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The tourist town as a trading hub, a research laboratory and a knowledge park
Well-built and of medium height, a brisk walk in a white veshti and white shirt, he looks every inch the politician that he is. But when he begins to speak, you wonder if he is a neta of the Indian mould and not a management guru.

He comes out as a person who has a vision for his native Pondy, but who is unsure of how it would pan out given perhaps the strained relationship with the Centre. He does not say so in that many words, but you can second-guess it.

Meet Hasan Farook Shahjahan Maricar, Pondicherry’s IT and Revenue Minister. We drove down to Pondicherry to meet him. The minister was 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled time, uncharacteristic for a politician. We reached 30 minutes late, uncharacteristic for journalists. In two separate sittings, we realised why the son of the three-time chief minister MOH Farook, is a man for the future. 

We complimented him for the former French outpost being on the Centre’s list of possible smart cities. It set the minister’s adrenalin flowing as at the heart of this initiative is technology and technology is Shahjahan’s domain.  He says: “we want to develop this as a modern, digital and hi-tech city.  We have asked the mobile service providers to enable WIFI at the Boulevard area, Assembly zone and Education spots.” This would make the town more attractive as a tourist destination, but beyond that, it would mean little if the industry does not come calling. 

The 53-year-old Shahjahan talks the language of the consultant when he points out, “we must identify our strengths and compete only based on it. We cannot compete with the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, either regarding size or infrastructure.” He is right. IT companies are in no tearing hurry to set new shops. They are in the middle of downsizing. Also, Tamil Nadu is a stone’s throw away. If you get lost on the streets of Puducherry, you would accidentally step into Chennai. Awash with malls, multiplexes, skyscrapers and a passable nightlife, Chennai is a preferred destination for IT majors.   


French connection a big strength

What then is Puducherry’s strength? Well, Puducherry is a French-speaking city, given its historic connection to President Emmanuel Macron’s country. Shahjahan who serves Kalapet constituency in his current term says: “France has a soft corner for us. Indian companies are okay doing business with the USA but are not reaching out to Europe due to the language challenge. We can step into that space.”  He could be right. 

In 2013, the French Embassy pointed to more than 1000 French establishments in India, linked to 394 major companies. These companies employ 300,000  and have a cumulative turnover of 20 billion USD. The companies are majorly in Maharashtra, New Delhi, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and cut across industries like services, pharmaceuticals, construction, electrical components and automobile. So why is it that BNP Paribas, Capgemini and Sodexo are not making a beeline to serve out of Pondy? Why do L’Oreal, Alstom, Hager operate from other parts of India and not woo the city for which they avowedly have a soft corner? And why is it that the Michelins and Renaults are not driving their businesses here?

The Loyola College graduate who counts actor Vikram as his college mate and who did a MBA in International Business from Switzerland has the answers: “you see, the French are cautious, conservative and careful in making investments. They aren’t as fast as the Americans and would like to carry out their due diligence.  Such due-diligence takes time.”  With Donald Trump playing out his version of the Monroe doctrine in the US, with pro-Brexit politician Theresa May at the head of governance in the UK, with both Australia and Singapore not being very favourably inclined towards India and with France and Germany opening up, it is time to look towards these European countries. 

Industries aren’t dating because they need land, and at 8 km by 8 km, Pondy is short of that. Some argue that the absence of industry does not matter. A case in point is Singapore. A tourist economy, Singapore has risen as the poster boy of services: banking, manpower and tourism.  Shahjahan would like a casino to jumpstart tourism, but is quick to point out that one has to consider the socio-political factors. As it is the courts have come down heavily on liquor; one does not know if both the public and the judiciary will accept the emergence of gambling.

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