The Hindu 25 years in Thiruvananthapuram: A strong connection

Technopark, a game changer

The dream that was Technopark — the full expansion was and still is the oft-forgotten Electronics Technology Parks, Kerala — was a mighty big one for the 1980s and early ‘90s. Many found it impossible. Yet, there were a handful who thought Technopark workable.

The founder CEO of Technopark, G. Vijayaraghavan, belonged to the latter school. The man who had joined the dream project as Officer on Special Duty recalls the exciting journey.

When Technopark was being set up, the objective was that it should offer 5,000 direct jobs and 20,000 indirect ones. Of course, things have changed. Today Technopark provides 70,000-plus jobs directly and about two lakh indirectly.

In those days, people were reluctant to view Kerala as a potential investment destination. The first Technopark companies were small — Brahma Software, NeST, and Transmatic. None of them have units there anymore. There was a Swedish company, Visionics, which relocated from Singapore, and the Kolkata-based Ada Software. Another one was Sea View Software, set up by R.P. Lalaji. Sea View is still there, but others have moved on or were acquired.

How it started

The Technopark project started off on 50 acres of land purchased from the University of Kerala. The spot went by the name Vaidyan Kunnu. The then Minister K.R. Gouri asked me, “This is their worst piece of land. Do you really want to take it? There is land on the other side,” she said. That other land is where the Greenfield Stadium has come up now. But I said, “No, this is fine.” Because there were plans for a new road and if we expanded further, it would be good. That’s how it came about.

We went on to acquire 120 more acres. Subsequently, the second phase, which houses Infosys and UST Global, came up. And later on, the third phase and Technocity.

Credit goes to them

The genesis of the idea of Technopark goes back to 1988-89. I would give the credit for the idea to K.P.P. Nambiar, E.K. Nayanar, and K.R. Gowri Amma. A seminar in Thiruvananthapuram then stressed that we need to look at electronics and software. The term ‘IT’ was not yet in vogue. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) was asked to do the pre-feasibility report, I was part of the team that got this done.

Later, Nayanar, Baby John, Gowri Amma, Nambiar went to the U.S. I arranged meetings in the Silicon Valley. We visited Stanford University and Apple’s Macintosh manufacturing unit. That is when Nayanar and Gowri Amma realised the impact this sector could have on Kerala. Nayanar asked, “If computers can give so many jobs, why are we opposing computers?” I said, “We are not opposing, it is your party that is opposing it.”

When we returned, they decided to go ahead and I joined as Officer on Special Duty. Nayanar, at the foundation-stone laying, actually said, “Vijayaraghavan and Nambiar would have kept on talking about this. But unless we had gone to America, this project would not have taken off.” It showed the big-mindedness of a political leader. America was their biggest enemy. But he had no problem saying that he had learned from them.

Support from all govts.

That said, the credit for the implementation of this project goes to K.M. Chandrasekhar, P.K. Kunhalikutty, K. Karunakaran, and A. K. Antony. I would say successive governments have given the support required to take Technopark forward.

We wanted to show the world something different. The first campaign went like this, ‘Technopark - The World’s Greenest Electronics Technopolis.’ This was the time before India opened up. People must have thought us crazy.

But Technopark actually came up and remains to this day an insulated islet. That made it click. There are no trade unions there. Hartals have never impeded work in Technopark.

The first companies started to come in during 1993-94. I left Technopark in 1997 and K.G. Satheesh Kumar took over. Most of my successors have done a great job.

Telephone did the trick

In those days, getting a telephone connection would take a year or two. When we decided to go ahead, we applied for a large number of connections. So when the first companies began moving in during 1993-94, this was the only place in India where you could walk in and get a telephone connection on Day One.

The number of connections was so huge, the Department of Telecommunications (subsequently BSNL) opened a telephone exchange at Karyavattom. Data communication was a problem. So we got the third earth station in India after Bangalore and Pune. The earth station was intended for the STP at NOIDA, UP. It had already been offloaded at NOIDA. But we approached N. Vital, Secretary, Department of Electronics, and told him that we needed the earth station badly. He agreed to transfer the station for ₹3 crore. You know what its speed was? 64 kbps. A fraction of what you get on your mobile phone today. But at the time, it had the fastest bandwidth in the country.

Another first

Technopark was probably the first place in the country to implement the single window clearance policy. TCS, the first big company to set up shop here, got their building clearance in less than fours hours. These powers were given up or taken away later.

Once TCS set shop, others started looking at Kerala. Wipro and Cognizant came to Kochi. It took 10 more years for Infosys to come to Thiruvananthapuram.

But I think our real successes were the companies that we helped build, such as SunTec, IBS, and UST Global. The first foreign company to come to Technopark was IVL, owned by the city government of Leverkusen, Germany.

Not-so-good times

There were also not-so-good times. SEZs by private companies were not allowed in Kerala. V.S. Achuthanandan was opposed to it, though his party, the CPI(M), was not. So a lot of companies chose to set up shop elsewhere in India.

In Kerala today, over 80-90% of IT space is built by the government. Elsewhere in the country, over 95% of the space is built by private sector. If we had reversed the trend here, we could have attracted large private investment.

Culturally, Technopark changed Thiruvananthapuram which was essentially a ten-to-five place with many tea/coffee and lunch breaks. Technopark began hiring contract services for housekeeping, vehicles, cleaning, and security. There was some resistance and we had to prove that it is cheaper to hire a car than to buy one. Importantly, it brought in meritocracy. People started taking home big salaries. Technopark spurred middle-class aspirations.

Sign of attitude change

After I left in 1997, I was helping companies set up in Thiruvananthapuram. One day, I got a call from a senior person at the Secretariat. “My daughter has a job in a company in Technopark. They have asked her to take a passport which means she will have to travel abroad. We have a problem with that. I am asking her to resign,” he told me. I told him not to be hasty. He agreed.

Sometime in 2006-07, I got a call from the Secretariat. “Are you involved with such-and-such company?” I said yes. “My daughter has a job there.” I thought, 10 years later, same old problem. “They told her to take a passport. She has taken it. She has been working there for two years, but they have still not sent her abroad.” I laughed. He wanted to know why I laughed. I said, “You will find so-and-so there. You ask him why I laughed.”

Some years ago, a survey found that most people interviewed were getting salaries much higher than the combined salary of their working parents. Today nearly 40% of the Technopark staff are women. There are not many women CEOs though. Recently, an organisation, Empowerment of Women in IT (EWIT), was formed. I am sure they will make the required change and there will be more women in leadership positions.

With Technopark, the city has grown towards the north. A substantial part of the Corporation’s revenue comes from there. The real estate sector too has grown in that direction.

Pointer to future

And what does the future hold? My feeling is that the companies will grow, but growth will be slower. But a lot more good companies will come in.

The big change in the last 25 years is that there will be more high-paying jobs. Lower-end jobs, like data entry, simple coding, and manual testing, will vanish. Employees will have to continuously re-equip themselves to deliver higher end work.

The impact of Technopark on local economy and culture will continue to be huge.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 1:01:55 AM |

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