The mission that failed


Even after 10 years, Kerala’s technocity project did not take off

project in Thiruvananthapuram
The model of the propsed project in Thiruvananthapuram

In the year 1991, when India was still grappling with the economic crisis, the Central Government slowly pushed for a scheme called ‘Software Technology Parks of India (STPI). Five cities were initially identified for this and the state that saw an opportunity in what was considered inconceivable till then was Kerala.The foundation stone was laid for what is now the biggest information technology park in the nation in terms of the total built-up area, the Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram. Under the overall supervision of E.K.Nayanar and the leadership of K.P.P.Nambiar, the first chairman of Technopark, it was a project that was meant to transform the face of the nation. It was expected to bring in the multinational corporations to India and to a very large extent Technopark has succeeded in its agenda.

Over the years, the park has seen four phases of expansion with startups also getting a considerable share of attention. In the year 2005, the ambitious Technocity project was announced by the Government with the hopes of creating an all-inclusive infrastructure that would cater to the needs of the population within the said limits. It was from here that the problems started showing up and what was to become the nation’s first smart cityremains just a mere idea on paper even to this date. So what exactly went wrong for a city that was so far sighted?

The reasons are aplenty. The first and foremost is without a doubt the case of policy paralysis. Kerala lacked both the dynamism and political will in executing a project like this. The fact that even after a decade there has been nothing substantial done in the land acquired for the venture is a telling declaration on the sorry state of affairs. The recent pulling out of Infosys from Technocity citing lack of basic infrastructure and non-cooperation gives further clarity to the unaddressed challenges.

Another point of interest is that though way ahead of time in the 1990s, Thiruvananthapuram still remains a Tier 2 city. Cities which tried to emulate this model of development in the later years like Hyderabad and Bengaluru have forged ahead and have firmly sealed their place in the Information Technology map. When pitted against these cities which are known for its high development indices, the benefits of having a place like Technopark is yet to reach the rest of the city. The same holds true for Infoparkin Cochin and Cyberpark in Kozhikode. None of these cities have been able to transform into places that are known for its high class infrastructure and facilities. The Cochin Smart City project which has been in the pipeline since the last five years have had allegations ranging from corruption to lack of transparency leveled against it.

The changing governments and the changing policies are often cited as the reason for this failure. Though it was the communist government which laid the foundations for technopark, it is an undeniable fact that in the later stages they have been responsible for stalling the developmental process. What is often informally called labourmilitanism in the form of trade unions has been largely responsible for eroding the faith in Kerala’s investment climate. The frequent strikes that result in huge losses for the companies have deterred them from being a part of Kerala’s dreams.

Then there is the additional problem of anti-social elements troubling the immigrants and builders which has resulted in the formation of a fear psychosis in the minds of the people. The blatant extortion of money and the nonchalance of those in power in addressing this issue have all proved to be a bloat on Kerala’s administration.

None of this is to say that the Congress led Government has been able to address the challenges. They have also shown an utter disregard for policy matters and have not been successful in reinstating the lost faith. All the politicians have been equally non-committal and have not been able to ward off the allegations of playing to some vested interests leveled against them. The idea of vote banks began to take root and a technology park in every state became the election plank. The officials associated with the project were also often changed to suit the government’s policies and there was no accountability attached to any decisions that were taken behind closed doors. The harm that such a step caused in the long run was permanent. It would have been easier for the state to excel if the development was first concentrated on a particular point but what happened was an attempt at unplanned expansion which resulted in the project losing all direction

The other issues plaguing the state are predominantly infrastructural. Though the state has been producing energy from hydel power, it has not been able to ensure its quality something which is very important in the context of building a smart city. There has also been a lack of industrial water supply. Another factor without which smart cities can’t exist is an efficient road system. Kerala is yet to have a four lane highway and the two lane highwaysalong which the information parks are located are probably the most mismanaged of all with no solution in sight for its traffic vows. To top it all, most of the buses run by the Kerala Road Transport Corporation are from an archaic age offering no ease to the daily commuters. Such thorough lack of concern even to address the basic infrastructural challenges has greatly undermined the investor confidence.

For a state that scores high on social development, it is indeed an irony that it has not been able to capitalize this strength in developing the human resources. The unemployment rates are still high which becomes a cause of concern when one takes a look at the literacy rates. The youth is still risk averse and refuse to walk that additional mile. What is more intriguing here is that even after two decades of Technopark the only entrepreneurial ventures seen outside its premises are some small tea stalls and roadside eateries. Other than a few residential apartments, there is nothing in and around the area that can be seen as a reflection of the world class services that are being offered by the companies within the campus. Considering that it is a place where more than 40,000 technocrats from all over the country congregate on a daily basis, this inability to make use of the opportunities is a clear indicator of what is inherently wrong with the state.

When the project was first conceived, it was meant to be concentrated in the city of Thiruvananthapuram. This would have given it the leverage to expand its scope and all the developmental activities would have concentrated on how to further its reach.

But over the years, the successive governments tried to disburse this idea and the state saw the budding of a technology park in almost every district. This took away the very purpose of Technopark as the goal was no longer to create a single comprehensive unit.

“Technocity was a little too ambitious for Kerala to attempt. It was supposed to be executed on the PPP model. But for that to happen, everyone ranging from the politicians, bureaucrats, media and the people should have an investment friendly attitude. Unfortunately in Kerala, it is lacking. Somewhere the purpose of the entire project, i.e. creation of an additional 1 million jobs was all but forgotten and its execution was turned into a scandal. The political establishment never had the will to counter that criticism and the project came to a grinding halt. The 500 crore loan taken by the state government to develop the state eventually became its greatest liability”, opines N.Radhakrishnan Nair, former CEO,Technopark and the one in whose tenure Technocity was conceived.

In all these years, the Governments in power have made no efforts to put an effective check and balance mechanism in place. An example of this would be the allocation of land to companies for the Technocity project. Most of these are companies that had already received land 25 years back during the inception of Technopark and had failed to take any kind of developmental work. There has been nothing done to take back the land where the companies have not started their operations within the specified time period. Such glaring inefficiencies in the system are among the reasons why the future also seem bleak.

Kerala smart city project is just a case in point of the things that can go wrong when other cities start implementing their projects. In a country like India where there are a multitude of local factors at play, it is necessary for the states to chart out a plan which would take these challenges into account. There is no doubt that smart cities are the future of any developing nation, but for it to be successful, a lot more is required to be done on the policy front.