KERALA’S IT industry was initially apprehensive when the Left Democratic Front won a clear mandate in the recent elections to the state Assembly. The earlier Congress-led government had created a momentum in the state for young entrepreneurs through its IT-telecom incubators and proactive student entrepreneurship policy. Critics feared that the state would lose the momentum with a Left-led government in power. The state had failed to capitalise on the IT revolution in the 90s that had created millions of jobs in cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune, though it was the first off the block in India to start an IT park in Thiruvanthapuram way back in 1990.
Startup Village chairman Sanjay Vijayakumar, however, feels that the apprehensions are misplaced as the new government is determined to give a helping hand to start-ups. “Earlier, setting up a business was something that only a small section of society who had access to money and land could do. With start-ups, the new government is giving anyone who is willing to work hard a chance to succeed,” he says.
Vijayakumar points to China to prove his point. As he explains, the Chinese Communist Party created a start-up ecosystem that saw Chinese companies win against heavily funded US companies. Alibaba won against Amazon. Baidu is the Google of China. Weibo is its Twitter. “The future of Kerala is in creating a vibrant economy and if the LDF government takes a leaf from the policies of the Chinese Communist Party, global start-ups will be born in Nava Kerala,” he says.
Known as a taciturn and dogmatic communist, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan stunned everyone by appointing a neo-liberal economist from Harvard as his financial advisor, and keeping the key IT portfolio with himself. The first-time chief minister knows that the state needs to create jobs as promised in the LDF election manifesto—25 lakh new jobs in five years—and this can be achieved only the IT sector gets a helping hand from the government.
Vijayan is reported to have said that ‘going digital’ is the need of the hour and that the start-up culture would bridge the digital divide. The new state government has adopted a five-step strategy which includes provision of world-class physical infrastructure matching that of Silicon Valley, seamless technology network, learning facilities, funding avenues and incubators to ensure a conducive ecosystem for the IT sector. The government has announced a host of projects for promoting start-ups and has allocated Rs 300 crore for the same.
“The IT sector and start-ups are expected to generate nearly five lakh jobs. To put this in perspective, Technopark, Infopark and Cyberpark in 20 years have created 1.5 lakh jobs. If we are to repeat the performance of the last 20 years in five years, we will still have 1.5 lakh jobs. The remaining 2.5 lakh jobs will have to come from start-ups,” Vijayakumar says. “The investment of Rs 150 crore to set up tele-presence centres across all engineering colleges will help two lakh engineering students interact with global mentors.”
The telecom startup incubator launched in April 2012 in Kochi has come a long way with nearly 5000 eager entrepreneurs queuing up to launch start-ups. The Kochi Startup Village receives more than 150 applications every month, which is a major development compared to the 20 start-ups that came up during 2006-09. A majority of the new ventures being established now are student start-ups. Many entrepreneurs confirm that amidst a backdrop infamous for red tape and trade unionism, the emerging scenario is encouraging.
Joseph C Mathew, IT advisor to former LDF chief minister VS Achutanandan says that it is too early to comment on the IT policy of the new government. “The government is circulating a draft policy which is almost the same as the old policy. It always depends on the implementation,” he says.