I land into Kochi on Tuesday in the midst of growing question marks on the Emerging Kerala (EK) meet that begins on September 12.

The UDF Government is busy explaining this meet will not bring in any sand-mining related projects or polluting industries. It will concentrate on bio-tech, IT-related and other projects, safe for Kerala’s fragile eco system.

At the heart of the issue is depleting land reserves which have been gobbled up with Gulf remittances over long years. The concern is the Government will give away this precious commodity to industrialists.

Porinju Veliyath, MD of the portfolio management company Equity Intelligence, says: “There is so much money in Kochi and other parts of Kerala that people are on a land-buying spree. The biggest comfort and excitement these days seems to be in owning as much land as possible.”

But this hunger for land, which has gobbled up huge areas of agri land too, is causing social turmoil. Ordinary people find housing unaffordable and farming land bought by rich NRIs is lying unused.

“The result is a huge shortage of grains and vegetables and we are now totally dependant on the other three southern states for these commodities.”

Navas Meeran, Managing Director of the Rs 700-crore Eastern Condiments that sells spices under the Eastern brand, told Business Line that any criticism on the EK event should be constructive.

“In Kerala, heavy industries will not work; the available land for industrial use is limited and people here will not tolerate pollution. As of now the ecological situation is near-perfect… so the industries we invite should be non-polluting industries and services.”

He adds that this initiative is not going to make “everyone who attends the show to put in 2 lakh crore rupees. But the Government has a duty to attract investment and create employment’’.

Particularly so because the Gulf opportunities are shrinking and some people are returning. “It is not an exodus but it no longer the great story it used to be.”

But unaffected by the controversy, at the sylvan green surroundings of the Startup Village, CEO Sijo Kuruvilla George and his team are getting ready to put up their stall at the EK event.

Started with a capital of Rs 5 crore, half-a-grant from the Department of Science and Technology and the other half from MobMe, a company he had co-founded while in engineering college, its dream is to incubate 1,000 start-ups in 10 years.

At its cheerful campus, energy and cheer are overflowing and about 70 young would-be entrepreneurs are given the physical space, and more important, the confidence that their wild ideas can translate into profitable enterprises.

Seated on tables, sprawling on bean bags, some through the day and others through the nights, the barely 20 plus youngsters are “hacking away” at their laptops trying out “crazy ideas”.

George and his team are busy finding them angel investors, mentors and all other supporting paraphernalia required to start an enterprise.

“We got our first cheque (at MobMe) of Rs 80 lakh when we were still in college from an NRI, our angel investor. He later told us: ‘I didn’t understand a word of what you said, but I saw my youth in your guys and wanted you to do well,” George says, his eyes shining, as he embarks on a challenging journey to clone his own success.

The entrepreneurs his team creates, and the people they employ, will be that many less flying for jobs to the Gulf or queuing up before employment exchanges at home.

rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on September 5, 2012)
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