Bengaluru to be transformed to a knowledge cluster: Priyank Kharge

Karnataka, home to Bengaluru, India’s new-economy hub, is holding its flagship information technology (IT) event, ITe.biz, from Monday. The event comes as software exporters face new challenges in their main markets and the disruption due to automation and artificial intelligence. Within India, start-ups face a funding crunch. PRIYANK KHARGE, the state’s minister of IT, tells Apurva Venkat how Bengaluru is reinventing. Edited excerpts:

 

Bengaluru has image issues over traffic, lack of infrastructure and, in recent months, bandhs. How are you convincing international investors to come to the city and expand investment?

Every city has its fair share of flaws. In an apple to apple comparison, Bengaluru has less problems than any other city, in India or outside. Even Silicon Valley has its set of problems, fights between insiders and outsiders, infrastructure issues. London has traffic problems, in fact congestion taxes to get you inside, New York has a traffic problem, it has suburb problems, crimes are very high in the suburbs. The Indian cities – you know what happened (in) Gurugram — three days they were stuck in traffic jams. One rain and the entire Hyderabad infrastructure caved in; one rain and Mumbai comes to a halt; one rain and Chennai comes to an halt.

 

We are far better. The (violence over the) Cauvery issue, was more of an emotional outburst. After that, three Supreme Court judgements have come and nothing happened. The first time it happened, it was more of an emotional outburst, not planned anarchy. It did make a difference in terms of image for investors but every city goes through that. The thing is the resilience of the city — it quickly bounces back. It took less than 24 hours to get back to normal.
More than infrastructure and more than all this, what companies and investors look at is the overall conducive environment in the system. By default, we have that — whether it is skills, knowledge, our policies, our approach to investors. Definitely, there is a lot of scope for improvement and we are doing it. As of now, investors do not have heavy concerns on infrastructure because the system in Bengaluru is highly policy-driven. They do raise concerns about traffic but beside that, we are perfect.

 

How are you trying to build policies to take the success of Bengaluru to other cities of the state? 

 

It is quite natural for that to happen in any country. There has to be one anchor (city); it becomes very unfair to ask why is IT not there throughout the state. It cannot be. For example, why are cement factories in North Karnataka? It is because natural resources are found there. Why is Mangaluru a port and not the other 320 km (of coastline)?

 

There has to be one anchor, which is Bengaluru, and government policies do help us to take technology outside. We have something called the New Age Incubation Network, where we allow IT to thrive even at the bottom of the pyramid at colleges and the results have been amazing. We have our IT parks in Kalaburagi, Hubbali, Mysuru and Shivamogge (earlier Gulbarga, Hubli, Mysore, Shimoga), wherein we are allowing entrepreneurs to come up. We are also coming up with new incubation centres and incubators in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. IT people who are here from outside Bengaluru are trying to do their own start-ups there. Those in Udupi and Mangaluru got funded by close to $30 million in the past one year. It is happening, it cannot be a rush. It has to be  constant and sustained. Our policy supports that.

 

The IT event was to attract investment in Bengaluru. How relevant now is the ITe.Biz?

 

This was one of the first things brought to me when I became minister. They said we have to have the ITe.biz. I had the same question — we had just had Invest Karnataka for industries and for IT, we have reached a plateau, matured. That is when my team and I decided we need to go beyond what we are doing. We need to define what is the next direction different verticals in the IT sector should take. If you see this and the previous editions, look at the speakers, look at the verticals we are covering, at the kind of events we are having within the ITe.biz. This itself becomes a game changer. We are talking about artificial intelligence never spoken about, robotics never spoke about, we are signing up the Bengaluru Boston Biotechnology Corridor, which had never happened. We are having Australia, Germany and other start-ups being showcased. We have gaming, animation, a special thrust on start-ups.

 

One concern of domestic companies is that most of these events are hijacked by multinational entities and they do not get a platform? 
We are ensuring everyone gets a platform. Zoho is an Indian company – all they did was tweet to me and they are now our partners. Bhavish (Aggarwal of Ola) met me only once. Itis the prime responsibility of the government to ensure the success of domestic companies. Of course, we need the big daddies and all these MNCs. So far, we are considered the services cluster; I want to be the knowledge cluster, I want an IP (intellectual property) cluster; for that, I have to ensure start-ups flourish and these domestic companies flourish. For example, my own tourism stall that I am putting up in the ITe.Biz will have eight start-ups. No tourism promotion will happen there.

 

One concern has been the rise of automation that could destroy jobs. IT services have been a major employment and tax generator for the state. How will Karnatakahandle it? 

 

There is always this fear of the new. Change always brings a little apprehension as well. Everyone thought the same when the industrial revolution happened. After that, manufacturing automation happened. But, people also evolved to doing bigger things. Just like manufacturing was first, then came IT, then IT services, then the product, then products started talking to each other and then came IoT (Internet of Things). So, it keeps evolving. Of course, automation is what everyone wants at the end of the day, as it gives ease of doing things. But, if you are saving somewhere, you will end up doing something more. Maybe you will get more entrepreneurs. I do not think it will disrupt jobs in a big way. Maybe create newer opportunities for better things.

 

With the current slowing in the IT business and most companies and Nasscom (IT industry association) cutting their forecasts, how will the event help companies?

 

The event is important for the state on two fronts. One is to showcase the policy itself; ours is one of the most unique in the country. The idea is to ensure we develop newer verticals, animation, gaming…The idea is to ensure that all our policies are compliant with the emerging technologies. Defence electronics is big for us, aerospace is big, cyber security is big for us. We will be defining the next big direction to take for all these sectors. Irrespective of any organisation saying there is a dip, yes, maybe there is a dip. As a government, we cannot stop what we have to do.

 

The third day is themed around start-ups. What can start-ups take back from the event?  

 

If there are good start-ups, they can partner with us. We have opened up the start-ups for idea validation. No other government has done that. We fund; no government does that. We are giving them mentorship,  accounting help, legal help. We are creating an eco-system wherein either they take help from the government or we become the bridge between two private entities. The idea is not to only showcase and go. There will be networking. The bigger thing is if there is something that they can help the government because the government itself is a big consumer. We are willing to talk to anyone, willing to take help from them. Start-ups can actually reach out to government and big investors.

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