Thiruvananthapuram: On the top floor of a white, seven-storeyed office building, Divas Sadasivan and several artists look over the storyboards of their latest creation, a cartoon series called The Adventures of Hanuman.
In it, the mythical Hindu god—probably the only cartoon superhero to attain his
superpowers through meditation and yoga—helps a skateboarding teen save the human race from Rock Shasa, a corporate billionaire demon in a double-breasted suit.
Riding the bandwagon: A cartoonist at work at Toonz Animation in Thiruvananthapuram, where more than 125 companies are forming yet another tech corridor in India.
“It sends a good message to the young people about what’s important,” said Sadasivan, the soft-spoken public relations guru for Toonz Animation India Pvt. Ltd, which handles animation projects for dozens of Western studios, including Disney, Paramount and Marvel.
For now, people in Kerala have little to fear from billionaire demons. The region, with a population of 32 million, is better known for its beaches.
But the cartoon plot reveals a budding uneasiness among some people here as the state’s popularly elected Communist government seeks to cash in on the country’s IT boom, embracing an industry that has long flourished in free-market capitalism.
Kerala’s fledgling tech industry has attracted hundreds of tech firms from the West, raking in more than $60 million (Rs243 crore) last year, a tiny but growing slice of India’s $50 billion tech industry. It’s a promising start for a state that has shunned global corporate behemoths such as Microsoft Corp. and Coca-Cola Co.
“Communism is a dynamic ideology and it keeps changing with the times,” said Radhakrishnan Nair, the CEO of Technopark, a government-owned 336-acre campus for about 16,000 IT professionals. The park is the heart of the tech boom in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital.
“There’s nothing that prevents the Communist government here from bringing in outside ideas, outside investments and enterprises,” he said.
The promise of big money is already changing Thiruvananthapuram’s landscape.
Crowding the roadside posters of Che Guevara and red flags with the gold hammer and sickle are huge billboards for Western-style bling: diamond-studded jewellery, fancy watches and German-made cars.
Ground has been cleared for a high-rise condominium called CyberPalms with Western-style amenities such as wireless broadband, a swimming pool, and reliable electricity—rare in a country where power outages and rolling brownouts are routine.
Technopark is expanding at almost superhuman speed, fuelled largely by the US companies outsourcing their call centres, software development and back-office tasks. Of the nearly 130 companies at Technopark, about 70% are US-owned.
With many IT companies in India’s other tech corridors—Bangalore, New Delhi and Chennai—experiencing problems such as crowded roadways and shortages of skilled labour, a growing number of them are turning to Kerala, which has a large pool of skilled labour.
And the quality-of-life indicators in Kerala are far above the national average in terms of life expectancy, health care, and education.
Literacy rates in Kerala—for both boys and girls—are about 95%, the highest in India. And Kerala’s Communist-run government is widely perceived as one of the least corrupt in the country.
Still, it would take more than that to attract people like Shashi Kumar, 29, a software developer from Bangalore who was vacationing in Kerala.
“In Bangalore there are listings for IT jobs in Thiruvananthapuram all over, but this place is seen as a backwater,” Kumar said. “The jobs aren’t as well paid compared to places like Bangalore or New Delhi, but if they did I would consider working here.”
Also, there’s a perception that Kerala is not exactly friendly to foreign investors. Kerala’s workers tend to be more conscious of their rights, a consciousness that has spawned an unusual number of strikes and protests.
Last year, the state government banned the use of Microsoft operating systems for its 12,500 high schools, part of a plan to get its high school students to learn free, open-source operating systems such as Linux.
Three years ago, protesters in Kerala shut down a Coca-Cola bottling plant, claiming that the plant depleted groundwater for the region’s farmers.
Earlier this month, many tourists and business people were stranded by a citywide taxi strike, part of a larger protest to get the government to extend health-care benefits to informal-sector workers.
As Sadasivan, the PR guru, marches through the paper-strewn offices of Toonz Animation, he stops to referee an argument among some cartoonists huddled over a computer screen, something about how the cartoon’s background should look in a specific scene.
In a few minutes, the matter is settled and Sadasivan makes his way to the cartoon editing room, but his eyes are drawn to a dramatic scene from an upcoming computer game produced by Toonz.
“There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the next Silicon Valley,” he said, marvelling at the images on the screen. “I think it is being near the ocean that makes people more creative.”