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How Pinarayi is giving Kerala a big digital push to create skilled jobs

October 9, 2023

When Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared his state as having achieved full e-governance in May, he described it as an important step that guarantees efficiency and transparency in delivery of government services and a strong foundation for creation of a new Kerala. For him, full coverage does not merely mean creating a network linking government offices and the public but leveraging technology for the state’s development and empowering people to bridge the digital divide.

Apart from Kerala declaring Internet access as a citizen’s right—the first state to do so in 2019—the roll out of KFON (Kerala Fiber Optic Network), beginning June 2023, makes Internet access quicker and affordable, further strengthening the interaction between people and the government. KFON will make high-speed Internet available for free to 2 million households below the poverty line and at a concessional rate to others. It will also connect more than 30,000 government offices and educational institutions, including anganwadis. In the first phase, it will connect 14,000 households—a hundred in each of the state’s 140 assembly constituencies.

As a joint venture of the Kerala State Electricity Board Ltd and the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Ltd, it will make use of the extensive network of the power utility to reach wired connections to the last household in the state. Alongside achieving total e-governance, wherein a slew of government services are digitized, through the single-window portal e-Sevanam, assuring prompt delivery and transparency is viewed as a major step forward in the state’s journey to achieve 100 per cent literacy.

Vijayan’s mission looks farther in embracing new technology and the direction in which it is headed. In an ambitious exercise to attract global information technology (IT) companies, the entire state from north to south is being linked with IT corridors with the hope of bringing in small and big players to the IT parks and 5G-enabled corridors.

Apart from the existing Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, Infopark in Kochi and Cyberpark in Kozhikode, a fourth is proposed in Kannur to draw investors. Besides this, four IT corridors are being established between Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, Cherthala and Kochi, Kochi and Koratty and Kozhikode and Kannur. While the IT parks are wooing big players, the smaller ones are being invited to the three satellite parks at Kundara in Kollam, Cherthala in Alappuzha and Koratty in Thrissur. Significantly, most of the future projects are to happen with the involvement of a co-develop-promoting public-private participation as a policy.

For this, Kerala IT is being packaged with all its advantages, including infrastructure built through the state-owned Kerala IT Infrastructure Limited, availability of skilled employees bolstered by the Digital University of Kerala, the social ecosystem and ability for capacity building with incubators and accelerators. “Our initiatives will catalyze the state’s transformation into a knowledge-based economy through translational research, engineering reforms in the higher education sector and by establishing centers of excellence,” says Vijayan.

Kerala missed out on the early momentum capitalized on by the other southern states to create major IT hubs in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai in the last three decades. This is despite having been a pioneer as the first state to establish an IT park 33 years ago and also launching the country’s first digital university two years ago.

In spite of that initial setback, the state’s IT industry excels due to its skilled workforce. “Kerala is home to over 250,000 IT professionals in 2023, and this number has grown significantly from about 78,000 in 2016—a growth of close to 31 per cent in the last six years and a rich talent pool to tap into,” asserts Binu Jacob, managing director and CEO, Experion Technologies. Jacob, with four equally passionate co-founders, took over Infocean Technologies, a small EU-based offshore services company, in 2006 and rechristened and grew it since 2009. He points out that Kerala’s IT growth potential is evident in the substantial increase in IT exports, rising from Rs. 9,753 crore in 2016 to Rs. 17,536 crore in 2022.

However, there are issues even as the government goes about planning and developing infrastructure facilities. “To sustain progress, actively tackling challenges such as upskilling and right-skilling employees in areas like artificial intelligence, improving infrastructure, and addressing local commute issues are of utmost importance for driving the next round of growth and expansion,” says Jacob.

The potential for Kerala’s IT industry to compete with other well-established tech hubs is promising, but the timeline for it to reach that level of competitiveness depends on various factors. Several positive indicators are evident in the current scenario. The government’s active involvement in promoting the IT sector and implementing investment plans is a step in the right direction. Additionally, the influx of global companies like IBM and EY setting up offices in the state demonstrates increasing interest and confidence in Kerala’s IT potential.

While these factors contribute to the upward trajectory of Kerala’s IT industry, several challenges need to be addressed for it to emerge as a strong contender against established tech hubs. Analysts say the key areas of focus should include continuous skill development, fostering innovation and research, providing a conducive business environment, and enhancing infrastructure along with connectivity.

Predicting an exact timeline for Kerala’s IT industry to rival other tech hubs is challenging due to the complex and dynamic nature of the IT sector. Given the current momentum and the right strategies in place, Kerala could experience significant growth in the short to medium term, possibly within the next few years. Continued support from the government, collaboration with industry leaders, and a proactive approach to overcoming hurdles will be crucial in realizing this goal.

“Investing in digital infrastructure, such as high-speed internet connectivity and digital platforms for ease of doing business, is essential in attracting technology companies that rely heavily on seamless digital operations. And the government should also incentivize investors heavily to attract Tier-1 IT companies to come and set up shop, which is the only way to create volumes,” emphasizes Jacob. Only such a multi-pronged approach positioning Kerala as a preferred destination for IT investments can further contribute to the growth of the state’s IT ecosystem, and create what Vijayan envisions as a new Kerala.

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