Sunday, December 24, 2006

Hype....or the lack of it!

A few days ago, a momentous event took place in Technopark, which most of us are still unaware of. A CEO Conclave, which brought together the senior management of a host of top IT players, was held at Technopark, which was presided over by the Chief Minister of Kerala. An important event indeed for a city and a state poised for a mighty leap in the IT sector, one would have thought it would have deserved more than a backpage mention, at the very least!

Unfortunately, except for The Hindu, no paper carried detailed reports and no TV channel paid any attention, either. They were all occupied by such earthshaking matters as pirated CDs, forgotten controversies about rickety dams and other assorted tit-bits which no one cares about anyway. A couple of rags carried small notes as afterthoughts and one even had a critical article on how the whole thing was conducted. does not just suffice to not be helpful, you need to stick one in between the ribs.....seems to be motto!

So, what's happening - where's the fine tradition of reporting gone, in this the most literate and news-aware of all states? It seems that news generated in Trivandrum or its environs is generally to be published if it is bad news. A political scandal somewhere or a strike in front of the that's fodder for the media. However, if a new project starts up here or a new investor arrives, the news is usually not deemed new-worthy. For example, last month the K.Raheja group, a leading real estate group, tied up with the Govt. to develop an International Convention Centre complex at Aakulam. The Rs 150 Crore project also includes a 5-star hotel and is the second biggest such project in South India after the Hyderabad International Convention Centre, but how much coverage did any of us see?

And not only is truth often omitted, it is also often suitably "modified". For example, let's look at the much talked-about term - "IT Hub". As I think I once mentioned here, Trivandrum accounts for about 80% of Kerala's IT exports, 60% of IT space and more than 70% of its workforce. Yet, the media shys away from calling it the "IT Hub". Counter intuitive, right? Apparently, not!

Once I saw a report proclaiming "IT Giant Oracle comes to Kochi!" . Surprised at this turn of events, I enquired and found out that the small print said that Oracle was setting up a tiny, one-man sales office in Cochin. And not some development centre as the media would have us believe. Or the much-talked about, so-called "Smart" City project. If one believes the media, especially a certain daily which claims to have the largest circulation in the Universe, it is the biggest and best IT project in India. I have seen the proposal in detail, and all the fancy promoters promise is 3.3 million sft of built-up space and 33,000 jobs in another 10 years! To give a fair idea, our own homegrown Technopark, developed by the humble Govt. of Kerala, already has 2.1 million sft of space and nearly 15,000 people. In the next three years, another 4 million sft of space and 30,000 people will be joining. Yet, our media persons claim that the "Smart" City is the only way Kerala can become an IT power.

TCS - India's largest IT company - built its first Training Centre in Trivandrum more than a decade ago, when "IT" still brought thoughts of the dreaded Income Taxman to most people, lol! A lot of TCS stalwarts are alumni of this centre. And now, TCS has completed a sprawling Global Training Centre inside Technopark. It's been operationalised and will train most of TCS's incoming recruits from India and around the world. TCS is all set to start on a 500,000 sft Development Centre within their 40 acre campus inside Technopark. This too seems to be firmly on the media's oversight list.

And as if media intransigence was not enough, our administrators are doing their bit too. One would have expected an event as a meet of top IT officials to have been organised with sufficient publicity. Maybe a press conference or a press release? Or just maybe some publicity material around the city or a public function to felicitate leading IT folks from Trivandrum like Infosys boss "Kris" Gopalakrishnan and IBS chairman, V.K. Mathews? Guess, the powers-that-be didn't deem that necessary. Even when a two-bit party with six leaders and two followers holds a National Conference, there is much more publicity.

Some of you may think what is in creating hype? Surely, it is not that important! Well, sadly in today's world of glitz, glamour and spindoctoring, that's all that matters. For example, people have been hearing "Kochi is Kerala's IT hub" sooo long and sooo often, that it is now taken as the truth. Recently, I heard that a on-the-fringe-of-believeability superstar, who hails from Trivandrum, said that Cochin looked like "Dufai" to him. Since the gentleman must have seen both Dubai and the medium sized city called Cochin, I absolutely fail to see where the similarity lies. Obviously cannot be in the roads - of which none of any standard exist in the latter city, or the buildings - where the average height of the former's skyscrapers would be much more than the tallest 20-odd floor building in the latter. It can still less be in the cosmopolitan nature of the former or in terms of mosquitoe density, for which Cochin is notorious and I hope Dubai is not. Well, if Dubai has mangrove swamps, then there could be some similarity. Otherwise, I would think the ageing superstar had a drop too much or else has been mind-blasted by all the hype. And it is getting better and better these days. Lol, I recently saw a claim that the Queen of the Arabian Sea is India's "second Mumbai", a claim which would leave citizens of such cities as Kolkata, Hyderabad, Delhi...and indeed Mumbai much confused and bemused.

In this dizzying cycle of hype, I do hope there is more effort to report the truth, as it should be reported, truthfully and fully. So I hope when work on the Infosys campus kicks off next month or when there is blockbuster weekend at Kovalam next week or when the Vizhinjam port comes to fruition, the news appears where it belongs - on the front page - and not in some corner of an inside page.

Someone once claimed that "the Pen is mightier than the Sword". True indeed, especially in being double edged!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Set to Party!

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The Dodla Int'l hotel project is nearing completion. I've heard it has been bought by the Taj Group and is being upgraded before its opening. It's also been heard that the Marriott group will be setting a project in Trivandrum shortly in addition to the K.Raheja's International Convention Centre. The hospitality scene is getting hotter by the day!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Paramount lands in Trivandrum

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The first Paramount Airways evening flight from Chennai lands on 1st December.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Putting it back together......

All the King's Men and all the King's Horses
Couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty back together.... goes the old rhyme. Sounds like an apt theme song for some of the goings on in Kerala's infrastructure sector these days. The most glaring example of this rather shambolic state of affairs is the much talked-about Kerala State Transportation Project.

An ambitious project to upgrade the godforsaken Main Central (M.C.) Road to world class standards, it has been let down by poor contract design, bad programme management and almost non-existent responsibility shown by successive Govt.s. While it is true that systemic negligence by the previous UDF Govt. resulted in the current state of affairs, there is no denying that there is an even deadlier systemic organisational failure inherent in beaurocratic-political circles which determine the fate of our State.

The same failure of the Government red-tape factory to properly manage projects is evident in the delays suffered by the Capital Road Development Project (CRDP) or in the many industrial parks that lie vacant across the State.

So what's going wrong? One would expect a State with the best educational system in the country to produce the best administrators, who would be lead by the creme-de-la creme, our beknighted IAS officers. Funny that they should forget basic things like the fact that land acquisition is needed to widen roads or that some sort of basic promotion is needed to "promote" industrial development.

It's shocking to see that in the 18 months which have elapsed since the inaugration of CRDP, to much fanfare, the powerful machinery of the State has managed to acquire a scant 25% of the land needed for the project or the grand total of 10 acres. In lesser periods of time, 10,000 acres have been acquired in less enlightened states. Maybe it is the enlightenment which is the issue, especially since the land concerned is the middle of the city and litigations have been flying thick and fast to stop acquisition in its tracks.

However, these same officers of the State were armed with a lot of advance warning as well as a plethora of Govt. orders and ordinances empowering them to acquire land. Wonder where all of that got forgotten?

Not that the State is too adept even at handing over land in its direct control. If one motors down the Palayam - Airport corridor, we almost run into, quite literally, a wall just before the Pattoor Church. The road here is supposed to be widened using land from the graveyard of the land in exchange for fallow land from the campus of the Kerala Health Service Dept.'s lab next door. However, the land transfer and the requisite dusty files have gotten lost somewhere in the labyrinth of Government. So, this small plot of land remains the last obstacle for the completion of the Airport - Palayam Corridor, so often used by the high and mighty of the land!

Somehow, the Govt. seems to be curiously out of shape, whenever it interfaces with the private sector, be it private contractors like Punj Lloyd or Pati Bhd, or investors like Infosys, L&T and so so many others.

It's not that the babus in other States were much better. However, it could be that States like Maharastra, Delhi, Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been historically attracting more investment. Also, Kerala's Govt.s, from both fronts, have traditionally have had more of a socialistic flavour than most States and hence has been focussed more inwards, on the welfare of the people, rather than outwards, to attract investment into the State. Well, the story of Kerala in building up key human development indicators to the standards of Developed nations is legendary and quite laudable. However, eventhough I am a pronounced Leftist, I believe that the best way to generate the resources with which social equity can be built up, is the that other great ideology, Capitalism.

Thus it is well nigh impossible to avoid engagement with the modern business machine. India's other frontline states have gotten used to this a while back, as is evident from their business-friendly policies.

Some may argue that the flow of rupees has bred corruption on a rampant scale and smoothed the way for business empires in other States, possibly at the cost of the great majority of the populace. This is may be true to an extent, but it is certainly the case in Kerala as well. Look at scams like the so-called "Smart" City scheme during the tenure of the last Govt.

But I believe that there are strong moves to evolve business promotion strategies elsewhere. States like Maharastra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have set up very effective Industrial Development organisations as well as instituted strong legislation and policy to help them. Kerala claims to have done the same, yet there is very little to show for it. The one notable success is Technopark, but that too could have been much better off.

During the course of my work as a management consultant, I have worked with a multi-billion dollar construction firm and have seen the workings of industrial development corporations and infrastructure projects which often contract large construction firms for the work. There is a level of professionalism which such organisations have developed to manage projects of such magnitude as well the weighty responsibilities of ensuring the development of their states. Gujarat for example, has set up massive pipeline networks, power grids, waste treatment facilities and a whole host of infrastructure and reaped the dividend, very nearly unseating Maharastra as the industrial hub of India.

Not to say that things have been perfect all the time. The land battles are Kalinga Nagar (in Orissa over a Tata Steel plant) and now at Singur (in West Bengal, over a Tata Motors car plant, or the messy disputes over land and infrastructure in Bangalore (mainly courtsey a certain Mr. Gowda & Co.) are cases in point. However, these are blips in an otherwise positive picture, while in Kerala the opposite is true. There are a few positives in a sea of inefficiency. For instance, it has taken over two years to hand over land to Infosys Technologies in Trivandrum, despite all the attitude and bluster shown by the last Chandy-led govt., with its so-called "investor friendly" aim. Or the little matter of the 3 years it has taken to acquire a measly 27 acres of land for the New International Terminal of the capital city's airport. And perhaps, to seal the argument, that fact that it has taken over 50 years for Kerala to realise that it had India's deepest port awaiting development, just a few kilometers from the offices and houses of the supposedly enlightened decision makers. States like Gujarat have developed multiple deepwater ports in as many months!

So, what can be done to remedy this rather set of circumstances? Well, a lot actually! And it is nice to note that the present Govt. seems to be interested in doing some of it. The main purpose is to incorporate the benefits of professional management techniques into governance while not totally becoming overawed by the profit motive.

- Professional managers to run the State's developmental corporations. Currently, almost all such organisations are run by political appointees or civil servants who have little or no grounding in the techniques of modern business, despite the fact that these entities interace with large firms either as a customer or as a service provider. GoK has currently instituted a panel to recruit managers, but with constraints on pay packets, it remains to be seen how many people can be hauled in.

- Raising funds from the market to fund projects.
With the Govt. cash-strapped, additional resources have to be raised from the market. With infrastructure being one of the "hot" sectors in the market these days, this is probably easier done than said. CIAL has been a success story in this respect, although funded mostly by institutions, including Air-India. GoK has decided to approach the market for an Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to develop the Technocity project and IT Corridor in Trivandrum.

- Operating independence for SPVs. Vizhinjam International Seaports Ltd. is an SPV created for promoting the $ 1 billion Vizhinjam deepwater port project. It has a highly competent,professional CEO at its helm. However it could do with a lot more independence and authority. Somehow, the babus often feel that even pens and paper should only be bought after forms filled in triplicate, far less $ 1 billion projects. This has to change. Let the professionals do their work in peace, I say!

- Project Management organisation to manage all large projects.
Large infrastructure projects like KSTP or Vizhinjam are rare in Kerala till date but commonplace in the rest of the country. Compared to the Rs 1,60,000 Crore National Highway Development Programme (NHDP), KSTP is like a driveway! NHAI, the implementing authority for NHDP, uses an international contracting standard called FIDIC to manage all its contracts and has dedicated project management teams to look after each package. I wonder if all of this was followed for KSTP and even if it was, it remains to be seen (postmortem) what was the efficacy of its application.

- Capable system to promote Kerala as investment destination. Rather than holding one-off and ultimately useless "Global" Investor meets, more money and effort needs to be spent on a coherent message for the entire state. There has been a pronounced attempt to promote a certain city as the only investment destination in the State. For example, IT co.s are being told it is the "IT Hub" when it is distant second, with less than 20% of the IT exports, 30% of the builtup space and 20% of the IT workforce of the State. The move to shift "IT Kerala" from Trivandrum, is like Karnatake shifting "B'lore" from Bangalore to Mysore, lol! These sort of things don't help anyone in the long run!

In Kerala, we do not seemed to gotten over the fact that contractors are not just the small father-and-son outfits who did road patching and built "sarkar offices", but also giant national and international outfits with annual revenues bigger than the State's annual budgets. As projects become bigger and more complex, more capable organisations are required. The recent claims that a bunch of local contractors could have replaced the likes of Punj Lloyd or Pati Bhd are totally unrealistic, at best.

Similarly, investors like Infosys or TCS are also short on patience and heavy on action. Keeping them waiting out of sheer inefficiency is not the best way to promote industrial growth, nor is dilly dallying with the development of the state's first and premier airport or its future top port.

Let's hope that the powers-that-be learn from their disasters of the past and if set up a capable system to take care of the development of the State (that would be asking too much, right?), perhaps they will take the first few steps in that direction.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The ship I posted below, was no oceanographic vessel. It was being used by the Reliance-owned Flag Telecom Ltd. to lay a branch of their FALCON undersea optic fibre cable system from Trivandrum to the Maldives. The FALCON cable network is one of the most extensive data networks in the world, linking four continents with over 65,000 Km of undersea links. Reliance is setting up a Rs 200 Crore landing station in Trivandrum which will put us on the world map of data superhighways. Much has been made of a similar landing station in another city in Kerala, I hope the media creates as much hue and cry over this one. Whatever that be, the international cable link will be a great boost to the IT/ITES industry in Trivandrum.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ship ahoy!

On the way to the Airport in the morning, I was surprised to see a huge ship anchored right off Shankumugham Beach! At first, I thought its captain had taken a week bit too much of tipple, inspired perhaps by his colleague who drove the Exxon Valdez on to the rocks, and run the ship aground. One would have thought a ship this big couldn't be safely anchored this close in, but then I remembered that Trivandrum has very deep coastal waters. Just a mile offshore, the sea bed falls away steeply to about 20 m and upto 25 m in places. This is the reason why India's deepest port is being proposed right here.

To put things in perspective, the average natural depth at Vizhinjam is 18 m, which is 6 m more than the peak depth which can be achieved with massive dredging at a port like Kochi (of course, when CPT's dredgers are not colliding with each other or with any convenient bridge, in the vicinity, lol!) With a peak depth of upto 25 m, Vizhinjam can accomodate the world's largest ship, the 550,000 ton Jahre Viking which is so enormous that it can't enter any current port in the world, when fully loaded. If a big ship, like the one off Shankumugham, approached so close anywhere else, say at Cherai beach near Cochin, the only way it would leave is if a bunch of tugs ripped it off the sand or it was cut to pieces (Rust in Pieces...I guess. Oops, bad one!).

Hope all those morons - some of them can be found spouting garbage online and in the media - who still doubt the urgent need to have a deep water port at Vizhinjam will take a morning walk along the Beach and see the proof. Mr. Baalu & Co., are you reading this?

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Friday, November 10, 2006

75 years of Trainspotting....

An integral and quite iconic part of Ananthapuri turned 75 this week....a classic beauty...seen and admired by millions. No, I am not talking of some yesteryear matinee heartthrob, but of Trivandrum Central.

The Southern Railway's second busiest station, after Chennai Central, it has always been and continues to be the hub of railway operations in Kerala. It operates about 70 trains daily on an average and handles two of India's longest trains - to Jammu Tawi and Guwahati.

Trivandrum Central has a lot of memories for me. Trains have always been fascinating for me and I never missed a chance to land up at the Station and gawk at those iron monsters. As life progressed, memories too began to build up around the sprawling station. Its many platforms formed venues for many a fond and tearful farewell, happy homecomings and the springboard for many an excursion.

Notably, I remember the "CAT Train", which set off sometime in November 2002 bearing helluva lot of CAT aspirants to Kozhikode where Kerala takes the much vaunted Common Admission Test. I was more fortunate than most of the rest of the people on that train and hence got a full-scale send off from friends and family. It was like I was off to do battle at some distant battlefield (Joka, better known as IIM Calcutta, was far off, yeah!) and that didn't make me a happy man, coz' most such departees seem to return in wooden boxes, lol! But, that group of receding faces on a platform is hard to forget.

Those days are long gone and that station and its trains are also on the way out. Once upon a time, a train ride was considered a treat - a chance to travel wide and far and in comfort. My travels began in Second Sleeper, which was considered elite compared to Third Class or today's Unreserved. AC was a mysterious, tinted glass world which one aspired. In a day, when aeroplanes were only glimpsed as they left contrails on a blue sky, upgrading to A/C, when it eventually happened, gave me a sense of accomplishment.

The days have changed. Now, I make more flights in a month than I have taken trains in my entire life! Everyone's flying these days....taking a cue from Laxman's Common Man who was famously recruited by a budget...oops...Low Cost Airline.

Is it the end of the passenger railroad? The United States is perhaps the only country which has a railway system as big as India. While passenger trains are most famous in Europe and Japan, the US had its share - once upon a time, with streamlined trains the mode of transport of choice. The passenger traffic in the railroads declined and then almost vanished with the development of the Highway network (part of the Govt.'s efforts to counter the Great Depression) and the airlines, which happened after WW II.

Coincidentally, both of these developments are happening in India at the same time with the launch of the $ 12 billion National High Development Programme and the explosive growth seen in the civil aviation sector from 2004 onwards. However, given the sheer size of the Indian population and the still laggard state of development of the economy and society, such a dire prediction seems premature. It is true that the Railways will lose a lot of passengers in its upper classes, especially on long distance routes, say over 300-400 Km. However, by rationalising fares, the Railways can capture more and more the economy segment. By a judicious use of fare upgrades, new fare classes and other value maximising strategies, this is precisely what the Indian Railways, with a certain IIM Guest lecturer at its helm is setting out to do. Additionally, the booming economy will boost freight earnings. So the death knell of this most Indian of institutions is far from being sounded.

But, fundamental changes are happening in Trivandrum. The first one is electrification. With the long delayed arrival of electric locomotives set to happen by end-November, there will be a lot of changes. True that locos will get more powerful and less polluting, but the delightful roar of the WDM diesel engine will be replaced by the high-voltage humming and hissing of the electric loco.

I have had the occasion to travel only once on a steam train, the toy train to Ooty, but I can tell you it is the most fun to hear. With its chugging, clanking, hissing and whistling, a steam loco almost seemed alive.There is a certain personality about it. Sadly, these metal horses were withdrawn from Trivandrum by the time I was around. The diesels had their charm too, with their throbbing power and powerful airhorns. I don't think the new electrics will be as fun, they are about as masculine as a hair dryer, lol!

Other changes too are brewing at Central. Food courts, shops, plasma screens and many more "touch-and-feel" facilities are operational at Kerala's premier station. The Railways have decided to upgrade Trivandrum Central to a "world-class" station, one of 16 major stations nationwide and the only in Kerala to be chosen. A budget of over a 100 Crores is to be spent in the next two years. Likely additions will be:

- A multi-floor shopping-cum-parking plaza
- Escalators linking the various platforms
- More platforms
- Enclosing and Airconditioning of existing platform areas
- Passenger amenities like a budget hotel close to the Station.

Most of the capacity expansion in terms of platforms and new trains will be taken up at the Kochuveli Satellite Terminus, where 40 Crores is being invested in the next 2-3 years. Central is located right in the heart of the City and hence has little new
land for expansion.

A few years down the line, our Central may look closer to Grand Central than it does now, but I am sure it will continue to be a special place for many, and most assuredly for me. I look forward to more trainspotting!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wide roads everywhere

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The new M.G.Road at Palayam is a prototype of how the roads under the Capital Road Development Project (CRDP).Hope the rest of the work gets completed soon. The dilly-dallying by the babus of the State Govt. has hampered progress to the extent that the work which was supposed to be complete by this December is expected to be finished by November 2007. There was some confusion with respect to the payment of the annuity to the Punj Lloyd - CTNL consortium executing the project. Hopefully, it will be resolved soon. Surprising how little focus the Govt. seems to have on Kerala's premier city. With the change of guard and the LDF taking over, things seem to have changed...for the better (?)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

And here is Technopark...

An aerial view of the sprawling Technopark Phase I campus, Kerala's IT hub.

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In addition to the existing buildings, including the TCS Peepul Park (extreme left) and Thejaswini (centre), a number of construction sites are also seen:

1) TCS Development Centre
2) IBS Campus
3) Leela Infopark
4) NEST Campus
5) TATA Elxsi building

The Old and the New....

Trivandrum is a city changing, day-by-day. Those of us who have been out for atleast a year will have difficulty making out some parts of the city. The usual reaction will be "Whoa, what's this??!!"

With the Road Development project, dozens of new highrises and massive development along the IT Corridor, can't blame people for wondering if they took the right flight home.

Here is an example. The BATA building at Pulimoodu was one of the first multi-storied structures in Trivandrum, hailing back to a time decades ago, when only Trivandrum was a city to speak of in the State. But,like everything else, it's time too has come to pass. The building is being demolished for widening M.G.Road and the wreckers' hammers have already started to fall.

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Meanwhile, a lil' further down the road, the Varkey Tower, a high-rise shopping/office tower is nearing completion. Like any great ecosystem, as one element dies, an even grander one takes its place.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Who does it......?

Amid all the development going on in the city, there is still an area where lots needs to be done. Take an evening flight out of Trivandrum and look down, you will understand. Or take a night tour of the city. With all its wide roads, Trivandrum still has woeful street lighting. Even stretches of arterial road are ill-lit. From a flight, the city's street lights seem dimmer than those of a much smaller town.

The current situation has stemmed from a curious arrangement, where the Kerala State Electricity Board owns, maintains and operates the lights while the Trivandrum Corporation pays for them. Now, when we take two organisations and share a task between them, it is usually the inefficiencies which get multiplied and that's the case here, sadly for us. The KSEB always claims that the bills have not been paid while the Corporation claims the Board is sitting around on its hands rather than install new lights or even repair blown ones.

The result is evident. Large stretches of city roads, cast into darkness once Sol bids us adieu each evening. Eventhough most roads are in good shape, the lack of light makes motoring difficult and dangerous, especially since crossing pedestrians are visible only at the least minute and any pothole or bump only with a jarring crash or unsettling knock.

And if all this was not ludicrous enough, things just keep getting worse. We have all seen and marvelled at the brilliantly lit Kowdiar Avenue, the prototypical road of the Capital City Road Development Programme. But there are several other stretches...mostly along the Palayam Airport and Vellayambalam - Palayam corridors where the median lamps have been erected for months now. And yet, none of them are lighted up. The roads there, in most cases, are still plunged in darkness!

It makes wonder, what kind of organised society we live in and what kind of organised governance we have, when such anarchy prevails! Hope that like the proverbial silver lining, sense finally does prevail and the babus work out the mathematics of the rupees and paise to finally switch on the lights.

Thamasoma Jyothir Gamaya, Asothama Sath Gamaya!

Monday, October 23, 2006

King Schumi has Retired.....Long Live the King!

I know this doesn't have much to do with Trivandrum. But, just can't help but pay tribute to my sporting idol of all times! A man who's dominated a sport like no other before or since! 91 wins and seven titles, All Hail the King! F1 is never going to be the same again! :-(

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HolySmoke and Green Lungs! not one of the first things which comes to mind when we talk about Trivandrum's weather is it? One would far more likely associate this phenomenon with hilly locales like Munnar or Ponmudi than with a modern, seaside city like Trivandrum.

Yet, while I was driving home on Friday night from a late night movie, I ran into quite solid mist. So what the heck was going on? This night's mist was a born of a combination of the heavy rain over the past few days and the products of a vigorous Deepavali night. Fog or mist happens when water vapour forms into micro-droplets close to the ground, like a low lying cloud. This is catalysed by the presence of suspended matter, like smoke, which acts as the nuclei around which water precipitates.

I would guess that the cool temperature and high humidity from the rains and the smoke from the tonnes of burst crackers combined to form the unusually heavy mist. The overall effect is quite surreal with objects appearing out of and disappearing back into the coils of the fog, as one drove through it. This gives even mundane objects like a street lamp pole or a tree an aura of mystery. Driving down Kerala's best road - the brilliantly lit Kowdiar Avenue - doubly highlighted this effect. At the Kowdiar Palace Junction, now awash in the glare of a newly erected highmast light tower, the moving coils of the mist were visible like some brooding force wrapping itself over the sleeping city.

With all those crackers going off, and the local crackers being notorious for the noxious fumes they emit, one would have thought the atmosphere would have been pretty unhealthy and reeking of gunpowder...! Yet, when I dropped the window to check, I found the air fresh. Probably because our city has green lungs that any metropolis would be jealous about. The trees would help to mitigate the emissions, be it from the city's exploding population of vehicles or from the toil of a cracker-happy populace! Hats off to of the reasons I think Trivandrum's a great place to live in.

In fact, as my flight took off today morning, that view was reinforced by the vista unfolding outside my window. With its nearly unbroken green carpet, the city looked like virgin forest. Only the dozens of highrises poking out reminds the observer that there is a city of a million-plus people beneath that beautiful canopy. Add coils of mist to the panorama and the image is picture perfect.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thamasoma Jyothir Gamaya......

.....Asothama Sath Gamaya!" ring in my ears still from the formative years spent at the St.Thomas Residential School, where this was the school anthem. (Curiously, the last time I heard it was as the background score of Van Helsing, the all-star monster movie!) less, quite sophisticated and urbane, I would say. Well, Trivandrum has always had a reputation for its quality of education after all.

It has Kerala's most famous and oldest arts college - The University College, Kerala's best University - Kerala Univ., the State's best engineering college - The College of Engineering Trivandrum (Yeeeeah...CET!!!), the most preferred Medical College, the first International School and many more.

Lol, that's quite a collection ain't it? Set up in the 1800s, the University College has been equally famous for its illustrious alumni as for its firebrand politics. The Late President Narayan and many a top State politician have passed through its portals, and many more will in the years to come at this!

The Kerala University or KU, is by far the best known of the Universities in the State. It is considered as a top quality centre of education even by institutes and universities abroad. KU has embarked on ambitious modernisation programmed including total IT enabling which ranks it among the best in India.

Another of k's gems, perhaps the Kohinoor in its crown, is the 67 year old College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET). One of the oldest engineering colleges in India, it stands head and shoulders above the rest in the State. Along with its closest competitor, NIT - Calicut, CET was ranked among the top 20 institutions in India by the World Bank and made eligible for over a hundred crores of funding to raise it to world class standards. In terms of placements, for example, CET ranks right up there with the best, getting the best of recruiters like Google, Microsoft, Cypress and so on to pick up its students, not mention the usual band of Infys, TCS, CTS, Wipro, IBM, Accenture et al who now make offers in their hundreds. CET is the first choice of the top rankers in the State. This doesn't mean that it's a nerdy campus. No way! It has perhaps one of the politically most aware campuses in Kerala and is ever buzzing with extracurricular events like the annual cul-fest, Dhwani, which is the biggest in Kerala.

CET was all set to be upgraded to an IIT, as per the recommendations of a high level committee set up by the NDA Govt. in the 1999-2003 period, taking into account the fact that in all parameters, it was the best in the State. However, the next UPA Govt. abruptly changed the decision, as it did many other cases, and chose to upgrade a rather more recently setup "technical university" in Central Kerala now more famous for admitting literally illiterate students into its technical! Anyways, soon afterwards the Central Govt. made it clear there was to be no upgradation to "IIT" status as much trumpted in the local dishrag media. The whole scheme is in limbo these days as the University authorities try to swallow their pride and get back to work on some sort of upgradation plan.

Meanwhile, the Union and State Govt.s have agreed to set up a new centre of the IIT - Madras in a 250-acre plot of land near the picturesque hill station of Ponmudi, 80 Kms from Trivandrum. This will become Kerala's first "Eye Eye Tee" in the next 5-6 years.

Trivandrum Medical College and Hospital, the oldest in the State, is being upgraded to the status of an All India Institute of Medical Sciences, under a Rs 100 crore plan funded by the Union Govt. Together with the apex Sree Chitra Thirunal Institute of Medical Science & Technology, the Regional Cancer Centre and a multitude of superspecialty hospitals around it, this makes Trivandrum a medical treatment, research and education hub, almost unmatched in India.

The prestigious Asian School of Business, currently functioning inside Technopark, counts the bosses of TCS - Mr. Ramadorai - and Infosys - Mr. Gopalakrishnan - in its illustrious Board of Governors and has a student body and faculty drawn from across the country and the world. Seventeen engineering colleges and five medical colleges add to the awesome collection of Higher Education institutes in and around the city, as do some of the best arts, science and commerce colleges in Kerala such as the Govt. Arts College, All Saints College, Mar Ivanios College and so on. The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Bio-Technology, Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Centre for Development Studies and C-DAC are some of the national-level, advanced research institutes located around the city. A National Institute of Fashion Technology and a Molecular Science Institute are all set to join this repetoire soon.

All this has been traditionally backed up by an excellent public and private school system. Some of the top schools in the State are in the city. Trivandrum International School located about 10 Kms from Technopark is the State's first International School. The city's famous public schools like Cotton Hill Girl's school, have been producing top rankers every year.

All this has positioned Trivandrum in the right spot to ride the coming IT/ITES wave. This latest wave(tsunami, rather) is based on Knowledge and thus summons all available graduates, post-graduates , near-graduates and barely graduates to its portals. Already the IT hub of the State, and the fourth in the quatret of State Capitals/IT hubs in South India, it will generate thousands of jobs a year as IT companies set up shop and expand.

Once berated as a "service" city, which had little industrial infrastructure, Trivandrum has turned that on its head. The Knowledge economy is clean and tidy, and demands smart people and high tech working environments, which suits our green city just fine. After all, the industrial hub of the State has just been declared as one of the most polluted places in the country and its citizens are choking on assorted PCBs, metallic toxins and the like while trying in vain to escape the bites of the ever vigilant mosquitoes. The age of the polluting factory is past, this is the age of Eye-Tee, atleast in God's Own Country!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Thousand Lights for a Port......

Today there was a unique protest outside Kerala's seat of power, the Secretariat. A thousand lights were lit by people who wanted to register their protest at a long standing demand getting postponed yet again.

The protest, one which I wanted to join but could not as I had to fly out to attend a meeting, was against the denial of security clearance to the Vizhinjam International Transshipment Terminal. This $ 1 billion project, the biggest FDI ever in Kerala, has been making the news lately. Sadly, mostly for the wrong reasons.

The Central Govt. denied security clearance to the consortium of Chinese firms which had bagged the tender floated by the Kerala Govt. last year. The reason?? The Big Bad Reds posed a major threat to that end-to-all term - National Security - by getting involved in India's ports. Another Chinese (Hong Kong) firm - one of the world's biggest Port operators - Hutchinson Whampoa - had been unceremoniously booted out of bidding for new terminals in Mumbai and Chennai. So what's it all about?

Of course, the Chinese have had quite a love-hate relationship with us. They came over the border and snatched quite a swathe of land while Pundit Nehru was still saying "Indi Chini bhai bhai!", lol! And now of course, they are our biggest competitors for the title of regional superpower and economic powerhouse. Well that war was all of 40 years ago and this current one is fought on the global trade battleground, by no means a shooting war.

The Centre believes that China is spreading its influence into the Indian Ocean area by tying up with Pakistan and Myanmar. In fact, China is building a deep water port at Gwador in Pakistan. Wierd coincidence, but I was read a reference to Gwador in Forsythe's latest novel - The Afghan. There, it is mentioned as a hot-bed for smuggling, opium running and radical Islamic. Apparently, now the Chinese are working to turn it into a deep water port right next to the main shipping channels out of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea - Suez Canal. It could turn into a massive transshipment hub, and a strategic naval base for Pakistan, and maybe for China.

Okay, so the Chinese are not exactly the friendly and trustworthy neighbours. But building a port in an allied country (Pakistan and China have active military cooperation) is not the same as executing a construction contract in a wary nation like India.

To understand why the Centre's decision has caused such an uproar, we should also understand what the Chinese consortium will do. The China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) and the Kaidi Electric Company, with their Indian partner - Zoom Developers - will execute a Build-Operate-and Transfer (BOT) to build the Vizhinjam project over 3 phases and operate it for a concession period before handing it over to the Kerala Govt.

CHEC, a $ 5 billion engineering giant, is a world leader in port building, having constructed large parts of ports like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore which have become world leaders. What we need to understand is that CHEC will be interested in the construction part of the project, where its competency lies. The consortium will most likely find a leading port operator like PSA, Hutchinson, CGM-CM, Maersk or so to run the port itself. And equally likely, most of the actual work will be done by local firms like L&T, Gammon or HCC which will be subcontractors to CHEC. The latter will only bring in a project management team and some special equipment. This is the trend with large construction firms now, like US-giant Bechtel at the Reliance Jamnagar refinery, for example (L&T is one of the subcontractors at the $ 6 billion project).

There is no question of the Chinese setting up a permanent presence in Vizhinjam, just of building it. Companies from many nations - American, Russian, European, Malaysian and even Chinese - are already engaged in building up India's infrastructure. The same CHEC is building the prestigious Bandra-Worli Sealink in Mumbai, right under the nose of the Navy's all important Western Command!!

Trivandrum has a lot of strategic assets, that is true. Southern Air Command, VSSC, Technopark, many top R&D institutions like CDAC and so on. But, if the Chinese wanted to spy on all this, there would be easier ways than building a $ 1 billion port. The port, when under construction and in operation, will be totally under the jurisdiction of India. It will be the local police, Customs and Coast Guard who control the site and access to it. Lol, the Red Chinese Navy is not steaming in nor is the flag of the People's Republic of China going to be flying over it. And if this kinda logic was true, the Chinese should be kicking out Infosys and TCS who are bringing in thousands of people into their new Centres in China.

In fact, something of this sort was once proposed in Kerala. The initial agreement with Dubai Internet City (DIC), which the UDF led Govt. fell over itself trying to push through, had some conditions which would have raised many an eyebrow. DIC asked for such conditions as customs clearances, seperate immigration channels, control over surrounding which would have made the much touted "Smart" City. Thankfully, smarter heads prevailed and such ideas have now been trashed.

On on the subject of Dubai. Much of the initial funding for the Islamic extremist movement which has later metamorphosised into Al-Queda and its terror web flowed from the oil rich Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Considering this, the fact a Gulf based company is setting up a port facility smack bang opposite the Southern Naval Command's main base should have raised a few security concerns. Yeah, I am taking of Dubai Ports World (DPW) and its much vaunted Vallarpadam project. The fact that DPW has now built a stranglehold on India's container trade by acquiring terminals at almost all Indian ports as well as in Colombo and Singapore is another worry matter altogether.

So why oppose just Vizhinjam? Well, the theories abound. One concerns a certain Central Minister who happens to hold a portfolio concerned with Ports. This gentleman has a pet project planned at Kolachel, near Vizhinjam but on the other side of the state line. This is currently on the rocks, literally! The area is rocky and shallow, and would never even attract a fishing trawler if Vizhinjam came up. This is not all, other commercial interests would be upset if the new port came up at Vizhinjam. For example, our friends DPW would find their near monopoly on the container trade smashed by the new deep water port. Their prized asset, the transshipment terminal at Colombo, would be put out of business when the much deeper port at Vizhinjam becomes operational. Upto 75% of Colombo's traffic is transshipment for India, much of which would migrate to Vizhinjam. The previous UDF Govt. in no small measure, supported this interest. I was personally involved in some of the public awareness and pressure campaigns in support of the Vizhinjam project, and during the course of that a lot of this political intrigue, mostly from conversations with insiders, including top officials. While loudly proclaiming support, the rulers of Kerala were denying their people thousands of jobs and thousands of crores of revenue.

One sometimes that the age of the lynch mob wasn't past us. Else.....!!! It's sad to see that a project so profound it could change the face of the whole State if not that of the whole Nation has taken over half a century to get going. And even now, it is facing obstacle after obstacle. Wonder how India will overtake China at this rate.......we are falling over ourselves to stop vital projects, we don't need the Chinese or the Americans or the Russians to help us with that!!!

Well, candle light vigils have toppled dictatorships and ended wars....let's hope this one can help accomplish a much simpler task - to get a Port off the rocks!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Boom town.....

Once upon a time a boy told his father to buy some marshy land near a new road which passed close by a place with big buildings where they did some strange thing called "IT". Needless to say, no one did anything about it and the boy gave up on real estate speculation. A few years later, that same marshy land was worth some gazillions more and I was left wondering which colour of Merc I would have been driving now! Oops...did I say "I would..."?! Hehe...okay, it was me! And we all know what land we are talking about.

The land appreciation along the IT Corridor has been making the news and no wonder. There has been 1000% appreciation in six months in a lot of areas. Undeveloped plots which no one would touch with a stick even at 5 lakh rupees an acre a few years ago, are now selling at 5 lakhs a cent! And it is not just along the IT Corridor, the prices are zooming all over. Large plots in Kowdiar are selling for over 35 lakhs a cent! Recently, I heard that a large textile retailer was refused land even at 30 lakhs a cent in a not-too posh part of the city!! These days, even the Govt. is shelling out 12 lakhs a cent when it is acquiring land for road widening in some areas!!
Wowie......wat's happening?

Some would call it a "bubble" or something. Real estate bubbles happen when too much money chases after scarce resources. Case in point is South Mumbai or the erstwhile Asian Tigers in the 90s. However, there has been no money influx due to interest cuts or due to the arrival of a bunch of incredibly overpaid people in town, has there? No one's struck gold...or oil.

The one area where some remittance hike would be occuring could be IT. Lol, with the number of people working onsite with Indian IT majors, the flow of dollars, euros, yens and the like must have swollen quite a bit. These days, the locations of my friends on Orkut looks like a world atlas! Moreover, the exploding IT sector right in Trivandrum would be contributing too.

Whereas there were some 5500 techies in the city a couple of years ago, there are 12,500 today and as many as 25,000 by the end of 2007. That number is set to reach 50,000 by 2009-10. That sounds like a lot of high-end customers who would want flats, expensive shops, restaurants, multiplexes and what not to satisfy their newly-developed First World preferences. It would look like the real estate ecosystem in Trivandrum is adjusting to this upcoming demand. A anticipatory expansion, not very common in the knee jerk world we are used to in India.

But, surprisingly, one sees the same story reflected in other upcoming IT hubs like Vizag, Kovai, Pune, Chandigarh or even Kochi. The real estate business seems to have learnt the hard lessons being learnt at the Tier I cities like Bangalore and Mumbai, where infra plays a constant catch-up game to demand, and always remains way behind. Some of these lessons have already been put to use in developing Hyderabad and Chennai, to an extent.

This steep learning curve will stand new destinations like Trivandrum in good stead. For example, Trivandrum is developing an impressive set of infra:

- Inner, Intermediate and Outer Ring Roads: The Inner Ring roads and high density corridors will be ready by 2007 under TRIP.

- A 4/6 lane IT Corridor connecting the main IT zone, Airport, Railway station and Seaport with adequate connections to the City road system.

- Expansion of the International Airport to cater to 2.3 million passengers by 2008 and 4 million by 2009-10. Phase I work is starting on Nov 1 and is expected to be complete in 18 months.

- New Railway terminal just off the IT Corridor with 10 platforms by 2009. Work is already underway and 2 platforms are already operational.

- Satellite townships and hybrid IT-residential parks by private developers like L&T and Raheja Group. The latter are expected to be located within Technopark Phase III. More are planned along the IT Corridor including the massive 500 acre Technocity.

- A new250-acre campus of IIT Madras near Ponmudi which will eventually become Kerala's first IIT.

It is good to see Govt. and industry coming together in such a proactive move. I guess this explosion in land prices and the number of new residential & commercial projects is a sure sign of this. If so, I can rest a lil' bit easier over the missing Merc in my garage!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Rain,,,rain and more rain!

A couple of weeks I had been musing whether the second innings of the Monsoon would delay construction work going on across the city. As the rain's back for yet another innings, the worry these days is on another direct altogether. The cloud of tropical disease is looming large over the state these days.

The war between man and mosquito has been waged since time immemorial with the tide of battle turning now and then. This is just another chapter and will not be the last, it is sad to say.

Trivandrum has had the best of it so far, with low infection rates. Rated as one of the cleanest cities in India, the State capital has primarily faced fevers racking its coastal areas where back waters and congested tenements have promoted the proliferation of the relentless mosquito. However, compared to the marshy terrain, poor sewerage and unhygenic conditions in the State's second city - Cochin - this is nothing. Although, the current epidemic has been concentrated on Allapuzha and Cherthala, the consquences of a full scale outbreak among the million-odd population of Cochin are too disastrous to contemplate. The first cases have alreay been reported and let's hope things don't get too bad.

Concerns have already been raised about the potential impact on the upcoming tourist season. While international arrivals to the State's tourist hub of Kovalam are unaffected so far, a drop has been seen in domestic traffic to the backwaters.

Forget political embezzlers, letter bombers, communal murderers and so on, the State's Number One Villain has become the humble Aedes mosquito! Watch out!!!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Whirly-bird tour

There are a couple of charter helicopter services based in Trivandrum - Deccan Aviation and King Rotors - which offer a variety of packages meant for tourists. One of them is a heli-tour of the city. A friend of mine - similarly inclined towards Trivandrum - and I wondered if we could hitch a ride. When we enquired about the hole such a joy ride would put in out pockets, we learned that it wud be a yawning one, to the tune of 35,000 bucks!! But, there are no shortage of customers for the choppers, mostly high end tourists from the luxury resorts at Kovalam. Sigh....better get that piggy bank out!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A pinch of Ginger

One would expect the opening of a new property of the Taj chain of luxury hotels to be a much trumpted affair. But when the latest addition to the fold of India Hotels Company (the holding company of the Taj Group) opened its doors a few days ago at Technopark, the pomp was missing. In fact, there was only a low-key ceremony with the Tourism Minister doing the honours.

"Ginger" as the brightly adorned hotel is called is one of the first of the "no frills, business hotel" chain that IHC is setting up. In this age of "no-frills", IHC is also jumping on the bandwagon. Like its inaugration, the Ginger brand is also unassuming. According to the website, "The guiding principle behind Ginger™’s concept is the focus on key facilities that meet the key needs of the traveler. Ginger™ provides consistent, clean, convenient, quality accommodation with friendly service at affordable prices."

A typical Ginger hotel features minimal staff and lets the guest serve himself at the restaurant (appropriately called "Square Meal"), iron his own clothes and use vending machines for most beverages. It is targeted at the single, business traveller and features hi-tech features like LCD TVs and Wi-fi.

Interesting concept. They claim that most hassled business travellers don't have either the time nor the inclinations to enjoy the finer points of luxury at a top-end hotel. Being a very hassled and frequent business traveller, I tend to agree. I get into the room and then crash, not much time to spare to enjoy the jacuzzi or the plush curtains. :-) For all those who just require a roof over their heads, a good bed and a well appointed bathroom, Ginger looks like the right choice.

The IHC guys have got their location right , for sure. Right outside India's biggest IT park! Technopark, the State's IT hub, has about 13,000 techies and 120 companies in it, right now. That number is all set to double in the next 18 months. This alone promises full occupancy and add to it the proximity of the International Airport and the Kinfra Apparel and Film & Video Parks.

Ginger is only the first of a wave of new hotels opening up in Trivandrum. Other include the luxury Dodla International project at Vazhuthacaud, a five-star called "Capital Retreat" at Chacka, couple of five stars along the IT Corridor (projects by the Tamara Group and entrepreneurBiju Ramesh), a four star at Thirumala and so on. Ramesh is planning to set up a 5-star hotel and a 2000-seater International Convention Centre. The Tamara Group, floated by Infosys directors "Kris" Gopalakrishnan and Shibulal, has similar plans. The hospitality industry in Trivandrum is gearing up to meet the demand of the fast expanding IT, Tourism and Medical Tourism industry.

Looks like the number of watering holes in town is gonna go up, ladies and gentlemen!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Technopark Rising - Part II

Peepul Park is the Global Training Centre of India's top s/w company, TCS. TCS has always had its training centre in Trivandrum (seen in the foreground). The new 400,000 sft Peepul Park will cater to the current training needs of the 73,000 strong company. 1,500 recruits can be trained here in each batch. People recruited from all over India and the world will be passing through Trivandrum soon. Work is all set to begin on a Development Centre next to Peepul Park.TCS has 40 acres of space in Technopark Phase I, which is
already a SEZ.

The 460,000 sft Leela Infopark is coming up next to Technopark's own Nila, which itself is another 450,000 sft. Nila was Technopark's first big building. The Leela building will be ready in another 12 months. This is Leela's biggest single investment in the IT sector in Kerala.

The Leela Group also has major investments in the Kinfra International Apparel Park nearby, and at Kovalam - the super luxury Leela Kempinski, Kovalam Beach.

A few hundred feet from Nila, work is progressing on the sprawling 400,000 sft campus of IBS.

Technopark Rising.....

Paid a visit to Technopark yesterday and was impressed, as always, by the biggest and greenest IT park in India. Giant new buildings coming up everywhere, thousands more jobs being created, all very impressive. One can therefore be forgiven, for wondering why none of this is being reported in the press??

After all, when the itsy-bitsiest of players take up space in the muchh smaller IT park of another city in Kerala, there is much fanfare in the press. Take, for instance, the news items about various sundry BPOs setting up shop there. Now, Office Tiger - one of the world's largest and most famous Outsourcing players is setting up shop in Technopark. One of the top exec.s of the company talked about this in an interview with a biz daily or portal. Seen any of this in our ever-vigilant local media which is ever ready to devote columns and columns to issues of "national importance" like sex scandals, the indigestion suffered by some religious leader or the car troubles of some neta? I wouldn't think so.

This is the Thejaswini MTF, Technopark's latest addition. This 600,000 sft giant is the largest IT building in Kerala. To give everyone a comparison, it is bigger than the whole of Infopark, Kochi. Office Tiger, Digitella, Infosys, US Tech are among the long list of co.s which have taken up space here. This massive building was booked out even before construction started.

"Booked out before construction started" is the state of affairs at Technopark which is suffering from an acute shortage of space, despite having 2.1 million sft of space available. More space is under construction, but that is sure to be gone long before it is ready.

Contrast this with what is happening elsewhere in Kerala. Quite a bit of space, notably in a couple of ventures of the Muthoot Group are standing idle, looking for buyers. I attended a IT Park B2B exhibition in Chennai on Friday and saw a national construction player trying to sell off the space in its venture at Infopark. No takers so far!! The same construction company is trying hard to get about 30 acres in Technopark Phase III in contrast to its 4 acres in Infopark. So what's all this hype about?

Seems to be the keyword - "HYPE"!! What's it? I guess, we can define it as a concerted effort to create a falsehood by a campaign of disinformation, selective information and modified info. Let's take an example, a common sensical one. Let's say there two cities A and B, in the same state. City A has 75% of the IT employees in the State, 80% of the export revenues and 60-70% of the builtup space. Yet, B is said to be the "IT hub of that state". Howzzat? Well, no prizes for guessing where A and B are, lol! One just needs to take up a copy of a malayalam paper, preferably the one which claims the largest circulation, and the hype is evident. If Mysore was called the IT hub of Karnataka, Coimbatore the hub of TN and Vizag that of AP, instead of Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad respectively, would any of us believe that? Any paper which dared to say that would have been rubbished instantly. Yet, in Kerala, where the readers are supposed to be the smartest and most discerning, such ludicrous claims are daily in nature. I don't see anyone questioning the veracity of such idiotic reports.

In short, next time we hear a similar proclaimation of greatness, better have a lot of salt handy, a pinch wouldn't suffice!!!

Here, we can see the two biggies of Technopark side by side. Thejawsini on the left,and the reigning champ, the 500,000 sft Bhavani, on the right.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Metro tale...err...Rail

A couple of days ago, there was a cursory note in the media that the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation had rejected the proposal to have a Light Rail Tranport System in Trivandrum, citing the fact that city is adequately serviced by its road system. So what happened, when every tom, dick and harry city in the neighbourhood is clamouring for a Metro, the name-of-choice for a Metropolitan/Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS), of which LRTS is one of the many technical options?

Firstly, MRTS is a necessary service when a large city has a concentrated Central Business District where people work, and commute in and out to suburbs where they live. This uniaxial, high volume traffic will call for high capacity transport systems like freeways or MRTS. Trivandrum, fortunately for us, has a radial layout with multiple CBDs and suburbs all around, unlike say a Mumbai or a Delhi. Trivandrum has Business Districts at Statue to East Fort, Kazhakoottam, Chalaia - Karamana etc instead of a Nariman Point or a Connaught Place.

With a radial road network, being developed to world-class by the Trivandrum Road Improvement Project (TRIP), Trivandrum can easily split up its daily traffic flows along multiple axes. While the arterial MG Road takes up much of this load now, with TRIP implemented, multiple axes will be created.

The DMRC study looked at as many as 13 major traffic alignments. This in itself proves that the city has a multiaxial layout. So, eventhough the Trivandrum Corporation area has a population in excess of one million (ten lakhs) and the Urban Agglomeration, which includes the suburbs and areas like Attingal, Nedumangad, Neyyatinkara etc. will have another 500-600,000 people, the congestion on any one route is minimised.

What the DMRC study may have overlooked is that tremendous growth is happening along one particular axis which may result in massive traffic demands. This is the IT Corridor. This stretch of the NH-47 bypass will include India's biggest IT park - Technopark, Trivandrum International Airport, a host of luxury hotels and convention centres, the Kochuveli rail terminus and the upcoming Vizhinjam Transshipment Terminal. In short, it will be the hottest piece of real estate in the State.

Conservative estimates project that atleast 50,000 techies will be working in Phase I, II and III of Technopark by 2010-11. And if Technocity is on stream by then, another 20,000 or so could be in place. And eventually, as the IT Corridor is extended towards Kollam, upto 200,000 techies could be working and living in this zone. Once their family members and the indirect employees are taken into account, this could be close to a million. With industrialisation at the other end of the Corridor fueled by the Vizhinjam Port, this number will go up significantly.

Once that is the case, a MRTS will be required along this axis. And the Government has taken the right step forward by including this line in the City Development Plan submitted recently, under the JNURM project.

So what is all this hubub about a similar project being trumpted around in a nearby city? Initially, there was a sky-bus or a magic carpet, or something of that sort proposed for a stretch in the city. The Konkan Railway Corporation, set up by the legendary malayali engineer, Sreedharan, which proposed this option later quietly withdrew.

Later, the Oommen Chandy Govt. pushed ahead with a MRTS line in Cochin on the pretext that the North-South axis has sufficient traffic to justify such an investment. It is true that with its locational constraint, where it is locked in between the Sea and Vembanad Lake, a bottlenecking of traffic does occur, which has become legendary these days.

But is there enough traffic to justify an expensive MRTS. An MRTS costs about 100-200 Crores per Km to build. According to the same DMRC, a certain minimum traffic volume is required for the project ever to be viable. Mr. Sreedharan, DMRC's MD (formerly of the Konkan Railway...ya, the "Sky Bus" guys), believes that a city of around 3 million is the bare minimum to support an MRTS. Cochin has a population of less than half of this, even if its extended Urban Agglomeration is taken into account. And the latter includes far off towns to make up the figure. For the Trivandrum Capital Region, the same will be closer to 2 million right now.

A few months ago, the Ministry of Urban Development declined to provide any funding for the project on the grounds that it was not viable given the current population. This funding is essential for the success of such infra projects. Even the Mumbai Metro required around 20% viability gap funding to get off the ground, even though Mumbai is over fiften times bigger/more populous than Cochin and the project is being executed by none other than the local behemoth - Reliance Energy. Although the MoUD's decision was downplayed in the friendly neighbourhood media - especially in "Kerala's largest daily" - nothing further has transpired in the matter.

Looks like the only ones who still hope to ride the train in Cochin are the poor deluded characters who cheered on "Sky-bus", "Sky-City", "BMW", "Fashion City" and the other ludicrous initiatives which were much trumpted but eventually never materialised in the Queen of the Arabian Sea. Well, what is one more or one less in a long list of "dream projects". dreams?!

Realistically, for Tier - II cities with populations of 1-2 million, the best option is to have a more cost effective system as a Bus Rapid Transit System, which has also been included in the Trivandrum CDP this time. So better a nice bus ride than on imaginary hot-air powered trains...!!!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Rain...Rain....Go Away?

Lol....sounds like that ol' rhyme we used to sing about lil' Johnny. There are lots of days when we wish rain hits the parched earth and our sun-frazzled selves. And then there are those rare days, when we wish the clouds would just march away and torment someone else.

These days, Trivandrum is being blessed by that rain gods in abundance. I am a fan of the rains, so I don't mind a soaking or two and there is nothing to beat the fresssshh look of Nature after a downpour. And to boot, all this rain is filling up those reservoirs which give us our drinking water and a lot of our power too. So, what's wrong?

Well, the only downside of this - other than a bit of mud and the risk of being splashed by some passing bus - is that the daily downpours would slow down construction work which is going on all around these days. Be it the massive buildings coming up at Technopark, the new Airport Terminal, the Bakery Jn. flyover or whatnot, rain slows down the pace of building and delays schedules.

One is left hoping that the rain that adds to our State's legendary beauty does not bog down its progress, albeit for a brief while. However, progress is unstoppable these days and work does go in spurts when the rains stay away and under tarps. In fact, I was driving home late last nite, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the road at the Museum junction, deserted under the downpour a mere hour ago, was now a buzz of activity. Like bugs which busily venture out between showers, a fleet of heavy machinery belong to Punj Lloyd had appeared out of nowhere and was busy completing work on the almost finished stretch of spanking new road...!

......Onward marches the relentless work of development! :-)

Friday, September 22, 2006

New International Terminal for TIA approved...finally!

After months and years of waiting, the Union Cabinet put the official stamp of approval on a Rs 250 Crore project to construct a New International Terminal for the Trivandrum International Airport (TIA). The 27 acres of land required for the landmark project had been handed over to the AAI over a year ago, and the project had been facing delays as it needed Union Cabinet approval due to its sheer size.

This is the largest terminal project AAI is currently taking up and will be completed in 18-21 months, in mid-2008. It will add a whopping 200,000 sft of floor space to the existing terminal facilities.

The terminal is of a modular, steel-and-glass design, which is the current choice at major airports worldwide, and has just been introduced in India at Mumbai's terminal 1B. It can be easily extended by adding more modules. It will be one of the most modern terminals in India and by far, will define the state-of-the-art in Kerala.

The initial phase on 27 acres will be capable of directly handling three wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 747/777 or Airbus A-300/340/380, at one time . More aircraft can be accomodated on the extensive apron space. It will also be one of the first terminals to be equipped with a fully computerised passenger and baggage management systems.

The further development of the terminal will see a tripling of capacity to accomodate the rapidly escalating demand at TIA. AAI statistics show that the airport experienced 30-130% growth this year in terms of various parameters like aircraft, passenger and cargo movement.

TIA will handle about 2 million passengers this year and upto 2.5 million by next year. When the new terminal is commissioned, the traffic could be as high as 3 million passengers. The current terminal complex on the Beach side will thereafter exclusively handle domestic passengers. The first phase of the New Int'l Terminal can handle upto 1.5 million passengers.

The terminal building will also have extensive car parking facilities as well as all amenities on the city-side, which will be built on a BOT basis in partnership with leading developers. These could include hotels, restaurants and shopping facilities.

The Terminal will be connected to the NH-47 Bypass/IT Corridor by a bridge over the TS Canal.

The work on the Terminal building itself will be inaugrated in October by the PM. Preliminary work including the construction of the boundary wall is well advanced as of date.

With the New Terminal, Trivandrum becomes one of the first airports in India to have twin terminal complexes in line with major airports like Kuala Lampur's KLIA and Singapore's Changi. AAI will probably be operating courtsey coaches between the two, as is the case at Mumbai now.

Along with the Rs 250 Crore Terminal complex, the Union Cabinet has also approved the Rs 70 Crore Air India Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility at Trivandrum, which will come up next to the new Terminal. This facility which will service Boeing 737-800 series aircraft will be the biggest in Kerala and one of the very few in India. Land for the MRO has been handed over to AAI by the current GoK. Private airline, Go-Air and Singapore Airlines Ground Services will also jointly offer repair and maintenance services at Trivandrum airport soon.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

City Development Plan approved

lolGood news at last.....

The City Corporation Council on Wednesday approved a Rs.7417-crore city development plan (CDP) to be submitted to the Central Government for assistance under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Apart from the Corporation area, the 20-year perspective plan covers parts of Vizhinjam, Kazhakkuttom, Sreekaryam, Kudappanakunnu and Vattiyoorkavu panchayats bordering the city. It includes projects in 10 sectors, namely water supply, sewerage, stormwater drainage, environment, solid waste management, traffic and transportation, urban regeneration, heritage and tourism, social infrastructure and basic services for the urban poor.

While the total outlay for the infrastructure sector is pegged at Rs.6840 crore, an amount of Rs.577 crore has been earmarked for the sub mission on basic services for the urban poor. The projects will be implemented over a period of seven years, with the Centre footing 80 per cent of the cost and the State Government and the Corporation providing 10 per cent each. The CDP was prepared by a core committee headed by Mayor C. Jayan Babu after detailed

The shortlisted projects are:

1. Inner, Intermediate and Outer Ring Roads

2. Dedicated road/freight corridor for Vizhinjam Container Terminal

3. Truck Terminals at Vallakadavu, Chala and Eanchakkal

4. Multi-level car parking plazas

5. Light Rail Transport System (LRTS) from Kazhakkoottam to Killipalam

6. High Capacity Buses

7. Development of Kovalam-Veli and Kovalam-Kolachel waterways

8. Water treatment plant

9. Sewage treatment plant at Valiathura

10. Automatic air quality monitoring stations

11. Artificial forests at Muttachira and Chitranjali studio complexes

12. Landscaping of waterfront at Kovalam

13. Leisure areas at Valliathura - Shankumugham beachfront

14. Tourist facilitation complexes at Vizhinjam and Kochuveli

15. Helicopter and seaplane terminals at Kovalam and Aakulam

The list looks good and includes most of the projects that were identified in various forums, as being essential for the growth of the Metropolitan area. :-) In terms of time frames, my take is that the following will be the case:

Short Term (12 - 18 months) - Truck terminal at Chalai, landscaping at Kovalam, leisure areas at Beach, air quality monitoring stations, Inner and Intermediate Ring Roads, afforestation.

Medium Term (18-36 months) - Parking plazas, Outer Ring Road, High Capacity Buses, Water and Sewage Treatment plants, helicopter and seaplane terminals, tourist complexes, new Truck Terminals.

Long Term (36-72 months) - LRTS, Freight Corridor for Vzm port and development of waterways.

Now, it remains to be seen how much funding is actually received and which projects are taken up. With the level of funding from JNURM, the last three projects cannot be executed, and only preliminary work for them can be done. So, independent funding/BOT models need to be developed independently for them.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The tale of a Bench

I remember, way back in class VII or IX, I had read about the Indian Legal System and then again in IIM Cal, where there was a vestigial (and quite boring) course by the same system. In that, High Courts held jurisdiction over cases pertaining to the State Govt. and then to appellate jurisdiction over lower courts.

Now, one would think that since a great many cases before the HC of a State deal with the State Government, the HC itself would be located at the State capital - the seat of the Govt. and its many offices. Well, one would be proven right if almost any state is considered. However, for the past 50 years or so, there has been a curious and inexplicable exception, now at the centre of a swirling storm of debate. Yes, it is Kerala.

Recently, after much prodding by the LDF Govt., the Union Law Ministry and the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court agreed to set up a Bench of the Kerala High Court in the capital city of Kerala - Trivandrum.

The readers who wonder why the HC is not in the State Capital in the first place, may please understand that other considerations do play a role in siting Govt. institutions - whimsical as these considerations may be. Let me leave it at that for now.

Now, why would you want to shift the solidly set HC or even a bench? After all, there is a smart new building on Marine Drive, which reportedly rivals the Legislative Assembly in size, and there are a lot of lawyers and judges settled in Ekm, right? The small matter that hundreds of crores are spent by a cash-strapped Govt. to send lawyers, babus of various levels, documents and faxes to fight out GoK-related cases in Ekm. Or that urgent work gets delayed in Govt. offices just because the officials concerned are off on a legal safari, which inevitably takes at least a day. Not to say that all these officials are on time at the Court, lots of cases are lost by GoK due to the intransigience of lawyers and officials, according to a very unimpressed CM, comrade VS, who has called for closer tabs to be maintained on these gentlemen....uh....persons!

With a HC Bench in the Capital, all this time, expense and inefficiency can be easily avoided. In fact, the expense of setting up a Bench can be recouped in perhaps, just a year's time. So, what's the hue and cry all about, let's do it already? Not exactly, let's just say babudom isn't too impressed by such ideas of efficiency.....less income on the Travel Allowance front and less free time....and ughh, more work? I rest my case!

Recently, it's been heard that the legion of HC lawyers in Ekm have come out against setting up a HC Bench in the capital. I guess they are worried there will be less cases in the HC proper than in the lowly Bench, lol! And without legions of unfortunate litigants, where will all that moolah come from? Poor guys!

Let's just hope that after 50 years of sheer lunacy, that reason does prevail and the Bench is set up in the city, where the Court itself should have been if logic had been the prime criterion in the original decision.

An anecdote. Once, a bunch of people - all activist citizens of the capital city, including yours truely - had gone to meet the previous CM, Mr. Chandy, to press for the HC Bench. Mr. Chandy had an interesting suggestion - the HC Bench can be set up, if and only if the University College can be shifted out and its buildings used for the Court. Well pigs might fly and the Congress Party may dispense with a High! Guess, our ex-CM - who always had the rubber belt and "smart" projects at heart, must have thought he couldn't lose either way. Either the College would stay put and he would say "now I can't get the Bench", or he would be rid of the pesky SFI activists in the campus who have no love lost for the collective backsides of him and his Cabinet! Anyways, good thing that creative idea was not put into practice or else, there would have been one heck of a whirlwind to reap.

~ The author freely admits his Left leaning! ;-)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Trans Towers is a recently launched Office complex at Vazhuthacaud. This massive building is the first BOT project of its kind in Kerala, where a private party has developed infrastructure on public land and is leasing it out to Govt. agencies and businesses. This dazzling building will house offices, banks, a supermarket, restaurant and the KTDFC HQ. Another superb addition to the growing list of landmark buildings in the city.

Soon, the luxurious Dodla Int'l hotel project which is nearing completion opposite the Commissioner's office will provide some company to Trans Towers.

Sand mining....where's the sand for the buildings?!

These days, sand mining has evolved into a criminal nexus as widespread as the hooch mafia and as destructive as the timber mafia. Mafia....mmm...evokes images of dishum-dishum movies and indeed, the recent raids against sand mining operations have been quite theatrical, involving large posses of cops, divers and JCBs to size and destroy boats, in operations which remind one of Roman naval warfare!

So, everybody agrees that sand mining on this scale is going to ruin the rivers and backwaters of Kerala, which have made our state legendary in its beauty and a great place for all of us to live in. But do we need all this sand, where's it goin anyways? The answer is simple, we just need to look around us. The construction boom has never been this pronounced in Kerala before. A high-rise a day is being announced these days in Trivandrum and Kochi, and thousands of private residences are going up. Big builders like DLF, Unitech, Rahejas and Emaar are setting up shop in Trivandrum and Kochi, and looking to expand. And to further add to the demand, there is the demand for IT and hospitality space. One look at the IT Corridor and Technopark in Trivandrum and that becomes obvious. Millions of square feet of space are going up and that requires quite a few cubic meters of sand.

Okie, so we need the sand. Where else can it come from? One interesting proposal which came up a couple of years ago is to mine sand from the sea bottom, wash it and then use it for construction purposes. This involves a dredger out in the deep sea, which will dredge sand from depths of 20-30 m and then bring it to shore, where it will be washed to remove salt and then used for buildings. A foreign firm, a Mid-east based one I think, had come forward to invest the hundred crores or so required for the purpose. Unfortunately, it has been duly shot down due to protests from fishermen that the dredging would destroy fish stocks.

How true is that? I am no marine biologist, but at first glance it does seem to hold some truth. However, if that were true then the kind of dredging going on around Dubai would have rendered it a sub-sea wasteland. Billions of cubic metres of sand are being dredged up to create the artificial islands - the Palms, the Marina, the World - which have become the craze these days. Howver, studies have shown the impact to be limited in extent. Similarly, massive dredging is ongoing for the Sethusamudram Ship Canal project, where studies have again shown negligible impact on marine life so far. And Cochin Port Trust carries out major annual dredging to keep its silt choked channels open, right under those iconic Chinese fishing nets. Also, one needs to consider that most fish spawn out at sea and hence will not be affected by bottom dredging in the intermediate zone.

In the end, options like sea sand mining will be required to save our rivers and the economy at the same time. The challenge is to ensure that ecological impact is minimised, we don't want to trade one disaster for another, and to educate our fisherfolk about the same. Hope the Government takes steps in this direction soon and does not just confine its activities to Suresh Gopi style raids, lol!

So, here is looking forward to a New Kerala built from sea sand!

Monday, September 18, 2006

The centre of development in Trivandrum these days - Technopark. The largest IT Park in India now, it has over 3.5 million sft of space occupied or under construction in a lush green, 250 acre campus. Another 3 million sft of space and 100 acres of land are on the anvil. Technopark employs over 13,000 techies and hosts some of the giants in the IT space including Infosys, TCS, E&Y, US Tech, Officetiger and many more.

The first post......

Hope this is the first of many. This blog is planned to be about the lovely city of Trivandrum which I call home and the events, developments, stories and pics associated it, which form part of the ancient, undying, colorful tapestry which is the City of Anantha - Thiruvananthapuram.

Here, I hope to share some of the experiences which have come out of the twenty fived and odd years of my life, of which a great deal has been spent in my beloved city. Trust it will be entertaining. All of that later.......!

For now, it is Work In Progress. Catch you all soon.