bother to downpeg the rentals to match the market realities, points out G Vijayaragavan, founder-CEO, Technopark and IT policy analyst. It was at this point that many Technopark firms like UST Global and IBS migrated their expansion plans to Chennai and Bangalore.

At a CII-initiated meeting, SD Shibulal, CEO designate of Infosys Technologies suggested that IT in his home state needed better branding efforts and perhaps an outift on the lines of Nasscom to groom the brand. Finishing skills too should be whipped up to enhance IT employability of young men and women, he said.CII, in its turn, has been piloting E-Modules this year. E-modules are tech-enabled modules in vocational education, validated by industry for scaling up skill development.