By Patanjali and Surya Suresh
Politics has never been much of a subject of active discussion amongst IITians. It ranks somewhere below the next episode of our favorite TV show, movies, coursework and whether or not to go to mess. So it was a huge surprise when my friend forwarded to me a video titled “TRS minister speaks at inauguration of Apple development Center”. Thinking it was another gaffe by yet another politician, I opened it and couldn’t have been more wrong. What I got to see was not a politician but a startup CEO pitching for a company. The company had 35.19 million workers and was new to the market. It was 2.5 years old and in dire need of investment. The company: Telangana. The CEO: Shri KT Rama Rao.
On 9 January 2017, the Central Lecture Theatre was fully packed for the first Extra Mural Lecture of the semester. The audience waited with nervous anticipation for the arrival of Shri KT Rama Rao, the cabinet minister for Telangana’s IT and MAUD (Municipal Administration and Urban Development) portfolios. An inspiring figure and a youth icon, Shri KT Rama Rao has a huge following despite his relatively new entry into the political sphere.
In a typical politician style, he came in late, but that is where the similarities with any politician ended. His flight was so off the schedule that he arrived an hour later than expected. Upon his arrival, he was greeted with a standing ovation by an enthusiastic crowd, largely comprised of students hailing from the city of Hyderabad. As is the custom for a state dignitary, he was welcomed by the IITM Director Dr. Bhaskar Ramamurthy with a fruit basket. Shri KT Rama Rao began his lecture by speaking about the development of Telangana.
He began the lecture by introducing himself as “Ram” not KTR, the moniker people of Telangana bestowed on him, not KT Rama Rao and not Kalvakuntla Taraka Rama Rao. In a system where caste based politics are mainstream and not the subtext, the identity he has chosen is one of anonymity. “Ram” could be anybody, a colleague, an acquaintance or a random stranger the you met. “Ram” is not how you would expect the IT minister of the 12th largest state in India to introduce himself. “Ram” is how a startup founder would introduce himself, which is what he is. His talk sounded like a startup founder pitching to investors.
He stressed on the benefits of having a clean state and not being bogged down by legacy. Further, he believes that Telangana has adopted the best policies from across the world and tweaked them to fulfill demands unique to India. He went on to speak about T-Hub, the largest start-up incubator in India. A short video was played describing T-Hub’s journey so far.
Launched on 5 November 2015 by E.S.L Narasimhan, the governor of Telangana and Mr. Ratan Tata, T-Hub’s journey so far has been nothing short of inspiring. T-Hub was a dream to make Hyderabad one of top 10 start-up destinations in the world. It began with a single incubator and has now grown into the fastest growing start-up ecosystem in the world. Their next journey is to enable start-ups to significantly scale up and enter the market. With start-ups being born everyday, corporates looking to tackle new challenges and a myriad collection of events, the past year has been one of incredible transformations for T-Hub. Much like the Center for Innovation, the motto of T-Hub is ‘Walk in with an idea, Walk out with a product’.
Shri KT Rama Rao said that it was imperative for Indian start-ups to work expeditiously, given the cut-throat competition from the outside world. He, like many others, stresses the importance of the youth population in India. He said that youth are enthused by technology and are no longer willing to take a back seat. The minister added that his efforts to create a startup ecosystem were inspired by the enthusiasm of the Indian youth. He believes that the upcoming decades could determine India’s story in the annals of human history.
He went on to describe the extensions to T-Hub such as T-Bridge and T-fund. T-Bridge is an initiative to provide a two-way conduit to international markets. On the other hand, T-fund ensures financial availability to start-ups. The T-Hub Phase 2, when completed, will become the largest incubator ecosystem in the world. He quipped that ‘T’ stood for technology and not for Telangana and they welcomed the best minds from across the country to work at T-Hub.
The start-up and entrepreneurship ecosystem is well known for notoriously low success rates. However, Shri KT Rama Rao believes that even a 5% success rate could create large scale employment in our country. Further, he also believes that dabbling in innovation and revolutionizing technology could create a new wave of growth in data analytics, data security and data warehousing. He concluded his lecture by stressing on the importance of riding this new wave of growth and emerging at the pinnacle.
The lecture was followed by a short interview with T5E in which Shri KT Rama Rao spoke about his vision to encourage the start-up culture amongst high school students by providing course credits for entrepreneurship. He also mentioned the importance of realizing the potential of the Indian society and coming up with unique solutions to our problems. Further, he went on to speak about the importance of protecting indigenous handloom industry through innovation. The session concluded with a discussion on renewable power where he mentioned Telangana’s leading role.
The passion and vision of the speaker was truly inspiring ensuring that the start-up enthusiasts in the audience will always remember his 3-I mantra – Innovate, Incubate and Incorporate.
Here are excerpts from our conversation with him.
What motivated you to get into politics? what avenues are you creating to enable the best minds – who may not have any political agenda but only want to contribute to nation building- to work on issues of policy and governance? Is the government sensitive to the urge of young people wanting to contribute to nation building but not knowing how?
When you grow up in an environment where you get to see politics from close quarters, it definitely tends to draw you. Everybody need not be in direct politics. But in a democracy where everything gets decided by politics, you have to decide what our (levels of involvement in) future politics are. You need not be in direct politics to contribute to the nation. The contribution can be indirect too. In our country, the voting percentages during any election is high (70-80%) in the rural areas while the urban people do not want to come out and vote. In a democracy, armchair criticism does not matter, keyboard criticism does not matter, what matters is people who get out and vote. So everybody has to stay involved in one way or another. However, everybody need not be at the forefront. There are a plethora of opportunities for people who want get into politics both directly and indirectly.
In your lecture, you talked about “clean slate, new beginning” where you were looking to revamp governance policies. Has there been any policy that is geared towards addressing the above issue of people wanting to serve but not wanting to get into politics or not knowing how to serve?
There are many; one I can think of readily is TS-ipass which has set a new benchmark in the country. In terms of doing business, it is easily the best. Today, in Telangana if you want to set a new enterprise you do not have to seek a clearance from the government. You can hit the ground running on day 1 and simultaneously submit a proposal. We promise to deliver by day 15. If it isn’t, then, by day 16 it becomes an approval by default. In a system known for its red-tape, we roll out a red carpet. Similarly, there is the program that I mentioned, Hartiha Haaram, which aims at improving the state’s green cover to 33% (from the current 24%). It is one-of-a-kind and is a very ambitious agenda. We want to ramp it up with a structured plan. You have to remember that we are only two and a half years old and we are way ahead of other states where people have been in power for a very long time.
Since you have brought up the topic of environment, our next question is: In the race for innovation, one of the casualties is the environment. Examples that come to mind are Chennai and Bangalore. Do your plans take into account the environmental impact? Could you walk us through how that is done?
First of all, I don’t agree with the view that environment and industrialization or innovation are mutually exclusive. You can improve your environment and infrastructure at the same time through simple steps: for example we are looking at plastic roads, the plastic waste gets processed and converted into raw material. We can look at coming up with our electric vehicles policy or hybrid vehicles policy. We have to ensure that, not just by sloganeering or by way of political rhetoric, we frame policies that actually cater to the needs of the environment.
With the influx of FDI, India is developing at a much faster pace. However, the development in uneven and concentrated in urban areas. How do we prevent rural areas from getting exploited and ensure their economic development?
The fact of the matter is, urban centers are our economic engines. Cities are where people are migrating to. This migration happens because of several reasons: better employment, better education opportunities. While you ensure that infrastructure requirements at urban centers are sustained so that our cities don’t die, we should also look at providing urban amenities in rural centers. There is this concept called PURA which unfortunately hasn’t taken off. We also have rurban which is neither rural nor urban. We have several models across the world, for example you could look at Walmart, which targeted rural clusters first instead of cities. We have to improve infrastructure at rural areas and provide better living standards at rural areas, and that is how we are going to contain urbanization. We cannot call people wanting to come into our country especially by way of FDI, a pocket vs rural area problem. We cannot call that exploitation because at the end of the day businesses are not done for charity. There is a certain bottomline that is expected, and companies will invest in areas that offer them better returns. It is the governments who are supposed to offset, if they are serious about containing urbanization, by providing facilities and amenities that will either help minimize the loss of setting up a business at a rural area.
Politics & governance somehow remain closed to the idea of using technology as a tool for increasing transparency and efficiency. What are your thoughts on this? Will it ever change? An example would be that politicians could use tools like FB live and Twitter to connect to their constituents; others being online provision for filing and tracking of forms.
Social media today has become a tool that connects the common man with the powers to-be. In sharp contrast to the last decade, a common man now can reach the concerned authorities with ease. It has completely changed the landscape of how governance is done. An example: when I was the minister for Panchayati Raj about 2 years ago, one of my constituents sent me a Whatsapp picture of a bridge that was in dire need of repairs and within 5 minutes I was able to contact the concerned engineer and send over a team to fix this problem. However, this would not have been possible about 10 years ago. But having said that, technology by itself cannot solve the problems, it is just a tool. We have to have the infrastructure in place to handle the citizens’ needs. Only then can we leverage the benefits of technology.
Many start-up founders try to solve problems which interest venture capitalists. As a result, we are seeing a boom in e-commerce and gourmet start-ups. How do we encourage the youth to take risks and try to tackle the major problems that our country faces in agriculture, traffic management, water scarcity and so on?
We cannot compare social innovations with e-commerce startups. It is not a fair comparison as social innovations are primarily for charitable purposes while e-commerce ventures are commercial. So businesses are built with the idea of making money. Once you realize that an idea is not as glamorous as e-commerce, people are not amenable to the concept of pursuing it. Startups taking risks might not attract huge investment, however once the idea proves to be reliable, governments and venture capitalists will want to invest in the idea. So it is just a matter of one idea taking off, which will inspire others to do the same. But at the end of the day, unless a product makes profits in the same scale as that of e-commerce or any other start-up it will not attract investors.
Do you think that the facilities that are being provided for the youth match their aspirations ? What are the areas where things should change ?
No. We need ideas. You see, ideas were made in garages and have come out of labs which did not have adequate facilities. Ideas are not dependent on infrastructure but are a state of mind. And I think, we need to change our mindset. We should ensure that young minds aren’t stifled. We have these cultural barriers in our head. Parents have this notion that only two disciplines are worth pursuing. We need to work towards changing this mindset.
One of your inspirations is the Last lecture by Randy Pausch, if you were to give one such lecture what would be your key talking points?
I would want my children or for that matter all youngsters to be good human beings first and everything else next.
The interaction was supposed to be with the IT minister of Telangana but the person we met was a passionate entrepreneur who was trying hard for the development of his startup. At no point does he come off as a politician. Maybe, that is why he is the right man for the job.
T5E thanks the EML team for its cooperation in arranging this interview.