How Indore is looking beyond commerce and cricket to reach for the 'cloud'

8th Apr 2015
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It is amusing to see a giant replica of Statue of Liberty as a mascot of a residential complex, but that is how Indore is showing the world it has arrived!

Long held as the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh, Indore has always had aspirations of becoming a big city. In the past it went with the sobriquet ‘chota Bombay’, and why not when even a small group of traders in Bartan Bazar could boast of making crores of rupees in a single day; or when people like Seth Hukumchand established a textile empire way before the real Bombay had even heard of Dhirubhai Ambani.

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The New York City residential complex under construction on the Bypass Road in Indore. (Courtesy Dawn)

Money was never Indore’s problems. You name the latest car and chances were that so-and-so’s friend’s brother had it parked in his garage. Indore is the quintessential brat to its sober sibling Bhopal; restless and out to prove a point.

The year before last when I returned to Indore after a gap of nearly four years, it was heart-breaking to find the city unrecognisable. You could no longer saunter out for a hot dog banjo to Palasia’s Chappan Dukan for an evening snack without the fear of an SUV running you over. But what you could do was zip across the new Indore bypass cutting short the drive from Mhow Cantonment to MG Road by nearly a half. Where there were green fields of sugarcane and mustard, apartment complexes with names like Milan Heights and New York City have now sprouted – each offering unique attractions for people to make it their home, even if it is the Statue of Liberty.

“The more things change the more they remain the same,” says Mahesh Sharma, CEO of Flexituff International Limited, and Director of Indore Management Association. A long-time resident of the city, Sharma believes that the gleaming shopping malls, swanky five star hotels, towering skyscrapers, multiplexes, and a modern airport though good indicators of Indore’s economic progress, are by no means a reflection of the spirit of a city in transition.

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The evocative Rajwada from where Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar ruled; Indore was the seat of the Holkars.

“Change almost never fails because it is too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late,” Seth Godin. 

In Indore’s case change was inevitable. Though not in the same league as the metros, it was by no means tucked away in a corner, forgotten. Cricket and cricketers like CK Nayudu, Raj Singh Dungarpur and others have kept Indore in the news always. Convenient air, rail and road connections to Mumbai, Delhi, and Pune provide it with an ideal location to thrive. And though the transition period can easily be unsettling, my recent visit made me realise that beyond all the mindless real estate and infrastructure developments, Indore is, perhaps, putting its act together.

Indore grew because of large automobile manufacturing units, and the development of its Pithampur industrial belt. But IT is slowly gaining ground with Infosys and TCS setting up centres here,

says Shamit Dave, MD of Davesman India, who has in the past decade or so often thought of taking his business elsewhere, but not anymore.

Why is Indore ripe for information technology?

At the Global Investor Summit in Indore in October last year, the state government announced a number of sops for industries. It also allocated Rs 150 crores for Data Centre clusters, proposed to be one of its kind in India, with ambitions to even serve the needs of entire Asia in the future. (Read more about the Data Centre later in the story.) Narendra Sen, CEO of Emax Global and Founder of RackBank Data Centre, says, “The government is pulling out all stops to facilitate the entry of big players to set up their data centres in India, especially financial institutions.” Narendra is part of the core policy team of the Data Centre Park and a consultant to the project being promoted by MP State Electronics Development Corporation Ltd. (MPSEDC), the agency working towards promotion and implementation of IT and e-Governance.

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A visit inside the Rajwada Palace can be very rewarding. It is a treasure trove of priceless art and craft from the Holkar era.

Besides this, an additional Rs 100 crore startup fund has also been allocated for tech startups in the region, and M. Selvendran, Managing Director, MPSEDC, is keen to setup a Kochi-like Startup Village in Indore too.

Besides this, the MP government has a special BPO policy in place to attract BPO companies to set up businesses here. It is encouraging startups like Bangalore-based Rural Shores, which has a district/sub-district level BPO centre at Barwah, about 68 kms from Indore, where thousands of people from around 100 surrounding villages have received training. This in turn boosts the local economy of the region. Bigger players like Memphis too have a presence in Indore.

Many observers of the change sweeping the city in particular and the state at large say political stability is another factor that will help industrial and economic growth. “Unlike in places like Hyderabad where political instability is a concern, in MP we’ve had Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government for two consecutive terms. This helps,” says Jagdish Verma, a prominent industrialist and management expert. Verma points out that Indore has all the right ingredients to help it make a prosperous IT hub. “There are about 50 or more engineering colleges, besides IIT and IIM providing the fuel for growth of the IT sector,” he says. Interestingly, Indore is the only city in India which has both IIT and IIM.

Adds Mahesh Sharma,

Indore is an ideal crucible for experimentation. It is like an idea lab. The premise is if it can click in Indore, it can click anywhere. Interestingly, Airtel was the first to start its service from Indore, as was Radio Mirchi. PVR launched its Gold Class offer in Indore first.

Sharma feels Indore’s interesting demography of Gujaratis, Marathis, Punjabis and Bengalis allows for such experiments.

When Pushpendra Agrawal of msg91, one of the top SMS solution providers in India, came back to his hometown Indore after completing his MBA in Dubai, he thought it made sense to set up his business here. “This is a safe place. Of course, it is home,” he tells me, adding, “But more than that it is also cost effective for a first-time entrepreneur. You can hire people on a long term basis which otherwise in a big city like Bangalore is an expensive proposition.”

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The sabzi mandi in Nandlalpura, old Indore, where you can get an ounce of wisdom free with the vegetables.

Virat Kuntal of Twist Mobile, a Matrix funded company, echos Pushpendra’s sentiments. “I had to stay put in Indore for personal reasons. The job situation was very grim and I could see no option but to start up. “But the beauty of Internet economy is that it does not matter where you are located, as long as you have wifi you are fine. It worked out well for me because I got a talented bunch of people who stuck with me. It was easy to establish a rapport as all of them came from a similar background and lifestyle, which gave us an advantage,” he says. A developer’s starting salary is around Rs 10, 000 to Rs 15,000 in Indore, whereas in Bangalore it may go up to Rs 25, 000 to Rs 30,000. “The cost of living here is definitely cheaper. Add to that a low employee attrition rate, and what else does an entrepreneur need?”

In the Union Budget announcement this year, the Centre earmarked Rs 2 lakh crore budget for power in the state. “With an additional new plant of 2500 MW proposed in Khandwa, MP will have surplus power to meet the needs of the IT industry,” informs Narendra. Though land prices have gone up substantially in the city, prices in surrounding areas (about 30 odd kms) are relatively cheaper tempting big businesses to invest.

Why is a Data Centre Park such a big deal?

If local entrepreneurs’ enthusiasm to see Madhya Pradesh as the next go-to place for IT and ITes industry is matched by the state government’s will, then Indore may well become the next Bangalore. “In cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad where the development of IT gave rise to a thriving startup ecosystem, similarly, we hope Indore will be able to soon attract startups in a big way,” says Narendra.

The proposed Data Centre Park (DCP) is spread across a sprawling 100 acres, and the government has already proposed to invest Rs 150 crore into the project with Chief Minister Chouhan terming it as his ‘dream project’.

“Companies in India are paying five to six times more to data centres outside the country, especially to places like Singapore,” says Narendra. That is because when it comes to data and cloud, security and reliability call the shots and India lacks sufficient number of reliable data centres and hosting companies. As a result, 80% of the investment in cloud has gone outside the purview of Indian economy.

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This street never sleeps. Early morning crowd at Chappan Dukan (which is actually a street) lines up for the staple breakfast of Indore: 'Poha and jalebi'.

“Due to foreign locations, there’s a limit to how much latency we can enjoy. You will be shocked to know that 100 milliseconds of latency costs Amazon one per cent of its sales. Google penalizes websites for slow speed since it spoils user experience and the abandonment rate increases. Then there is the issue of security of your data. Imagine almost all of our data is stored outside the nation. This poses a serious threat to sensitive data of any country. The only logical way to meet this immediate need is to have a Data Park that would host reliable data centres at one centralized location,” he adds.

However, the establishment of a DCP is no joke. States Narendra,

The building of a Data Centre Park usually has three hurdles: political instability, unfriendly policies of the state and lack of infrastructure. It was fortunate that the new government initiated the Data Centre-friendly policies under the Digital India campaign. Moreover, the government allows 100 per cent FDI in IT Infrastructure.

Selvendran, Managing Director, MPSEDC, in a Press statement had said, “We are committed to generating IT business for the public and private sector in the state of Madhya Pradesh while also aligning to the government’s ‘Make in India’ vision. Not only will this DTP enable increased benefits for the Indian IT business but it also represents a significant milestone in putting India on the global map.”

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An Indori can consume the flavourful 'poha' anytime of the day.

There are many more reasons why a Data Centre Park will completely transform the way cloud and data are looked at in India today. Narendra says, "As far as growth in the Information Technology is concerned, I am quite patriotic. It excites me that a single Data Centre Park alone can attract huge investments and create thousands of jobs while catering to the online community which will have 35 crore Internet users by 2017."

Today, cloud is fast emerging as a new market. Cloud is no more meant only for businesses. By 2016, there will be 18 times more mobile data traffic as there was in 2011. This means that a majority of the world’s population in the form of end-users will be streaming, downloading, sharing, and sending and receiving data through cloud. Data today is growing by 300% and thus there is a tremendous growing need for cloud. This is just the beginning of using cloud in the world and in India. The Internet of Things will generate more and more data as the people get connected with more and more devices. “The only way this demand can be met is to have as many data center facilities as possible. We need to be future-ready from the start with data centre parks. We do not have a choice,” adds Narendra.

‘Samosapedia’ – union of old and new

Indore, the seat of the Holkars, has for ages drawn visitors to its doors who in turn have made it their home. “No matter which part of India you hail from, once in Indore, the city embraces you with such warmth that you don't even realise when you lost your regional identity and became an Indorian,” says Mahesh Sharma, explaining the essence of an Indore citizen. “Not only do you start relishing ‘sev-namkeen’ with your morning tea and all the meals but also get use to the quirky Indorian lingo. You quickly learn how to attend three wedding receptions in an evening in three distant corners of the city. You master the art of driving bang in the middle of the road without colliding into sitting cows. You may be late for other things, but you miraculously reach on time at an ‘uthawana’ (condolence meeting),” he adds.

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The golden, crisp 'jalebis' satisfy your soul on winter mornings.

But for all the praise there’s a cautionary note as well. “At times I am pained to see that Indore, once known as ‘shab-e-Malwa’, is fast giving up its claim to rapid urbanisation. It's unsettling to see how despite all our claims to progress, we failed in adding even one water reservoir. How, despite a rich heritage around us, we have failed to leverage Indore to its full tourist potential,” says Sharma.

And it is this very sensitivity towards ensuring that the spoils of development are shared equally with all its citizens that will prove how far Indore has succeeded.

At the moment, the challenge ahead of the average 'Indorian' is perhaps how to embrace technology. And who better to show them that than Rajiv Nema, a tech marketing professional in Silicon Valley, but popular as a YouTube actor with his ‘Rajiv Nema Indori’ comic acts. Click here to see what I mean.

 (Photos by the author)

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