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India's Communists Courting IT Companies

A communist-run state in India wants to cash in on the country's lucrative and ever-expanding technology boom. Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Thiruvananthapuram, better known by its anglicized name, Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala State on the southwestern tip of India.

These are self-described technology geeks at Toonz Animation, one of many high-tech companies in this campus known as Technopark in Trivandrum, the capital of India's Kerala State.

The atmosphere here at Toonz Animation, and across the campus, bristles with energy and creativity and youth. Kerala's fledgling technology industry appears to be the domain of the under-25 set. The workers' vitality is undimmed by countless hours of sitting at computers writing software or drawing cartoon characters, like the ones from The Adventures of Hanuman.

That is an original series from Toonz, which also does computer animation projects for dozens of Western studios, including U.S. giants Disney and Paramount.

Hanuman, a mythical Hindu monkey-god is probably one of the first cartoon heroes to attain superhuman strength by meditation and yoga. His archrival is Rock Shasa, a billionaire demon in double-breasted suits who uses his wealth to crush Hanuman and the forces of good.

Hari Varma is director of operations at Toonz. Like many of the tech companies here, Toonz is expanding at almost superhuman speed. Toonz plans to double its production capacity within the next three years.

"When we're talking about animation, there are different ways of doing that business. There can be games. We are starting production of gaming and the content and software programming for games," explained Varma. "And then we have got live-action filmmaking along with special effects. There can be medical animation happening - medical animation where the operations are done virtually. So many possibilities are there."

And there are so many possibilities for the 125 tech companies at Technopark, an office park owned by the state government. About 16,000 information technology professionals work at Technopark designing software, operating call centers and handling back office support. That number is expected to double in five years as Kerala lures more high-tech business from abroad.

Kerala's tech industry has brought in about $60 million a year for the past two years, a sliver of India's estimated $50 billion technology boom.

Radhakrishnan Nair, Technopark's chief executive, says that is going to change.

Nair says that with many I.T. companies in India's other tech corridors - Bangalore, New Delhi and Chennai - experiencing problems such as crowded roads and shortages of skilled labor, a growing number of companies are turning to Trivandrum.

"Trivandrum has a large pool of resources and technical resources in terms of manpower because of the traditional nature of Trivandrum being an academic and research and development city," explained Nair. "The cost of manpower is much lower than in other established places like Bangalore and Chennai, maybe by 50 to 60 percent. The cost of living is much lower and the quality of life is one of the best in the country."

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 percent, the highest in India. And Kerala's communist-run government is widely perceived as the least corrupt in the nation.

People here are optimistic that Kerala's tech industry will make people's lives even better. Not far from posters of Che Guevara and red flags with the gold hammer and sickle are huge billboards for Western-style bling - diamond-studded jewelry and fancy watches - and new car ads that say "Welcome to civilization."

But why is a communist government so eager to embrace an industry that thrives in free-market capitalism?

"Fundamentally, I think the communism that existed once upon a time is not the communism that you see today," explained Nair. "It's a dynamic ideology and it keeps changing with the times. And when it comes to the development of the state, I don't think there is anything that prevents the communist government from looking outside and bringing in outside ideas, outside investments and enterprises. The government is also moving to take advantage of what is happening all over the world."

Kerala is not without problems. On this day, many tourists and business people were stranded by a city-wide taxi strike, part of a protest to get the government to extend health care benefits to informal sector workers.

So far, Kerala does not have much to fear from billionaire demons. For the moment, many here are eagerly awaiting their first big crop of technology millionaires.