Karnataka is not trying to be a Silicon Valley, says IT minister Priyank Kharge

Karnataka’s IT Minister wants the State to be an innovation hub for the world

August 18, 2017 08:38 pm | Updated August 19, 2017 12:40 am IST

Priyank Kharge

Priyank Kharge

The Congress is betting big on technology and social media to reach out to the people in the country, said Priyank Kharge , IT, BT and tourism minister of Karnataka. In an interview, Mr. Kharge, 38, said that his party was not going to use technology and social media only during the elections but also for e-governance and to communicate with citizens. The tech-savvy minister, who is often found meeting start-up founders and discussing technologies such as artificial intelligence, also said that he didn’t want Bengaluru to be compared with the Silicon Valley but wanted it to become the innovation hub of the world. Excerpts:

Governments in the U.S., Israel and now China have played a key role in the rise of successful companies. Have governments in the country, especially in Karnataka, done enough?

We have done enough, otherwise, there wouldn’t be 7,000 start-ups in Bengaluru. But, I am not saying we are ‘done and dusted’ with. There are still a lot more things that we can do. We are trying to stimulate the entire ecosystem towards innovation and invention. Elevate 100, BengaluruITE.biz or the policies that we have come up with are all inclined towards innovation and investments. Elevate 100 is a unique programme, we are trying to find out 100 most innovative companies in the State.

We are not looking for it in Bengaluru, we are going outside the (city) in Mysuru, Hubbali, Mangaluru, Kalaburagi. Out of the 1,700 listings we have got, 400 of them are from rural areas. So, innovation is happening all across Karnataka.

Has the Karnataka Information Technology Venture Capital Fund been successful?

We are the most successful State-run venture fund which is in its third ‘avatar’. The last two were successful — that is why we have given it a third lease of life. We are using that for Elevate 100 as well. It is not just about money, it is about their idea being validated and put to test. Probably they would have some world-class mentors that we will give them and put them into an accelerator. We are going to help them with networking opportunities, market access and customer acquisition.

Despite Bengaluru being a tech-hub, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited Hyderabad last year. Is the government aggressive enough to woo tech leaders?

I have absolutely no problems with any CEOs visiting Hyderabad, I am glad, in fact, they should visit Hyderabad then they will know how important Bengaluru is. If you see... investments from Microsoft, Intel, Oracle [have come into Bengaluru]. Oracle and Nokia have [their] biggest R&D centres here. We have top Fortune 500 companies here. I am not worried. The policies that [we have] are inclined towards innovation and investments. Yes, we have to do more, there is still a lot of scope for improvement. It is not just services any more. We want to emerge as thought leaders in the emerging technologies. We want to ensure innovation happens from Bengaluru. The assembly line [of Apple to make iPhones in Bengaluru] is already in place. We are looking at how we can get the entire ecosystem down here.

Entrepreneurs lament that there is a very little collaboration between academia and young tech companies...?

Point taken. We collaborate closely with the Indian Institute of Science. I was recently there, we are trying to see how we can build on applied materials, nanotechnology, for example, Graphene (touted as a miracle material, it is tougher than diamond but stretchable like rubber). We are trying to see how we can collaborate with the academia outside India as well. We are coming up with various centres of excellence in emerging technologies which are outside our curriculum. We have centres of excellence in IoT, big data, AI, cybersecurity, animation and gaming. There, we are trying to breed the next skillsets for innovation.

Experts say that artificial intelligence and automation are going to have a huge impact on jobs. Is that a concern for the government?

Retrenchment is a concern, I agree with that. Having said that, it is not the end of the world. We are trying to reskill people. The centres of excellence I spoke about is in the direction of trying to skill and reskill people. We are coming up with a programme ‘Yuva Yuga’ where we are trying to make graduates more employable.

You recently took inputs on the layoffs in the IT sector. What measures are you taking to mitigate the pain?

It is a very difficult thing to do and I am treading on a very thin line. I cannot entirely take an employee perspective and have a policy that is regressive. Nor can I take a completely capitalistic view on this. Because, if I don’t get investments I cannot create employment. I am hopeful that the industry and the employee bodies come together to sort this out along with us.

BJP is focusing a lot on social media and setting up WhatsApp groups for the upcoming elections in the State. Has the Congress lagged behind in terms of effective use of social media to reach out to the masses?

Well, when it comes to the (Congress) party, there are more things that we can do. There is scope for improvement. BJP is a master in communication, people are still looking for the “Acche Din” (good days) that they had promised. The problem with Congress is that “hamare paas Achar hain, Vichar hain, Prachaar nahin hain” (We have a code of conduct and thought, but don’t have publicity). They know how to do publicity, but we will definitely figure it out. We have delivered as promised. What is it that BJP has against us? There is no corruption, scandal. There is not a single thing that they can point out and say this is an election issue we are going with. We are going with the development plank and I am sure we will come out with flying colours.

Is the Congress betting big on technology and social media for the upcoming elections?

We need technology and social media to ensure that we reach out to people. It is not important just during election time. It is also important for governance. If you see our e-governance platforms, it is always directed towards citizens. It is a platform for us to communicate about our policies, schemes and it is a participatory thing. Until and unless I have a participatory engagement with citizens, I cannot come up with progressive policies. So, it is not just for elections; technology now is a very necessary evil and I think if we do not use it, we will perish.

How is Karnataka performing in terms of investments compared with other States?

States are ferociously competitive. You now have ‘Invest in Chhattisgarh and Invest in Jharkhand’ also. Earlier it would be only for the biggest States. The good thing about us is that we are much more matured [as a] State when it comes to investments. We really don’t need to pull up these gimmicks of free power, taxation and all that. We have what it takes to deliver. Our policies are already well entrenched. But having said that, one focus for us would be to create a knowledge and skill-based society so that we can attract investments.

When do you think Bengaluru will become very close to Silicon Valley in the U.S. in terms of infrastructure?

We don’t want to be the Silicon Valley. We are tired of being called the back office operations for the entire world. We are not trying to be the Silicon Valley.

We want to be the innovation hub of the world.

And, it is the time we became a global player and not an Asian player. Bengaluru is already a leader in IT (services), innovation and women entrepreneurs. In terms of Research and Development, we are on number five; in providing a start-up ecosystem we are on number 13. We need to scale up and not become another Silicon Valley. We hope to have an identity of our own.

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