By Sumit C
“My wife is overjoyed we’ve moved to Bhubaneswar from Bangalore. It takes minutes to get home from the airport, instead of hours,” quips Subroto Bagchi, co-founder and former chairman of Mindtree, one of the leading IT services companies of Bangalore.
The quip is made only half in jest. Bangalore’s transport infrastructure has failed miserably to keep up with its growth. This has a serious impact on productivity and work-life balance.
Bangalore has one of the lowest road densities for any large city – less than half of Delhi’s, points out Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, in a blog post. “The mobility of vehicles has slid from 40 kmph to 20 kmph, affecting the productive hours,” pointed out Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro, another one of Bangalore’s marquee IT companies, in a recent meeting with the state government.
We’re building a model smart city for the country and a great place to do business
And it’s not just transport that handicaps India’s Silicon Valley. Piles of garbage have led to annual outbreaks of dengue and power outages have forced businesses to install polluting diesel-burning electricity generators.
The state government keeps making promises to Bangalore’s tech community, but has done too little so far to visibly improve conditions in the city that contributes nearly half of the state’s GDP.
This is the context in which emerging tech hubs around the country are pitching to attract startups, entrepreneurs, and investments to their cities. The latest is Bhubaneswar, the capital city of India’s eastern state of Odisha. And in many ways, Bhubaneswar’s ambition to become one of India’s top three tech hubs, alongside Bangalore and Delhi, deserves to be taken the most seriously.
Three days ago, Odisha’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced a new policy with a slew of incentives for startups to be located in Bhubaneswar. Interestingly, the chief minister, flanked by his top bureaucrats, launched the Odisha startup policy in a Bangalore hotel – and not in Bhubaneswar.
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. Photo credit: TeachAIDS.
“We’re building a model smart city for the country and a great place to do business,” he declared in polished English to a large hall jam-packed with entrepreneurs, investors, and business honchos who had turned up to see if the ‘O’ in Odisha really represents ‘opportunity.’
These days, every other state government in India is coming out with a startup policy to attract entrepreneurs and investments. What makes the Odisha pitch different is that it is backed up with solid work on the ground.
A sprawling InfoValley is coming up fast in Bhubaneswar, a short distance from the airport. It’s an integrated “walk-to-work” township with both residential and commercial complexes, planned by Jurong Consultants of Singapore. The InfoValley includes a 216-acre electronics manufacturing cluster, already approved by the central government which has been giving a push to ‘Make-in-India.’
India’s top IT companies, Infosys, Wipro, TCS, and Tech Mahindra have already joined Subroto Bagchi’s Mindtree in setting up centers in Bhubaneswar to take advantage of the promised tech infrastructure and business-friendly policies. “You have a small window of opportunity here, so act fast,” the Mindtree co-founder told the Bangalore audience at the standing-room-only startup policy launch event.
For Subroto Bagchi, it is also a return to his roots, because he graduated from Utkal University in Bhubaneswar. The former chairman of Mindtree has now taken on the mantle of chairman of the Odisha skill development authority, with the rank of cabinet minister in the state government. Part of his agenda is to set up a tech institute and produce world class tech talent that will make a global brand out of being “trained in Odisha.”
It’s no idle boast. Bhubaneswar is already an educational hub with scores of engineering colleges, including the premier Indian Institute of Technology. There is also an Indian Institute of Management in the nearby city of Sambalpur in Odisha. And IIT Kharagpur is close by as well in the neighboring state of West Bengal.
Just take a look around the Bangalore startup scene and you will see tons of programmers and engineers who are Odia
So far Odisha has mostly exported its tech talent. You keep bumping into them In Bangalore. Subhendu Panigrahi, co-founder of education and hiring platform Venturesity; Prateek Panda, co-founder of mobile security firm AppKnox; Santosh Panda, founder of event ticketing platform Explara; and Ahimanikya Satapathy, co-founder of healthcare software provider DocEngage are among the more visible ones. One of India’s first VC-backed agritech startups, Milk Mantra, and its founder, Srikumar Misra, have their roots in Odisha, as does Ritesh Agarwal, founder of one of India’s highest funded startups, Oyo Rooms.
But it’s not just the founders. “Just take a look around the Bangalore startup scene and you will see tons of programmers and engineers who are Odia,” Subhendu Panigrahi tells Tech in Asia, speaking from the perspective of being an Odia himself as well as somebody who is in the business of training and placing tech talent. (Odia refers to the language of Odisha as well as the people of that state.)
Subhendu feels certain that if the Odisha government follows through on its plans to lay the groundwork for a tech hub, there will be a reversal in the brain drain. Startups located there will have to fork out less money for the same level of tech talent that they get in Bangalore. And it works out well for the programmers and engineers too because the cost of living is much lower in Bhubaneswar.
Most of all, there’s pride in building up the local tech ecosystem. “People have this sense of belonging in the smaller cities. There is a hunger to make a mark and do good for their city,” says Subhendu. “That kind of hunger is lesser in bigger cities. There’s hunger in Indore, Jaipur, Coimbatore, Bhubaneswar… people want to do things out there.”
What it has needed is an enabling environment to ebb the flow of talent out of Odisha. And now, Naveen Patnaik has set out to be the catalyst for that change.
Temple town to smart city
Bhubaneswar has an ancient heritage and is known as the temple city of India. But now it has a new avatar.
Earlier this year, the Indian government held a “smart cities challenge” to encourage better urban planning and digital infrastructure. You guessed it: Bhubaneswar came out on top of the heap of 97 cities assessed on a number of parameters. Pune came in second. The World Bank has also marked Bhubaneswar as being among the three best places to do business in India.
That’s not all. It has one of the most stable governments in the country, with Naveen Patnaik enjoying his fourth consecutive term as chief minister. He’s the leader of a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, named after his late father Biju Patnaik, who was earlier the chief minister of Odisha. Good governance is one of the main planks that Naveen Patnaik has used to keep the major national parties, the BJP and Congress, from taking the reins in his state.
Odisha government making a pitch to entrepreneurs in Bangalore.
Odisha government making a pitch to entrepreneurs in Bangalore.
When you add all that up, you can see the potential for Bhubaneswar becoming one of the three leading tech hubs of the country by 2020 – which is the goal Naveen Patnaik has set.
Ritesh Agarwal of Oyo Rooms, recalling his formative years of growing up in the small town of Rayagada in Odisha, says that he always knew the state had some of the best talent in the world. “The only missing thing was exposure.”
Now he looks forward to helping nurture local entrepreneurs “to build companies larger than those in Bangalore.” He has made a start by contributing to the framing of the Odisha startup policy and also setting up an Oyo training facility in Odisha.
It takes time to build a tech startup culture. Bangalore has a legacy going back decades to the setting up of IT companies like Infosys. It will take Bhubaneswar a long time to emulate Bangalore’s network of mentors, incubators, and co-working spaces, depth of tech and managerial talent, and most of all, the entrepreneurial mindset and risk-taking attitude.
What’s good to see is the Odisha government’s initiative to give this a push, whereas it’s mostly private enterprise which has made Bangalore a leading startup hub despite many hurdles. Competition between state governments to provide good governance to attract business, earn more revenue, and improve the quality of life of its people – or get thrown out of power – is the best hope for India. Perhaps Naveen Patnaik’s pitch to entrepreneurs and investors will also prod the Karnataka government to pay more attention to what it must do to help its capital city Bangalore maintain its status as India’s Silicon Valley.
One thing Bhubaneswar can’t beat, though, is the cool clime of Bangalore – one of the original reasons for it becoming India’s Silicon Valley. Bhubaneswar, being a seaside city, is hot and humid like Singapore. Now, can it also be like Singapore in governance and infrastructure?