Remembering Mr. KPP Nambiar: Technology and Kerala’s Future

Keltron Oruma
30-June-2020

Keynote on the fifth anniversary of the demise of Mr KPP Nambiar

When I was asked if I would speak on this occasion, it did not take me a microsecond to say yes.

There are not too many people, throughout my professional career of over four decades, I have admired more or who has inspired me more than Mr. KPP Nambiar. It is an incredible privilege for me to speak in his memory.

I first heard of Mr. Nambiar when I read an article by him, when I was in high school, in a magazine named Science Today. He had written about transistors. He had been a pioneer in that area, having studied at the Imperial College in London and worked with leading companies in the early days of solid-state devices. 

Then, I got to meet him when I was a student in Trivandrum, and he was on a visit to advise the state on electronics development. I was immediately struck by his infectious energy, his quick laughter and his warmth. That meeting began a long association and a warm and enduring friendship that transcended the difference in our ages and positions.  

When I started work in Bombay in 1973, he was moving to Kerala, having been invited by Chief Minister Achutha Menon to set up the Kerala State Electronics Development Corporation, Keltron, of which he was the founding chairman and managing director.  It is so special and apposite that Mr. Sitharaman, who joined him as founding Technical Director, is with us today.

Keltron, India’s first state-run electronics venture, was a vehicle for Mr. Nambiar’s vast vision and became a model which was replicated across various states. He saw electronics manufacturing as a catalyst for economic development. To ensure that employment was created across the length and breadth of the state, he pioneered distributed manufacturing. And he brought women into the industrial workforce by fostering women’s manufacturing cooperatives.

Even more far-reaching, he brought in a culture of entrepreneurship based on technology and innovation. To his mind, the problems around one could yield to technology and to business creation. He saw that simple, real problems could be addressed with innovative products developed and manufactured in Kerala. His innovations ranged from voltage stabilizers to traffic control systems. He created the first state level Electronics Research & Development Centre. 

He believed in empowerment. He put his faith in young people and gave them big goals and big challenges.  And they rose to the occasion.

And he had a combination of courage and a certain boyish charm. He was daring and charming. Even an opponent could not say no to him.

Over the years, Keltron, owing to its culture of empowering talented people, spawned a number of entrepreneurs. The best of them have followed in his mould: daring and charming.  Just think of Suntec’s Nandakumar or NIIT’s Vijay Thadani.

Mr. Nambiar was a people magnet, you just wanted to be around him for the energy he exuded. He could thus attract talented people to leave the metropolis of Bombay to follow him to Trivandrum. He was a visionary and a man of action. He could dream big and turn those dreams into reality.

Through the years, I saw him in many roles, including as Chairman of the Indian Telephone Industries and then Secretary, Department of Electronics. In all these roles, he excelled as a visionary leader. On one of my visits to Delhi, I noticed how Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi consulted with him and relied on him to get things done.

My last meeting with Mr. Nambiar was in 2013, when he was bedridden but so well cared for by his wife Uma. I am so glad that Uma is with us in this gathering. He then managed to autograph a copy of his autobiography for me, and his signature was still strong, reminding me of the young and dynamic KPP Nambiar.

Mr. Nambiar was undoubtedly one of the builders of modern Kerala. When you see Kerala today as a hub of start-ups and witness the phenomenal growth of Technopark and Infopark, you can trace those successes directly to Mr. Nambiar, to both the institutions he built and the culture he nurtured.

In 1990, Chief Minister Nayanar led a team of dignitaries to America to study the possibilities of electronics and IT technology for Kerala.  Mr. Nambiar had organized this visit.  Industries Minister K R Gouri and Mr. Vijayaraghavan were on the delegation. I had the honor of arranging their visit to Silicon Valley; in fact, Mr Nayanar stayed at our home while there. The plan that Mr. Nambiar and I had devised was that this would be an educational visit, a study tour, one that would give the political leadership of Kerala a sense of the potential of high technology for the state’s development.

The group met with faculty at Stanford University and walked around the manufacturing facility of Apple in Cupertino, California where they talked to the workers and asked them probing questions. They met with the Silicon Valley office of the Singapore government who were actively wooing investors to that country. Chief Minister Nayanar and the delegation were impressed by Silicon Valley and carried back a vision to build a similar environment in Kerala.  And thus, Technopark, India’s first IT Park was born under the leadership of Mr. Nambiar and with the backing of Chief Minister Nayanar. Mr. Vijayaraghavan was its founder director, and he has over the decades since continued in Mr. Nambiar’s tradition of institution building.

I don’t think any of us on that tour of Apple could have imagined where technology would take the world over the next thirty years. Or indeed how far Technopark would come, employing tens of thousands, in one of the most salubrious and green work environments in the world.

What role will technology play in Kerala’s future? How should Kerala build on the foundation that has been created, starting with the founding of Keltron over 45 years ago and of Technopark 15 years later?

Kerala has many ingredients to become a state that leads in technology.  With a population of 35 million, boasting high levels of literacy, with its traditional cultural openness to new ideas from around the world, Kerala can provide a tech-savvy ecosystem as well as the right ingredients for the State to be the world’s next coveted IT destination.

Indeed, we already have many success stories in Kerala of entrepreneurs who have made their mark globally, nationally and regionally.

The Kerala Government, along with various industry bodies, is investing significantly to position “God’s Own Country” as a center for digital technology.

Investments in geographical clustering of organizations and incubation centres have enabled the development of a technology ecosystem.  Kerala today accounts for 15% of the 5,000-odd technology startups in the country – with one of the most enviable start-up cultures across the breadth of the country.

Young entrepreneurs from Kerala are already working on advanced technologies such as 3D printing, Internet of Things, Robotics Process Automation, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Machine Learning and Artificial intelligence.

Let me share a few thoughts on what Kerala can do to establish and execute on its technological and digital ambition.   

I would like to suggest two areas that are related to each other.

One, aim to become a leader in providing citizen centric, effective and empowered governance through digital services.

Two, promote an ecosystem that will foster digital industry. One must note that both these ideas find resonance in Mr. Nambiar’s pioneering work in Kerala.

A thorough survey must be made of the technologies which have potential to transform the economy and prioritize appropriate ones. Candidates would include artificial intelligence, blockchain and data analytics. Capability building initiatives should be launched in these priority areas.

The government can itself be a demand generator for frontier technologies and catalyze a market for such technologies, including AI and robotics, by increasingly deploying them in government operations.

As an example, there is great potential to promote transparency by piloting blockchain technology in areas ranging from land registration to road transport.

We have evidence that a strong commitment towards technology does attract companies to come, invest and grow. We have excellent examples in Kerala. For instance, UST Global has grown to over a billion dollars in revenues in just over a decade.  IBS Software Services is another such success story – the company provides solutions for the seamless functioning of the aviation industry including for ten of the premier twenty airlines. 

And there are other steps that Kerala should take, following its own path, to become a technology powerhouse. 

With the world facing its worst-ever health crisis, Kerala has clearly led the way in India, in dealing with Covid and flattening the curve. The “Kerala model” is being held up around the world as a success story.

With one of the best healthcare infrastructures in India, this a powerful opportunity area for tech-enabled businesses in Kerala. There is no better market in India to pilot technology enabled healthcare services. Kerala has withstood the test of two serious floods and another viral outbreak in recent years. Given the complexity, the range and the fragility of Kerala’s natural setting, as well as the State’s vulnerability to climate-change induced events, the application of technologies like AI and IoT have great potential in sectors like focused agriculture, just-in-time irrigation, integrated water management, disaggregated power generation, and  healthcare. 

Kerala exports talent to the world, with nearly 3 million people working overseas, and around 36% of the state’s GDP constituted by overseas remittances. This export is now under threat and we have seen the return of large numbers of expatriates. It is imperative for the state to transform its skilling ecosystem for succeeding generations to be in a good place via-a-vis the requirements of the fourth industrial revolution, whether they take these skills to other states and countries or use them in Kerala.

The Covid crisis has brought home the potential of remote working. Kerala should tap into this opportunity. Keralites should be able to serve global clients working from Kerala, at a scale that surpasses what is already happening. 

Developing a Kochi-Bangalore digital and technology corridor can further boost economic activity, through the exchange of knowledge and talent. Promoting connectivity between the two cities and linkages between businesses will help Bangalore-based businesses spill over into Kochi and boost employment here.

Manufacturing and IT go hand in hand, when it comes to development. The State can look at developing manufacturing clusters by promoting investments in technology-intensive sectors such as defense, pharma and food processing by attracting smart factories.

For success in the technological journey, and to further promote entrepreneurship, we must also engage evangelizers from the non-Government sector, organizations like TiE or successful entrepreneurs. I will also submit that expatriate Keralites should be roped in, especially the technology entrepreneurs. And US universities like MIT and Stanford have programs that encourage their faculty, students and alumni to deploy technologies developed there back here in India.

One of the great lessons from the pandemic is that we need to re-balance our relationships with nature and the physical environment, and find sweet spots between the imperatives of globalisation and localisation, while becoming even more frugal and innovative in our consumption of natural resources. We are also learning the critical importance of having an educated and empowered population, with vibrant local governance structures that truly reflect the will of communities. In these areas, Kerala has shown the way and is justly being celebrated globally as one of the geographies which is handling the pandemic truly well.

When this crisis dissipates, as it surely will, I believe that Kerala will emerge even stronger as a location that balances these new and emerging imperatives and consequently becomes a destination of renewed global interest for inward investment, travel, and tourism.

We are at the cusp of a new wave of opportunity, similar to what Chief Minister Nayanar and Mr. Nambiar saw in Silicon Valley thirty years ago when the idea of Technopark was born.  

As Kerala advances to take advantage of new opportunities with new technologies, it will be building on the vision and carrying forward the legacy of Mr. KPP Nambiar.