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The dazzling 20/20 vision of Ram Krishna Baliga

Feb 29, 2024 09:00 AM IST

In 1976, The Times of India reported on the vision of KEONICS to make Karnataka the 'electronics state.' RK Baliga played a key role in establishing Electronics City in Bengaluru.

In March 1976, almost half a century ago today, The Times of India reported that a newly formed organisation called the Karnataka State Electronics Development Corporation Limited (KEONICS), foresaw an ‘electronics decade’ for the state. With an authorised capital of 1 crore rupees, the report said, KEONICS aimed at making Karnataka the ‘electronics state’ of the country.

In 1954, Karnataka already accounted for 30% of India’s total electronics production. (REUTERS)
In 1954, Karnataka already accounted for 30% of India’s total electronics production. (REUTERS)

No one really questioned that claim – at that time, riding on the back of Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), established in Bengaluru as far back as 1954, Karnataka already accounted for 30% of India’s total electronics production and a whopping 90% of professional electronics equipment. But few reckoned how wholly the state, and more specifically its capital, Bengaluru, would redeem that pledge. Except for the man who dreamed it up, the first chairman and managing director of KEONICS, Ram Krishna Baliga.

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In the year of India’s independence, having completed his K-12 education in his hometown, Mangalore boy Bantwal Ram Krishna Baliga headed to the hallowed College of Engineering, Guindy, for a degree in electrical engineering.

A Madras Govt Merit Scholarship brought him to Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc) for a Masters in power engineering, which he followed up with a doctoral programme in the same institution.

In 1953, an assignment with General Electric (GE) took him to the US, where he would spend three years, moving from GE to Westinghouse Electric before sailing back to India to work at Tata Iron and Steel, Jamshedpur and Union Carbide, Kolkata. In 1960, Baliga returned to his home state to teach at our homegrown MIT, the Manipal Institute of Technology, where he set up the department of electrical engineering. He then moved back to Bengaluru to join BEL, where he would work for the next 15 years.

Short stints in Paris and Japan, apart from his experiences in America, had convinced Baliga that what Bengaluru needed to up the electronics ante was a ‘hi-tech cluster’ like California’s Silicon Valley, in which the government supported and enabled private entrepreneurs. In 1975, he shared his dream with fellow Rotarian GVK Rao, the then chief secretary of Karnataka, who advised him to come up with a ‘white paper’ to present to the then chief minister, Devaraj Urs.

Charged, Baliga drew up an audacious plan, identifying 332 acres, 20 km south of Bengaluru city, around the villages of Konappana Agrahara and Doddathogur, for his cluster. “I see the area between Bengaluru and Hosur bubbling with activity,” he said excitedly to Rao. The idea was met with scepticism by almost all concerned, but Urs decided to bite. In months, KEONICS was set up, with Baliga as its chief. In 1978, Baliga’s dream, Electronics City, became a reality. The 1981 KEONICS Annual Report confirms that Baliga’s instinct had been on point – the response from industry had been most encouraging.

Other developments were happening apace. In 1980, a new company called Wipro Information Technology Ltd, seeing opportunity in the vacuum left by the unceremonious ouster of IBM from the country in 1977, opened their first office in Bengaluru and began developing minicomputers in collaboration with IISc. In 1981, seven engineers with stars in their eyes founded a company called Infosys Technologies in Pune. In 1983, encouraged by the industry-friendly policies of KEONICS, they moved their corporate headquarters to Bengaluru.

In 1984, a year before Texas Instruments chose Bengaluru to set up India’s first software design centre, RK Baliga moved on from KEONICS. In 1988, only 58, the visionary technocrat succumbed to diabetes-related problems,tragically missing the spectacular rise of Electronics City – and the morphing of Garden City to Silicon City – in the wake of India’s economic liberalisation of 1991.

(Roopa Pai is a writer who has carried on a longtime love affair with her hometown Bengaluru)

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