Beyond IT and fintech, Andhra Pradesh is looking to become India’s happiest state, says Nara LokeshThimmaya Poojary
Affable, open minded and determined to achieve the goals of the state. This is Nara Lokesh, Minister for IT & Communication, Panchayat Raj & Rural Development, Andhra Pradesh. The man is in a hurry to get things done. Being the son of Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu does not give him any special benefits and this young minister, with degrees from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, has billion-dollar dreams for the young state while connecting with the masses.
In an interview with YourStory at the recently concluded Vizag Fintech Festival, the minister spoke extensively on his various plans for the state, his family and very importantly his father. “It is very important to have your heart in what you are doing. If you deliver, things will take shape,” he said. Here are edited excerpts.
YourStory: How are you differentiating Andhra from other states?
Nara Lokesh: One needs get a little bit of background. The state was bifurcated in 2014, and that time we had the lowest per capita income in South India, which was about Rs 82-83,000 per annum. In the last four years, India’s average per capita growth has been around Rs 25-27,000 and we have grown to Rs 45-60,000, which is a huge bump.
The reason for that is very clear, it is because of Mr Naidu. We have a great brand ambassador in Mr Naidu who, in in his first stint, gave a lot of confidence to the industry and for us, that has really worked. We have attracted marquee names in IT: HCL, Conduent, Paytm, Deloitte and Zoho. In automotive, we have Isuzu, Kia Motors - which is the single largest FDI in India - Apollo Tyres…(also) Bharat Forge, Asian Paints etc. We have converted 216 medium to large investments in the state of Andhra Pradesh and we are second to Gujarat only by two.
If one recalibrates, we started with no state capital, and from there getting an address, getting the world excited about Amaravati. In terms of ease of doing business we were ranked number two in 2015 and number one in 2016 and 2017. Mr Naidu is very clear that we have to be number one by a mile. As the IT Minister, this going to be a reality.
We have the e-Pragati initiative where the question is how do we eliminate all the touchpoints between the citizen and the government? We are third-least corrupt state in the country, according to online surveys. Things are working and the reason for this is Mr Naidu’s vision and direction.
YS: What is this magic of Sri City that is employing a large number of women?
Early on, we recognised that electronics is going to be a massive sector that is going to grow and Andhra should ride the wave. When Mr Naidu visited a lot of these plants like Foxconn in Shenzhen, one thing which caught our attention was the nice environment where people worked. Then came the entire debate: why cannot women do it? The Foxconn CEO told us that our labour laws did not allow it. In 30 days flat, we got the law out to enable women to work in (all three) shifts and are the first state to do this. At Foxconn, there are 18,000 women working in three shifts. Today, it is about giving that dignity of labour and sense of empowerment to women. If one looks at all the emerging economies, women play a key role.
YS: Andhra Pradesh is so focused on giving opportunity to women in industries. Is this a clear mandate or by default?
It is not a mandate or a default but how the leadership thinks. Mr Naidu is all about empowerment and at home, both his wife and daughter-in-law work in the family business. This has been happening since early 1990s. The culture of the leader flows through (into the) entire policy. The big challenge as a country is, how do you create a safe environment? Foxconn is a clear example where 99 percent of workers are women. The salaries of some women has gone up from Rs 10,000-12,000 to Rs 30,000 (per month) in three years. The other case study is Brandix in Visakhapatnam, which is an all-woman team where close to 20,000 of them make products for Victoria’s Secret. It is an amazing transformation at the bottom of pyramid.
Mr Naidu is now thinking about creating the entire ecosystem. We are working on the project of giving housing so that there is a self-contained ecosystem.
YS: As the son of such a big leader, how has it been growing up under his influence? Was there some pressure to live up to expectations?
Every leader has their own trait. I’m the third generation in the family. It was my grandfather who started his political party (Telugu Desam Party – TDP). I see this as a great opportunity and have been lucky to be educated in Hyderabad. I did my undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University, worked with the World Bank for two years and was lucky to get into Stanford (Business School). I was lucky to have the exposure and education, so I wondered, how to do I bring this back to everyone in Andhra Pradesh? It is exposure, access which makes all the difference. Personally, it was not pressure: I like this, want to do this and that is why I’m here.
YS: What was that one thing that you were inspired by from your father?
I was telling my mom the other day, when I was growing up, I had decided that I will never be like my father because I never got to see him. He is extremely hardworking and there would be entire weeks where I would not see him. These days, I do not get see my son. It is an interesting paradox as a family. I had two extremes, a grandfather who was very socialist and Mr Naidu was a capitalist, but now of course, he is lot more in the centre. I have the genetic gene pot in that sense (smiles).
YS: Did you ever think that you would enter into politics, having worked with World Bank and having studied abroad?
(The) World Bank (job) was out of passion. At Stanford, there is an essay (when you apply) for an MBA, on what matters to you most and why. When I applied in 2006, I was quite clear I want to bring positive leadership in politics. I have the legacy, the right education and (it) is the right fit for me. From then on, I clearly knew the journey. I want to serve the masses and given that, in politics there is a farther reach and impact. It is massive. If one wants to see the change in society, be the change.
YS: Minister, you come across as a genuinely nice person!
(Laughs) I am a genuinely nice person.
YS: How do you maintain this given the turbulent nature of politics?
I think the entire electorate has changed, as there are a lot of younger and educated voters coming in. As long as politicians are true to what they are committing, I see an opportunity. Even if you see in terms of legacy, it is not about families, as quite a few parties have become irrelevant (because they didn’t) change, learn, appeal to their voters. Voters want to be very clear - either you are black or you are white.
YS: Minister, you are also digitally savvy. Does it come naturally?
Social media is a great enabler to connect with the masses, the electorate. I have used social media to learn from the citizens. We track every social media message that they send to the government. It is a nice, proactive engagement mechanism, especially for the youth: how do I connect with them and solve the problems?
YS: You like the dialogue?
Yes. If politicians are true, then we should be open. If you have got a problem, come to me, we will try and solve it. I will not promise that I will solve everything under the sun but I will make an attempt.
YS: The Andhra Pradesh government has lot of outsiders working for them. Was it a conscious decision?
That is something we realised early on. Mr Naidu had done it in the early 1990s. For me personally, I am inspired by the Singapore government. They had students coming back from Ivy League schools and they were getting paid higher than the private sector. For us, it was about getting the right team and my ministries to the next level. The Panchayat Raj and Rural Development is a very dull ministry. We have brought an new IT team and demystified Panchayat Raj and Rural Development, I believe in democratisation of data. Once you have these young people who have the exposure and the education, they can sell Andhra Pradesh.
YS: Does your father question you or is there some partiality?
Absolutely. When Cyclone Titli – which struck Eastern India recently – happened, the second day we were called by Mr Naidu and criticised for the shoddy work. I proposed one minister for each mandal and asked him to give us 48 hours. In 72 hours, we got everything in control. With Mr Naidu, it is not a one-way monologue. All the 15 ministers moved from the capital to the field. In 20 days, we had given money to the affected people, power was restored in 48 hours (more than 40,000 power poles were uprooted). The devastation was massive and coconut trees which were growing for 40 years were decimated. Despite all this, wherever I went, people gave me coconut water. Coconut water is such a personal connect. That is what makes India unique.
YS: What is your vision for the two portfolios that you handle?
I call the IT ministry as the smaller part of portfolio (smiles). I am in a unique position because I am handling Panchayat Raj and IT and keep saying one is about Bharat and the other is about India. Can I marry the two things? That is where the excitement lies. In Panchayat Raj, we rate gram panchayats on a 10-star scale based on various parameters and are only state to do this. The mandate is that by 2022, all gram panchayats have to be 10-star rated. The Government of India has this Mission Antyodaya, where it marks gram panchayats, and 55 in the top 100 are from Andhra Pradesh.
In IT & electronics it is different. When I came to Andhra, it was literally not on the IT map and we literally lost everything to Hyderabad. Now we have been able to generate 36,000 jobs and build massive momentum and energy. IT alone can be a $100 billion ecosystem for AP, electronics will be a $250 billion ecosystem. Andhra Pradesh aspires to be first trillion-dollar economy in India. So, it will be $350 billion from IT and electronics and 10 stars for all gram panchayats by 2022. These are my two clear targets.
We speak less and do a lot more, great talkers do not deliver. It is about being very persistent and the great example of that is Mr Naidu. I have been a minister for 16-17 months now and have gone home only six times.
YS: How does your wife deal with the busy schedule?
I think she has stopped dealing with it. (Laughs) My son definitely misses me and is quite expressive. Brahmani (my wife) runs our dairy business – Heritage. She is a Stanford MBA with a summa cum laude. She runs the business and keeps my credit cards flowing. Women have the cheque book in our house.
YS: What is the happiness quotient that the Andhra Pradesh government is talking about?
Happiness has to be part of our culture, and we have taken a stand that by 2029, we will be the happiest state. We make 15 million calls every month to citizens, where we get feedback on the government services. Over a period of time, we want to build a very accountable society. Start with satisfaction then move towards happiness. These are two fundamental building blocks that go together.
YS: Minister, there is nothing in specific for women entrepreneurs across the country. Your views?
We are building SME parks just for women. As a country, we are not gender-sensitive and we should do something about it.