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.