Enterprise Led Development in Kerala - Visit to Technopark and Thanal

Thursday December 30, 2010,

7 min Read

Tata Jagriti

The Tata Jagriti Yatra has reached Kerala, God’s own country. Coconut trees, enchanting backwaters and piercing sunlight reflecting in the estuaries remind one of how wonderful creation is. There is in fact no joy as great as the joy of creation. An entrepreneur knows this best. Taking the spirit of the yatra one step ahead, on the fourth day of the yatra, the yatris visited two unique role models, leading development in Kerala.

The day began early as 400 Yatris assembled on the platforms of Kochuvelli station, and were directed by Yatra volunteers into buses that took them to Trivandrum. In less than half an hour, the buses reached the much awaited destination, where exciting role model interactions were held, with G. Vijayraghavan, Founder CEO, Technopark and Usha and Jay Kumar, Founders, Thanal.

G. Vijayraghavan, Founder CEO, Technopark, was the first to speak. His is an exciting entrepreneurial journey. Founder of India’s first technology park and among the three largest IT parks in India today, he is a man of ethics, integrity and incomparable foresight. He conceptualized this venture back in late 1980s, when India was still in the shackles of state-controlled policies. How did he spot the opportunity? He explains, “I was attending a conference on what Kerala does to encourage the electronics industry and felt that there was a lot that could be done. I found out that Singapore, Taiwan and the Silicon Valley were the places with most developed electronics industry and research further to find that all these places had a ‘Technopark’. That is when I decided to bring this concept to Kerala.” Though many people criticized his ideas, on the ground that such plans would not work out in a place like Kerala, he went ahead with a positive spirit, “I had nothing to lose. As one of my friends pointed out, if I failed, people would say that it’s because it’s Kerala, and if I succeeded they’d say I could do it, in spite of the fact that it was Kerala.”

Fighting Corruption

One of the most inspiring qualities that Vijayraghavan displays is an uncompromising attitude towards corruption, to such an extent that when he left as the CEO of Technopark in 1997, he was drawing a salary of only Rs. 13000. He advises the young entrepreneurs, “There is a very thin line between what is right and what is not right. You must identify that line and never cross it. It is always the society that corrupts. A minister cannot be corrupt without corrupt officers supporting him.” Even with a strong value system and zero tolerance for corruption, he managed to scale up Technopark to a spread of over 300 acres, and about 2.1 square feet of build-up space, hosting over 120 IT and ITES companies and creating direct employment for 25000 and indirect employment for 75000 individuals. Today, its role in enterprise-led development in Kerala is that of an incubator, facilitator and a change agent. More and more people have the courage to start-up because of the precedent he has set. His humbling persona betrays the magnificence of his achievements. He has worked closely with the government at all stages and has never given in to corrupt forces. Probably that is also what makes him one of the most inspiring entrepreneurs that India will ever see.

Environment and beyond

G. Vijayraghavan has set a model for business entrepreneurship with a strong social impact in terms of development in Kerala. At the same time, enterprise-led development is incomplete without social entrepreneurship. The yatris next explored Thanal, a brainchild of Usha and Jay Kumar. What started as an informal networking initiative for organisations interested in protecting the environment is now also working effectively towards food diversity, chemical safety, waste management, wildlife and biodiversity by way of research, campaigning and advocacy.

Jay Kumar studied Biology and also holds a Masters degree in Sociology. What motivated him to start Thanal? He explains, “One of my professors in college was very passionate about wildlife. He inspired this passion in me. As a student, I joined the campaign for the Silent Valley forests. Later, I worked for the Indian Institute of Science and WWF. I quit my job in 1996 and started Thanal.” As I discussed his venture further, I sensed a certain hesitation in his voice at the mention of ‘entrepreneurship’. Not being able to resist the urge, I asked him if my observation made any sense to him. By then, he had already been surrounded by enthusiastic youngsters who wanted to know more about farmer problems and agricultural practices. Yet, noticing my question, he smiled and answered, “For me, everything comes down to doing what you really like, to be able to choose what you want to do. I don’t want to be motivated by commercial aspects, which ‘entrepreneurship’ has come to denote these days. It is more about working with the community and sharing knowledge. As a community, our operating systems, our values are gone. Whatever cause you wish to support, it has to be driven by people.”

Usha had a story of her own. Reminiscing her days as a young girl, growing up in a small village in Kerala, she described how community symbolized a feeling of security for her. When she grew up, she took a job in the field of agriculture but soon realized that it was not going to help the farmers, “I wasted six years but it taught me what not to do. I could see the problems with chemical methods of agriculture. The real understanding really came when I met a couple in Trivandrum, who suggested the book ‘Silent Spirit’ to me. I read about the problems of chemicals. They are being used by illiterate farmers without any regulations. Today, with the support of our Agriculture Minister, Kerala has become the first Genetically Modified (GM) free state in India.

Awakening the audience to the idea of entrepreneurial interventions, Usha explained, “Social entrepreneurship does not end in building something. It is about engaging the government to get our control back. What good is a democracy if our rights remain limited to voting? We need to understand and exercise our responsibilities towards a cause that inspires us.”

Women in Entrepreneurship

Thanal has also initiated a material substitution programme in their ‘zero waste’ initiative. As a part of it, they have built a coalition of women entrepreneurs from various groups such as SEWA, Pioneer, Sakhya paper bags, etc. Take the case of Seena, who attended a training programme in paper bags by Thanal in 2002 and later joined them in this women’s initiative. Seena explains, “I wanted to work on paper products and replace plastic. I brought the women groups together and also completed a project with funding of Rs 2 lakhs, under our Pioneer paper brand. This has been a fantastic opportunity for us.”

Usha and Jay Kumar are people from humble backgrounds and small beginnings, who followed their passion of protecting and nurturing the environment and made a huge impact, and elicited the support of the government. It wasn’t easy. For many years, they persisted and kept pitching their demands to the government. So did Vijayraghavan. Probably the biggest reason why these entrepreneurs have reached this far is also that they never compromised on their values or their vision.

- Unnati Narang

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