Nepali Times
State Of The State
Letter from the Silicon Plateau


MYSORE - This city is serene. If it were not for the wedding-cake palaces, you wouldn't realise that this was the capital city of an eponymous state of British Raj. The Maharaja of Mysore did have another palace in Bangalore, but he reigned and ruled from this quiet little town at the feet of the Chamundi Hills.

Despite the building boom fuelled by the demands of a burgeoning bourgeoisie, Mysore still retains the old-world charm of a small town where you stop and greet at least three people on your way to the neighbourhood grocer. There are caste-marks on the foreheads of men in suits and coconut trees sway in the gentle breeze. A sweet smell of incense near the butcher's block and the aroma of masala dosa being folded in the teashop waft across the visitors' nostrils. There is a string of white flowers in the hair of a little child with a runny nose on her way to school. It's all so familiar. And it is. This is the setting of mythic Malgudi made famous by the magical prose of the late RK Narayan.

Built on the edge of the city, in the middle of a near-barren expanse of land, Lalit Mahal was once the royal guesthouse. The Indian government has found an appropriate use for this piece of regal property-the palace has been turned into a five-star hotel run by the Indian Tourism Development Corporation. I couldn't have asked for a better backdrop to ruminate over my whirlwind tour of the Deccan's Silicon Plateau.

Cyberbabu Naidu has given Hyderabad an iconic status, but much of his IT dream remains just that. No doubt, the gleaming Cybercity complex is functional, the computerisation of government records is in process, and this week Naidu flew to the United States to draw further investment into his ambitiously named \'knowledge corridor' around the Begumpet wilderness. But even the knowledge industry needs a critical mass of knowledgeable people willing to and capable of taking risks. In this, Hyderabad has a lot of catching up to do.

Andhra Pradesh has a long way to go before it can even begin to compete with Karnataka's cyber-savviness. It needs to resolve the insurgency led by the Peoples' War Group. It has to develop a pool of technicians to take care of the nuts and bolts matters while the high-fliers pursue their IT-fantasies. It has to build dependable infrastructure-roads, water supply, electricity, banking, insurance, schools and hospitals. These are things that cannot be delivered in an instant over the Internet. Even a determined government with strong political will needs some time to get things going.

If Naidu fails in his dream of transforming his state into a real IT super-power, it wouldn't be for lack of trying. The beginnings of his corridor of knowledge are there, with the University of Hyderabad doing what Stanford is supposed to have done for Silicon Valley, and what the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) did for neighbouring Karnataka. Hyderabad can boast of an Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), which is engaged in cutting edge research. The hype about the e-governance in Andhra Pradesh is hype: but no one doubts that Chandrababu Naidu means business.

Karnataka is the reigning IT leader in India, a fact recognised by visitors such as Tony Blair and Zhu Rongji, as well as IT-superstar residents like NR Narayanamurthy, chairman of Infosys, and Wipro chief Azim Premji. In Hyderabad, the air is full of anticipation; in Bangalore, exhaustion with IT is more pronounced. The buzzword here these days is biotechnology. And they are not talking about just their own state-scientists from Bangalore's biotech labs are scouring India's northeast for exotic enzymes they can patent. In Begumpet, the operative word is software, in Whitefields, they have started to talk about IT-enabled industries and bio-informatics.

There are many reasons behind the emergence of Bangalore as a centre of knowledge industries, but none of them has anything to do with market forces per se. Much of the credit for transforming Bangalore from a pensioners' paradise to a high-tech Mecca goes to the IISc-the institute that has India's own super-computer PARAM. The IISc is so obsessed with its premier image, that last month it refused full professorship to the father of Indian missile technology, APJ Abdul Kalam, on the pretext that his doctorate was an honorary one, not earned. The University of Hyderabad eagerly welcomed Kalam into their fold.

Senior scientists and technocrats poached from huge Bangalore-based state enterprises like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, Hindustan Machine Tools, and Indian Telephone Industries helped the information revolution take off. Even in the eighties, Bangalore had more engineering colleges than any other city in India, and graduates of these institutions fuelled a supply-led growth of the knowledge industry.

Prof Kalyani, Dean of Bangalore's highly-regarded Indian Institute of Management, puts the phenomenon in perspective when she says that it is the government that makes things happen, despite the mantra of market so popular these days. In recognition of the role that policy can play in economic growth, her institute is starting a course on Policy Management patterned after the famed Kennedy School of Government. IIM-Bangalore is renowned for accurately predicting management trends, and if its emphasis on governance is anything to go by, the challenge of the future is not finance, production or the market, but policy.

Where do we in Nepal figure in all this talk of IT, bio-informatics and IT-enabled industries? Nowhere, which is why Nepali visitors to Silicon Plateau give the International Information Technology Park a miss and head straight for Sai Baba's Ashram nearby. The Baba looks frail, but still sits on his throne blessing devotees during afternoon bhajans, and a significant number of his followers continue to be Nepali. The Sai Super Specialty Hospital is now complete, and its golden dome competes with the glass and chrome of IT park for visitors' attention.

Nepal's cyber aspirations, however, have the blessings of Lord Pashupatinath. The largest statue of the Nandi bull in the world is in Andhra. The second largest is in Karnataka. The third largest, and perhaps the most beautiful, is in the Pashupati Temple. Could this pattern portend that Nepal might be next in line for an IT breakthrough?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)