Man on A Mission - K.T. Rama Rao

K.T. Rama Rao, Minister for IT & Panchayat Raj, Government of Telangana
Coming to power with a landslide Telangana Rashtra Samithi victory more than one year ago, Telangana's Minister for Information Technology and Panchayat Raj K.T. Rama Rao leads by example. He is rightly credited with attracting major investment, and is the brains behind many initiatives such as public Wi-Fi hotspots and T-Hub. Mr. Rao's vision is to make Hyderabad the start-up capital of the country, all while being part of a government that aligns its planning with the people’s needs, demands and aspirations. You & I spoke to the minister upon completing a year in office, on the first anniversary of the newly formed state of Telangana. This is what he had to say.  
What’s your assessment of the government after one year in power? What were some of its biggest achievements?
For us, it was never about the power, but about the formation of Telangana. We never dreamt of being in power, so the last one year in my books has been a bonus. Achieving Telangana was the goal, and once it was everything else became additional. I think we have just been blessed by the people’s love and affection towards our party. We look at it as a great responsibility.
One big achievement, if I’ve to single it out, would follow how when the new state was formed, there was a lot of apprehension and rumour-mongering. Doomsday was predicted, creating a sort of fear psychosis. In one year, the government has proved to not just itself but to the world that we are definitely an all-inclusive government; one that is active and acts without fear and prejudice.
A lot of people also predicted things that were expected to go wrong, but they didn’t happen. In fact, things look brighter. For instance, unlike the last 30 years, this summer there were no scheduled power cuts. This show the kind of commitment, resolve, clarity of thought, planning and sense of purpose we have for the state. We’ve also implemented welfare activities, we maintained law and order in a very strict fashion contrary to popular apprehension created by the media and some political opponents, and Hyderabad has remained absolutely peaceful. In fact, it has got better.
We have multiple achievements, so it was a good start. We spent a significant amount on planning; now is the time to execute.

Telangana's Minister for Information Technology and Panchayat Raj K.T. Rama Rao 

You’ve said the government has restored the confidence of people and investors in Hyderabad. What comes next?
As I said, last year we spent significant amount in planning, and now is the time to execute. For example, our chief minister is a man who has clarity of thought and purpose. When he says he wants to ramp up our installed power capacity from 4,300 Mw to 23,000 Mw in four years, we have to do it. At the same time, if he wants every household to have a tap water connection, I’m sure we will get there in four years. He believes in absolute numbers and goals, and sets milestones for each of the ministers, bureaucrats and individuals.

As we are entering the execution phase, investor confidence has been restored, and Hyderabad’s brand image has been enhanced. We stood second to Delhi in Meeting Incentive Convention and Entertainment (MICE), and the city has to take its rightful position in the country as a thriving cosmopolitan city. A lot of work has been done, but while we made a good start, it’s miles to go.
Strategy is one thing and execution is another. What sort of challenges are you looking at?
Legacy can sometimes be a burden. For very long, we have been working under the legacy of Andhra Pradesh and its style. It took us a while to get out of that perception and mindset. Be it the bureaucracy or political class, we had to do away with AP’s mindset, and come to Telangana’s and its centric issues. If you study it, the fight for Telangana was not one for geographical division, but about a sense of identity. You might have noticed that in the last year, there has been a cultural renaissance of the Telangana spirit. So in that context, to break away from the shackles of an earlier mindset has been challenging.
Coming to the execution phase, the last ten years have been challenging as plans were announced but nothing happened. Now, we have a fantastic opportunity to make a beginning with a clean slate. With this, we want to have tangible goals, achieve them in five years, go back to the people, and show them what we have done. We want to say, ‘This is why we got Telangana’.
Is that fresh start an advantage?
Absolutely. You don’t have to carry the burden of legacy, and therefore we have the opportunity to make a new beginning.
What are the major ideas and areas that the government plans to address?
The government is largely focused on getting the basics right. In a country like India, until you address the huge disparity in civil society, it is a challenge. The essentials such as drinking water, roads, power, water for irrigation, health and education are the primary targets and goals of our government. The topmost goal is to aid the vulnerable in our society, hence our focus on welfare last year. We took the welfare budget from Rs. 8,000 crore to Rs. 27,000 crore, which was a humongous leap. We also have to balance welfare with development. A healthy combination will take us in the right direction, but at the same time, while the expectation is enormous, one has to understand that it takes time. We don’t have a magic wand. However, the government is working on getting the basics right.
In your opinion, what is the kind of governance we need?
A government that aligns its planning with that of the people’s demands and aspirations, and that’s exactly what we did. We went back to the villages and got into a participatory planning exercise from the grassroots level. We called it ‘Our Village, Our Plan’ so that each and every village, street and ward within this exercise gave us an idea of what it is that people want. It’s like micro-planning, where it starts from the grassroots. The village plan makes it to the mandal, then to the district and state. Based on that plan, we form our budget. Our priorities are the needs of the people.
Tell us about ‘Digital Telangana’.
What we mean by ‘Digital Telangana’ is in today’s world, where we are the largest democracy, a digital democracy has to be assured. Technology is the greatest leveller, so what happens essentially is a so-called difference: disparities and privileges that essentially end up being the difference between the people who make it and who don’t are breaking down. With technology, a kid in rural India can aspire to join NASA or ISRO. More and more technology is available at your doorstep, and more effectively it has levelled out disparity. In this context, what we believe ‘Digital Telangana’ is all about is to usher in digital democracy. We want digital literacy to be spread across Telangana.
This vision has two aspects. The first is to have connectivity and infrastructure in place. We want to ensure that every household has broadband connectivity by the end of four years. The second aspect is digital literacy. We want each and every household to have at least one digital literate, and there are about 10 million households in the state.

Telangana's Minister for Information Technology and Panchayat Raj K.T. Rama Rao 
K.T. Rama Rao along with his family members Anil, Kavitha (Member of Parliament), Arya, Himanshu, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, Shobha, Alekya, Shailima and Adhitya

Where does it all lead?
With the sort of changes sweeping the world today, it’ll lead to improved government functionality and also usher in the people’s participation. Of its many advantages, it’ll be a great tool for feedback, will improve transparency and reduce graft, and as a great leveller will give opportunities to explore chances around the world. For example, we are working with Amazon to create an online marketplace for handicrafts of Nirmal, filigree of Karimnagar, and Pochampally and Gadwal sarees. We are trying to federate producers and suppliers so that they are exposed to the international market without middleman involvement. Ultimately, I would imagine people getting citizen services done in a structured manner, and eventually we’d move to mobile governance.
What are the capabilities of Hyderabad? Are we using it to the fullest potential?
To fully harness the true potential of Hyderabad, one has to look at several things. We have natural and geographic advantages, as well as another in the sense of becoming a truly global city. In terms of infrastructure, we do have the best. To tap into these advantages, we first need to work on infrastructure and civic amenities. Simultaneously, we have to brand the city project in its true spirit and ambience.
We have a lot of software organisations working out of here, but we are still second in terms of information technology. There’s a long way to go before we assert our position as a top technology destination, but we have everything going for us: great weather, a huge human resources pool, and brilliant history and heritage. With such potential, to be second or third in the country in just IT is not right. That itself tells us that we have not done our job well.
In industry, a lot more has to be done in areas such as aerospace, textile, life sciences and defence in order to reassert our position in the world. Possibilities with regards to Hyderabad are endless, but right now we are focusing on three areas – IT, in which we want to bring in hardware manufacturing; defence, where we are in talks with a lot of aerospace companies; and life sciences, where we are the leaders but want to become world-class and have a pharmaceutical city.
How was the experience on your first day in office? Was there any standout moment?
June 2 is the day I assumed office, and it was also Telangana Formation Day. I was completely restless because of various events and visitors. The standout moment for me actually came the next day, when I visited IIT and ISB to come up with a strategy for IT. We came up with the T-Hub that would be the country’s largest incubator, to cherish and nurture innovation as well as research and development. We are basically looking to foster a greater start-up culture in India and make Hyderabad the start-up capital of the country. In fact, I keep calling Telangana a start-up state, as we have all the ingredients. With the government putting its weight behind the initiative, I consider that meeting a standout moment. We are headed in the right direction.
You have a degree in biotechnology and e-commerce. How did you come to join politics?
When you grow up in political family, the element of interest generally kicks in at some point. But my dad never goaded us to get into politics, nor did he stop us. He asked us get a basic education and eventually, what is meant to be shall be. More than anything, the Telangana agitation struck a chord with me. In 2006, when the Karimnagar by-elections were to happen, I had to choose between my job and politics. I choose the latter because I thought it was the right thing to do at that point. Luckily, I had my wife and family supporting me. It’s because of them that I’m here.
In a family of politicians, what sorts of discussions take place at the dining table? How do you sort out differences of opinion?
I can’t even think when we last had a meal on a dining table. I think it was on Dussehra. Typically, with my father, he has no other avocation; he eats and breathes politics. We have our share of discussions and political opinions, but at the end of the day, he’s also our party leader and is ultimately the boss. But he is very democratic person. He will listen to and respect your point if there’s merit in it.
With a busy schedule such as yours, how do you manage family time? What do you do when you’re at home?
It’s a trade-off; you cannot have everything. In my opinion, to be successful in any field, one has to make sacrifices on the personal front. One’s personal life definitely suffers, and many times you miss out on important things such as attending you children’s school programmes. But I do try to balance it out. More often than not, I spend time with them, but it’s not sufficient. My kids like movies and game zones, and I take them out once in a while, but it’s my wife who has been a great pillar of strength. She really takes care of these things, and has been phenomenal as she supported me for the last 12 years. She took care of our children and their upbringing, but I wish to do more.

Telangana's Minister for Information Technology and Panchayat Raj K.T. Rama Rao 

How important is it for the IT minister to be tech savvy?
Not just the IT minister, but all bureaucrats and other public representatives have to be tech savvy because the people are. It’s not an option but a must in today’s world. I’m trying to convince my fellow cabinet ministers, colleagues and other representatives to connect with the people through technology. It gives you a lot of unbiased feedback and unfettered information. I’m not as tech savvy as I want to be, but I’m active on social media. My children are more familiar with newer gadgets.
We’ve heard that you’re big fan of music and movies, and that those interests have influenced your work. Is that true?
When I assumed office, I said we have to bring Sunburn to Hyderabad, and many people scoffed. We brought it more than once, and I think the concert scene has picked up tremendously after that. I’m a strong believer of having greater social capital to become a world-class city, and it’s to that extent that I have supported every related initiative. There’s one called Happening Hyderabad, and initially it was started to have one such social event per week. But in the last year, they did 200 events. I’m a movie buff, especially comedies that can take my mind off the stress of daily routine.
On your tours to attract investment, what do you tell investors?
Hyderabad and Telangana have natural inherent advantages which have to be showcased. You don’t have to promise heaven and earth, just present it in the right light. As long as you do that, and combine it with graft and hassle-free policymaking, you have a winner. Today, when you see that Hyderabad has attracted so much investment, it is because of that. We have a chief minister who is extremely decisive, the government is focused, and that is combined with speedy clearances and policymaking free of graft or hassle. These make a valuable proposition and are there for everyone to see.    ..... as told to Rahul