Pune and IT – will the romance last?


A quick snapshot of Pune before the IT days – a quiet paradise


Before the IT moguls overran the city, Pune was a beautiful town nestled amongst the hills – a minor range of mountains – that one met with after crossing the mammoth Sahyadri range while traveling from Mumbai eastward. Pune was a historic city – full of stories of the heroics of Shivaji and his successors of the great Maratha kingdom. Pune was a great cultural center – where even the milkman hummed classical music and every household had at least one musician. Pune was said to be full of highly intelligent and intellectual people, so much so that there are legends of outsiders facing surprise humiliation in their short debates with the Pune rickshaw-wallas. Pune was endowed with natural beauty – the rolling hills were so well interconnected that one could practically walk over the hilltop (like walking in clouds) and reach any place in the city. Pune was very green – the lush garden bungalows and tree-lined avenues of the city attracted retired army generals, old businessmen, and even rich foreigners to retire in the city. Pune had a heavenly weather – harried Mumbaikars made Pune their vacation spot during the hot summers. In winter Pune became a hill-station with the mercury flirting with zero degrees. In summer Pune rarely got too hot – the cool mornings and evenings dominated and sandwiched the somewhat warm afternoons. During monsoon, the city resembled a tropical paradise – minus the tropical heat and the bane of insects. One could walk just with a hat in the cool showers and marvel at the fantastic potpourri of greenery and colorful flowers.


All in all, Pune was a coveted destination of students, scholars, tourists, retired folks, and so on.


What led to the emergence and growth of IT in the city?


Pune had always been renowned for its educational institutions providing engineering, management, and liberal arts education. The city was recognized as the cultural capital of Maharashtra and Oxford of the East. This reputation along with its salubrious natural environment made it a magnet for ambitious and smart people from all over the country. Punekars were known to pursue creative and intellectual hobbies – including music, literature, theater, architecture, history, and philosophy. The city had literary pundits who developed the first dictionaries for modern and ancient languages. The first Indian who recognized the power of the English language, Vishnu Chiplunkar, was a Punekar. The city had for a long time foreign language centers providing instruction on German, Russian, and Japanese languages among others. The city had famous researchers studying basic sciences like Mathematics and Physics. People studied esoteric subjects like Vedic Mathematics and Administrative Skills of Shivaji. The city also demonstrated its business orientation through its famous research and teaching institutions for Economics (Gokhale Institute) and Banking (NIBM).


Pune had a strong entrepreneurial streak. It was said jokingly that every Punekar was an institution – which meant people here were capable of conceptualizing and implementing their own ideas. There were a large number of small-scale industries in the MIDC belt of Pimpri-Chinchwad, and many more home-based industries all over Pune providing all sorts of products and services. The city had seen nationally known institutions like NCL, NIV, and IUCCA take root and thrive. It had seen the emergence of product design-oriented industry, like the automotive, electronics, and biotechnology companies.


Considering this strong intellectual and entrepreneurial setting of Pune, it is no surprise that the highly challenging and cerebral aspect of computers and software captured the imagination of the intellectuals of Pune and they lapped it up like fish adapting to water. The city today has the highest PC penetration per household in the nation. Pune has demonstrated its intellectual streak in the IT sector also – for example through the supercomputing initiative of CDAC that produced an indigenous, (relatively) inexpensive supercomputer in a short time.


Some of these same reasons have caused the subsequent phenomenal growth of the IT industry in Pune. A few more factors that were favorable compared to other cities: stable law and order situation (low crime rates), political stability (no riots or strikes), lower real-estate rates and overall cost of living, better electricity/water infrastructure, a tolerant cosmopolitan populace, and higher quality of life due to access to a variety of cultural, educational, recreational, entertainment, and sports facilities. The expressway to Mumbai brought many of the facilities of Mumbai like the international airport and financial institutions within easy reach of Pune. The communications infrastructure is well developed and it is possible to get broadband access from offices as well as homes. People from all over the country and even the world not only flock to Pune, but also make it their permanent home, making talent retention less of a problem. The State Government has encouraged IT growth by creating software technology parks like the Hinjewadi IT Park.


What is the IT scenario today in the city?


Pune now hosts a variety of IT companies. Many of the Indian powerhouses like Infosys, TCS, and Wipro have large facilities in the city. Major players in the high-end outsourced product development (OPD) segment, like Aztecsoft and Persistent have large presence here. Well-known foreign corporations like T-mobile, Amdocs and Symantec have set up shops here. Numerous start-up companies like Nevis Networks have their design and development centers in Pune. Between all these companies, Pune covers a wide range of IT activities like Product Engineering, Product Maintenance, Software Testing, System Integration, Custom Application Development, Professional Services, and Consulting. All existing players are growing at the rate of 20% to 40%. The city also continues to receive new entrants every day who come to explore partnerships with local companies and/or possibilities of opening their own design/development centers.


The IT enabled services (ITES) sector is probably doing even better. It is like a green-field sector for India since practically any type of business that uses computing is a candidate for outsourcing. Pune hosts companies that offer customer support (call centers), technical product support, product design (CAD/CAM) services for mechanical engineering and automobile sector, medical transcription services for doctors, bioinformatics services for healthcare industries, and financial services.


The companies in Pune are still far away from creating any intellectual property (IP) of world standard. Bulk of the work still involves implementation of plans and designs sent from overseas, except for a few companies like Harbinger that have indigenously developed products for the global market.


How has IT been a stimulating factor for the growth and development of the city?


It is quite evident that IT & ITES has contributed significantly to the growth of the city in the last few years (since 2000). It has had direct impact on the demand in the infrastructure, construction, healthcare, and hospitality sectors. It has propelled the city’s economy in a high gear, causing huge increase in the number of schools and colleges; entertainment and shopping centers, and growth of many consumer-oriented market segments. Most banks are now computerized and they even offer Internet banking. Pune airport now is as busy as its railway station, and it has put Pune on the national air network. Punekars don’t need to visit Santa Monica to see what a promenade looks like – they have it right on their own MG road; with wireless access to the Internet.


IT also has brought world standards to Pune – trends and things that were only visible on TV a few years ago are now common sights on the streets of Pune. The city is now highly cosmopolitan – increasingly Indian and also taking on international shades. Punekars now expect work and residential environments to be at par with global standards. It is indeed a golden age for architects, interior designers, and construction engineers. The globally aware citizens of Pune are consuming large quantities of international cuisines, branded clothing, and the latest gadgets. They are frequenting health clubs and bowling alleys. They are purchasing private transportation like trendy motorbikes and Japanese cars. They are traveling more and farther in the country as well as abroad. Clearly the overall economy of the city has gone into overdrive, resulting in increased tax revenues for the local government. The city is laying new roads and townships to cope with the exploding growth of the city’s population. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is probably the best example of the infrastructure-related benefits the IT-fueled economy has brought about.


How will you define the empowerment of the city resulting from the IT sector?


The IT sector and the consequential economic boom have raised Pune’s status on the national map. Pune’s improved air connectivity with other Indian cities and even a few international destinations is evidence of the city’s arrival on the global map. Besides its previous sobriquet as the “Oxford of the East”, it now is recognized as the top provider, in Maharashtra state, of IT and ITES services.


The IT sector has ushered in many tools that empower the city and its citizens. E-governance, for example, allows people to access government services without having to deal with the bureaucracy. One can obtain a birth certificate for his child from home by typing in the child’s date of birth. The right-to-information legislation has been made meaningful by the IT infrastructure that allows citizens to access government information sites. Citizens can also voice their complaints or launch an agitation all through the Internet medium.


The IT sector’s hunger for communication facilities has ensured that all citizens and other institutions now can avail of landlines, wireless connectivity, and broadband access.


The IT professionals have been empowered to achieve financial independence much earlier than was possible for previous generations, thus allowing them to freely consider all types of possibilities to pursue in their lives.


But the true empowerment of the city – through which the city is able to influence and impact the state’s and the country’s state of affairs in some way – is still far away, as we shall discuss in the paragraphs on IT’s future in Pune below.


What challenges does the IT industry face today?


The IT sector has opened up tremendous lucrative career opportunities for young professionals. Young people are desperate to get on to the IT bandwagon at any cost, but unfortunately they are not always clear about how to achieve that. Proper career counseling is practically absent. The education system, although growing at a fast pace, is not able to offer good quality training due to unavailability of good faculty and haphazard curriculum. The city’s historic educational strengths of core knowledge and deep understanding are giving way to job-oriented skill-based education, which is resulting in a large number of professionals who only know how to accomplish very specific tasks, but do not have deep understanding of computing technologies nor do they have the broader perspective of the career they want to build.


IT professionals are jumping headlong into their highly paid jobs, and are becoming victims of many diseases at a young age due to unhealthy habits, and inadequate training on how to balance work and health and personal life. The city’s crumbling road-infrastructure and increasing air pollution is hurting Pune’s citizens who have to commute long distances.


What future does IT hold for the city?


According to popular surveys like the Gartner survey conduced in June 2006, Pune is perceived to be ‘excellent’ for skills availability and retention, ‘very good’ for cost of living and quality of life, ‘good’ for access (for customers who want to avail of the services) and political support, and ‘fair’ for infrastructure. On all these fronts, the city is perceived to be making improvements.


There is no doubt that Pune has a great potential to become a top-tier hub for IT and ITES. Companies already in the city continue to expand at a fast pace; new multi-national entrants like Microsoft have definite plans to establish their facilities; and scores of smaller companies continue to send their representatives to explore the waters and make preliminary plans for their own design centers. We will see entrepreneurs who will start helping the big IT houses by focusing on niche problem areas. We will see entrepreneurs tackling high-end services and product development. IT is definitely here to stay and flourish. The only open questions are – how much will it grow, how long will it grow, and how will it impact the city.


For Pune to ensure a healthy and long-term growth of IT and indeed its overall economy, and to ensure a positive and long-lasting impact on the city, it cannot allow status-quo as it exists today. Some of the problems of public infrastructure and inadequate educational infrastructure are already mentioned above. The list of problems is long and well-known, for example: poor roads, power crunch, poor airport facility, poor city planning, no pollution control, lack of dependable public transport, and so on.


So far the growth has taken place without much planning and visionary thinking. Going forward the local government needs to provide visionary leadership and form strategic alliances with industry and academic leadership to deal with the city’s current crisis and plan for the long-term future. The leaders must not get complacent about the dubious fact that “Pune is better than Bangalore”. It is not an achievement, nor will it be true for long. It needs to look at San Jose, its sister city, or at Singapore as a role model. It needs to resurrect and preserve its DNA of being the intellectual center of the country’s IT activity. Instead of going for volume business, it can become a true silicon valley by promoting start-ups that will experiment with innovative new ideas. The universities and colleges need to promote all-round education like they used to in the past – education that includes languages, basic sciences, economics, and liberal arts, and not just skill-based courses. They need to collaborate actively with the industry to ensure students get a balanced dose of theory and practice. They need to go beyond fulfilling the short-term vision of meeting today’s job requirements. The city also needs to invest in its people, not just IT people – by providing basic services like healthcare and safety, common public services like libraries and parks, and promoting the cosmopolitan and secular culture.


Pune has a great advantage as compared to other cities – it has a huge population of experts – scientists, professors, civil servants, artists, engineers, military generals and so on. The city needs to harness this readily available human capital and put it to good use.


The IT industry has a big role to play – its leadership needs to collaborate with city government and educational institutions. They need to create a grass-root support by actively participating in social and environmental causes. The IT companies need to find ways to boost the local IT market – one example is to create products/services for Indian languages. The IT professionals need to treat the city as their ‘home’, act responsibly, contribute to various projects and initiatives, and actively promote the diverse, liberal and global nature of Pune.


Author: Abhay Joshi

Date: September 7, 2006

Published in Indian Express Pune edition: November 13, 2006