When one talks about Bengaluru, the first thing that comes to mind is technology. The erstwhile garden-city has been host to a lot of global technology firms such as Microsoft, IBM, Adobe, Intel, Nvidia, AMD among others and is still called the Silicon Valley of India. It has been host to a lot of technology conferences, the most prominent among them being Bengaluru ITE.biz, which enters its 20th year.
This year, from 16-18 November the Bengaluru Tech Summit will see the coming together of the Bengaluru ITE.biz and the Bengaluru India Bio events under one umbrella. This government-organised and industry-led event has the theme 'Ideate-Innovate-Invent' this year.
Priyank Kharge, the 38-year old IT, Biotechnology and Tourism Minister of the government of Karnataka is overseeing the Tech Summit this year. He spoke to Firstpost about a range of issues from the need to have one flagship technology event, to the infrastructure issues in Bengaluru, his dislike for the city being called the 'Silicon Valley of India', to getting Apple to 'Make in India' and more.
On the Bengaluru Tech Summit
On the 20th anniversary edition of the Bengaluru ITE (Information Technology and Electronics) event, the government has decided to put it and the Biotechnology flagship event — Bengaluru India Bio — under one roof. "Since there is convergence happening everywhere, I thought we should converge these events as well. The idea was to ensure that we start showcasing Bengaluru on one platform across emerging technologies," said Kharge.
From IT to R&D
While he still feels that the IT and ITES (IT enabled services) is a big draw as far as jobs were concerned, Bengaluru had evolved out of this sector and is making a lot of headway in the Research and Development (R&D) field. "We have a lot of Fortune 500 companies who have their R&D wings in Bengaluru, and I am not talking 10-20 member teams working on small innovation projects, but thousands of people. We have definitely matured from IT and related services to R&D. Also, this focus on R&D has also helped Bengaluru become an innovation centre in India. Big names such as AMD, Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Nokia and many more have their R&D labs in Bengaluru. One of our main areas of focus is to encourage entrepreneurial thinking, especially in areas dealing with emerging technologies," said Kharge.
The government is trying to inculcate the spirit of innovation from collegiate levels with programs such as the New Age Incubation network which funds colleges with up to Rs 40 lakh for research. The last two years have seen over 150 innovative student groups bring their ideas to life through this initiative. The fund is available for all colleges in Karnataka.
But is there a catch behind the funding?
"There are no downright expectations from the participating students to help the government. There are two ways to approach this. So say, for instance, you are an entrepreneur and you have an idea which you want the government to help you with. Then that part will be taken care of by the Startup Cell who will help you realise this idea and help you with stuff like idea validation, networking with the right stakeholders, help with registrations and so on. But on the other hand, if there are certain startups that are trying to solve problems plaguing governance, like for instance the problem with the traffic situation in Bengaluru, then that falls under a different section. We run this thing called a Grand Challenge. So we give callouts pertaining to certain issues. These are not like hackathons, as they are inconclusive. Here we call out startups who will come and pitch their solutions to us, on a particular governance problem. The top three pitches will then be funded by the government to actually implement it in a pilot phase," said Kharge.
Strain on infrastructure is an area of concern
No discussion on Bengaluru can possibly avoid the evident infrastructure related issues. For a city which has traditionally been the IT capital of the country, where international technology giants have been investing in since the last couple of decades, infrastructure problems are proving to be a blot. Traffic problems are severe, so much so that according to this report in Mint, traffic snarls are making lot of companies wonder if they should continue to operate out of Bengaluru. The average speed of vehicles on the road has dropped from 35 kph in 2005 to around 9.2 kph in 2014.
Kharge acknowledged the issue, but said that this is the case will all the major, growing cities.
"We are not able to deal with the sudden increase in population, as our policies are reactive rather than proactive. The policies have not been able to keep up with the rising population in the city. Infrastructure will improve once the policies are implemented. We are trying all that we can. And we are not the only city with infrastructure problems — Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai also have issues. For instance, when it rains heavily infrastructure crumbles there as well. Yes, it is a problem with any growing city," said Kharge.
According to Kharge, his govt is investing heavily in improving the infrastructure. Around 46 km of metro line has been built in four years to take care of the East-West connectivity, according to him. The government hopes to tackle the issue of North-South connectivity by next year.
Pollution is another area of concern. Last year, we saw disturbing images of a lake filled with pollutants, resulting in an unnatural amount of foam which eventually caught fire. This Guardian report called it the City of Burning Lakes and painted a grim picture of what could happen if the situation is left unheeded.
"I am not debating the fact that one of our lakes is dying and we are trying to do all we can. Yes, it does make the headlines when the effluents released in the lake catch fire. But compared to other cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, we at least have lakes. I would say we are ahead in terms of conservation. We have removed all encroachments around these lakes. We are rejuvenating the lakes," says Kharge.
But couldn't these issues prove to be impediments in Bengaluru's ambition to becoming a world class city with the most talented and affordable human resource in STEM field? Kharge does not seem to think so.
"Yes, there are bumps in the road, but that does not mean we should stop seeking investments from the industry. There are a lot of positive aspects to the city as well. Another thing we need to understand is that Bengaluru is a livable city and because it accepts everyone, the population rise is inevitable. Just last year, for instance, we had 25 million footfalls in the airport — so that made us speed up our plans which were scheduled to be completed by 2020. So yes, infrastructure is a cause of concern, but we are working towards improving it," assured Kharge.
On getting Apple to 'Make in India'
One of the major news stories last year was about Apple starting to make phones in India with its contract manufacturer Wistron. Initially, there was confusion regarding the location — with some reports claiming that it was going to be Karnataka, others speculated that Foxconn's scouting for land in Maharashtra was an indicator of an Apple plant. Ultimately, it was announced that Apple iPhones would indeed be made in Karnataka.
While Apple is certainly a big catch for Bengaluru, there have been constant disagreements with the government when it comes to subsidies. The latest news says that the government will not be able to extend tax and duty-related concessions for Apple. We have argued in the past as to why Apple's demands for tax concessions do not bode well for the Make in India campaign.
Kharge, though happy about the fact that Apple was making iPhones near Bengaluru, is not concerned with the Apple vs govt back and forth that has been playing out. He is more concerned with having an electronics ecosystem in place in India.
"The question to ask is whether the central government is serious about Make in India. If you are serious about such a big program which is going to make us self-reliant, create jobs, then why isn’t high-end electronics manufacturing coming to India? I am not worried about Apple per se. But one has to see that there are certain parts that go into their product which are not made in India, so there has to be some concession. But at the same time, the government should decide once and for all that these concessions will only last for a certain amount of time. The idea should be to have a majority of the electronics components made in India, rather than just assembling products here," said Kharge.
According to him, India cannot function with an authoritarian arm the way China does, which has a mature eco-system for electronics. Kharge feels that assembling mobile phones is good, but one should look at the larger picture, which involves creating an electronics ecosystem. "We haven’t even scratched the surface as far as defence manufacturing is concerned," he said.
"As a minister from Karnataka and as a custodian of the IT industry, the central government’s back and forth on policies around Make in India are a cause of worry. All the slogans that the central government comes up — Digital India, Skill India, Make in India — and so on are supposed to help in ease of setting up a business. And still, it has taken them two years to reject Apple’s demands for two years. Stick to one decision. I am not saying make it a free lunch, put restrictions, give directions. Looking at the central government policies, I can’t really say how long it will take for the electronics manufacturing ecosystem to be set up in India," said Kharge.
On Smart City projects
At the outset, Kharge wasn't very pleased with the terminology of 'Smart City'. According to him, the central government had done a good job of coming up with catchy slogans, but hadn't really delivered when it came to developing smart cities.
"There seems to be a lot of planning happening, but it has been around 3-4 years and we've just heard talks. It seems to be rhetoric at this level. Having said that, the government is doing a lot on the state level. So be it enabling Wi-Fi hotspots across the city, investing in energy sector — smart lighting, renewable energy thrust, solid waste management and so on," said Kharge. He said that a lot of the state govt projects were working in silos, which if consolidated could constitute a smart city project. He mentioned the govt is using IoT in a lot of areas, Bengaluru traffic police using Twitter to solve a lot of user queries, the agricultural produce marketing corporation coming out with e-trading for farmers directly are good examples.
Competition from neighbouring states
If anyone has been following the tech space in India, two states have been really aggressive when it comes to pushing technology related projects — Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Not just that, they have also been able to attract heavy investments in the form of creation of innovation hubs, starting assembling units for smartphones. So does Kharge feel like Bengaluru is losing its mojo in the tech sector?
"Not really. I feel competition is always good as it always keeps us on our toes and it validates that Bengaluru is a better place. So I keep telling my investors that they can look at other states, but weatherwise and otherwise Bengaluru is great and has a lot to offer. It is not a cause for concern as such, as it will only help the country benefit. But in the long run I do foresee serious competition between us and neighbouring states," says Kharge. According to him, Bengaluru is ahead of the curve in a lot of respects, and has a mature ecosystem.
And yes, he does not like Bengaluru being called the 'Silicon Valley' of India. "I don’t think it is a bad thing that Bengaluru is called that, but I think we should have our own identity rather than being associated with something else. There are some who call Coorg the 'Scotland of India'. I say why bother with such tags," he laughs.
Artificial Intelligence and the concern around the loss of jobs
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a buzz word that has become a norm nowadays. It is also a cause of concern for a lot of people as AI could lead to a loss of jobs, especially in repetitive tasks. When we asked Kharge about this, he was of the belief that AI would not hit the job market that badly. "This is something we gauged last year and we have had discussions with industry experts about this. I don’t think there will be job losses as such, but there will be more jobs created or there will be morphing of job profiles. The jobs that will be lost are of those people who have been around for 10-15 years or longer. So there is a need to reskill those people," said Kharge.
According to him, fields such as AI, Machine Learning, Big Data, Robotics, Animation, Aerospace, Cybersecurity are emerging fields and we lack trained experts in all of them. That is a huge opportunity when it comes to job creation.
"The Karnataka government is cognisant of that fact and we are trying to see how we can train and reskill the people in these emerging technologies. We are working closely with industry on this and that is one reason we have centres of excellence in areas such as IoT, Big Data, Gaming / Animation and VFX, Aerospace, Machine learning and AI, Cybersecurity," said Kharge.
Using technology interventions for resolving infrastructure issues
Considering Bengaluru is also considered as the startup capital of India, we were interested in knowing if there are startups working on solutions to help resolve some of the infrastructure issues we discussed above. Kharge says his govt is working towards it.
"We help a lot of startups with idea validation. Now you may think you have the most disruptive idea to solve an issue, but the output in a real-world environment could be completely the opposite and may not take off at all. So we provide a practical environment where these startups can test out their ideas. Right now, we don’t have an official process as such for idea-validation projects. It is a bit ad-hoc at the moment, but we are in the works to streamline the processes. We are working towards having a policy out of it," he said.
Kharge said that his govt was also going about installing high speed internet in gram panchayats. "By next week, we will have around 500 gram panchayats connected with high-speed internet and by end of December, we will have all 2,500 gram panchayats connected. This will ensure high speed Wi-Fi connectivity. Also, all my corporations and municipalities will be connected by Wi-Fi," he said.