Monday, December 31, 2007

Better times ahead.....

The last day of 2007 seems to be a good portent of better times for Trivandrum in 2008 and further ahead....

Trivandrum - The Hub of the Future (clickable Link)

Lol, these are not my words, but those of a leading national newspaper. A few months ago, it would have been mighty hard to find "Trivandrum" and "hub" in the same sentence in any media report.

Today, as Brahmos Aerospace brings the defense and aerospace industry to Trivandrum in a major way, the perception is changing. Brahmos will only be the second plant of its kind in India and one of the most advanced in the world, as it will manufacture what is possibly the most advanced cruise missile in the world. Brahmos will target a turn-over of over Rs 1000 Crores in five years' time, as export orders will add to that of the Indian Armed Forces.

In addition, the tri-services Aerospace Command is all set to come up at the Southern Air Command. The Coast Guard station at Vizhinjam is being expanded and the Army has submitted a proposal to the Government for an Army Medical College in Trivandrum.

Satyam Comes to Trivandrum

Satyam Computer Services, one of the top 5 Indian IT firms, has submitted a proposal to start a campus in Trivandrum. It has asked for 30 acres of land from GoK. Perhaps due to the "Take Deviation" experience encountered by other IT firms looking to set up shop in Trivandrum, a senior Satyam official said " Satyam will enter the state if we get the space here. We are not interested in setting up it anywhere else in the state."

Now, all that's required is for the Government to reply positively and the State will have gained an IT major and maybe up to 10,000 jobs.

New Year Gift?

Whereas Brahmos is a great gift to the city for the coming year, there is a long list of others which could be in the pipeline.

The Most Likely...
  1. Technnopark Phase III
  2. Technocity
  3. Infosys and TCS campuses
  4. New International Airport Terminal - Phase I and II
  5. Air India Hangar
  6. IIST
  7. Capital City Road Development Project
  8. ......and Vizhinjam
The others (cross your fingers...and toes)
  1. IISER
  2. Nanotechnology Centre
  3. Central University
  4. Aerospace Command
  5. Biotechnology Park
  6. Defense Park
  7. IT Corridor
  8. NH-47 four laning
  9. JNURM projects
  10. Permanent venue for IFFK
Last year, we had looked at a list of projects. In the days ahead, I will look back at how many have made any progress. I am guessing it won't be a pretty picture but we have better times to look forward to if the closing weeks of 2007 are any indication.

Wish you all a very Happy and Prosperous New Year in advance.

I hope many of you are in Trivandrum today to enjoy the most happening New Year Party in Kerala as the city goes wild and lights up the night! Cheerio!

See you all next year, folks!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

FREAKONOMICS Lesson One : The Principle of Familiarity...

"Freakonomics" is a truely thought-provoking book by economist Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner , which has become somewhat of a cult classic among those who prefer to think off the beaten path and try to understand the often surprising drivers underlying mundane looking facts of our world.

In it the authors outline a very familiar but often over-looked reason why we sensationalise some things and ignore others, it is called, well, the "principle of familiarity". The best example is the fear of flying. We don't bat an eyelid when we set off on a drive along roads which are populated by maniacs, and strewn with the wreckage of accidents. But when someone near and dear is setting off on a flight, there is always a hue and cry, despite the fact that airline pilots are seldom maniacs and that India has not had a civilian airline accident in at least a decade. (touch wood!) In fact, statistics show that airline travel is at least as safe as or more so than automobiles. If we take gross accident and casuality figures, air travel is much safer than driving your car. So, shouldn't we be feeling safer taking that flight rather than when we go grocery shopping?

According to Levitt and Dubner, it is because cars are familiar and under our personal control, that we feel safer in them. They are familiar! So it doesn't matter that the pilot on your next flight has 5000 hours of experience and his plane is packed with millions of dollars of safety features, while your driver (maybe a younger sibling) has just peeled off the big, red "L" board from your car, which was its only safety feature in the first place! You still feel helluva lot safer in the car. This is why we believe in horoscopes and quack astrologers, in curses and wishes...and yes, in touching wood, among other things.

Peter Sandman, a self-described "risk communication consultant" (he essential advises you on how best to tell your dad that you crashed his car) has a nice equation for what he calls the perception of risk.

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

So the perception of risk is a combination of the actual, often quantifiable element of danger (say, the no. of air fatalities per million seat kilometers of travel) and the perception of that danger itself (the gruesome vision of an air crash). According to Sandman, when hazard is high and outrage is low, people tend to underreact and when the hazard is low and the outrage is high, they tend to overreact.

This explains why the local Greens are up in arms when one tree is axed for road widening eventhough hundreds are being cut down daily in illegal logging operations across the State and the Country, or why there is an uproar when the Government hands over some quasi-forested land to ISRO for a world-class institute even when hundreds of acres of dense forest are being appropriated for ganja cultivation. The operative phrase is "out of sight, out of mind". Visualising a tree being cut down at Kowdiar Avenue is much easier than doing the same in some obscure, inaccessible jungle. Not to mention that protesters can conveniently reach Kowdiar from their air-conditioned houses, in their fuel guzzling cars whereas the forests of Idukki or Bandipur are a tad farther away.

Now, while this just described phenomenon can be seen in societies across the world, there is a parallel but opposite process in action as well, the manifestation of which is evident in our media day in and day out.

For that, we need to reframe Sandman's equation,

Attention = Substance + Hype

Let's take the tale of two projects. One is an established player, the largest of its kind in India. It has attracted investors and praise in equal measure from across the world, big and small. It is rapidly expanding with a proven business model and a large existing and potential clientele. The second is a marginal player based in a country where its chosen industry is non existent, it is about one-third the size of the above mentioned player, has no major operations to speak of and is still to evolve a firm business plan or schedule of expansion. Thus far, I am sure all of us would agree that the odds are firmly in favour of the former. People would be more interested in it because of its proven track record and scale. The media should be continually reporting about it, especially since it is the largest employer in the region. As for the second player, a wait-and-watch approach would be adopted. Right?

Well, wake up and read the news. Atleast, read or listen to a few members of the local media fraternity. Surprise, surprise....the second entity gets ten times as much media coverage and even more of the share of public interest. Illogical, well that's the truth and you and me are all part of this willing suspension of logic.

Many of you would have already understood what I am referring to. The first mentioned is Technopark, India's largest IT Park and Kerala's largest employer. The other is the Dubai Internet City, the darling of the press.

The facts are crystal clear:

Source: Media reports, Technopark website and press conferences by GoK/DIC. Note: Technopark refers to Phases I-IV.

Think about it, despite the entire affair having dragged on for almost 3.5 years and a formal agreement having been signed for the last 8 months, DIC still does not have a business plan. Leaves one wondering whether they were expecting manna and money to fall from the heavens. And even if the smallest builder is launching a modest apartment project, care is taken to have snazzy imagery available. Despite the fanfare of the project inauguration of the "Smart"City project, there is still not even a single pixel available. Maybe the ink ran out?! Much is also harped up on the fact that a sister "Smart" City project is coming up in Malta. It is a modest 1 million sq.ft commercial development according to the official site , situated on a tiny island (about the size of TRIDA) with a population of about 400,000. That the island is in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, has no local IT talent pool and hence is one of the most unlikely places to put an IT park (along with Greenland, New Guinea and the Falkland Islands) seems to have found little mention in the press. Atleast for the Malta projects, there are a few renderings available in the press kit . The one in Cochin has not even been deemed worthy of even a couple of artists' impressions.

So, if this is the case, why is this project occupying centre-stage instead of others which are far more believable and which bring greater benefit to the State and its people - Vizhinjam, Cochin LNG Terminal, Technocity and so on to name a few? The answer is found in the value of the third variable in that equation (Attention = Substance + Hype). A media frenzy over the past few years and months has resulted in the topic occupying far more mind space than it ever deserved. A frenzy which was primarily the doing of a Kottayam-based newspaper and the oldest of malayalam channels. One knows not for what reason, but more space and time were devoted to this issue than to more urgent ones like the pathetic condition of the State economy or to bigger projects like Vizhinjam, Technocity or the LNG Terminal. This is where the question of novelty - the opposite of familiarity - comes in. Though far bigger and more successful than DIC, Technopark was a familiar entity. Whereas with the right mix of "Dubai", "Smart", "Microsoft", "IBM" and what not, there was a lot of novelty on DIC's side. And the people were hooked!

They can't be blamed, not when they are treated to claims that the so-called "Smart" City would help Kerala overtake the likes of Bangalore and Chennai as an IT hot-spot, whereas in reality the total amount of space (and hence employment & revenues) to be added by DIC in 10-12 years is only as much as that added every year in Bangalore or Chennai. Or when the public is told that DIC already has the likes of IBM and Microsoft as tenants in Dubai and will bring them over to Kerala, when the truth is that only sales offices and service management centres work in DIC - no major IT firm has software development centres inside DIC. The reason is very simple, the manpower will have to be brought from India and paid much more, contrary to the principles of offshoring. Sadly, only those working in the industry are aware of these facts, whereas everyone else seems to be on the trip of their lives.

Including the Govt. of Kerala. Well Ministers and Bureaucrats read papers too, can they be blamed for being led astray. One of the top IAS officers of the State, whom I was meeting for another purpose, asked me if DIC were going to construct all the buildings themselves?! I was incredulous, finding it hard to believe that such a senior administrator himself knew so little about a joint sector project! But, that is the sad truth. No one seems to know much about what is going to happen, not least of all the DIC team itself, which is still searching for business plan.

DIC is just a case in point. The trend applies to all sorts of things in our daily lives. We value a Mercedes Benz more than a Skoda with the same features, or a Nokia more than a Samsung. Marketing gurus call it "brand power", but it is a fancy name for the accumulated hype that has been built-up around the brand. After all, neither Benz nor Nokia started out with a head-start over its competitors. All of it was built-up steadily over time, with conscious efforts to differentiate themselves in the minds of their customers.

Unlike in the case of consumer products and services, when we allow ourselves to be led the wrong way in the case of public policy and projects, the end result could be very damaging to society. For example, very little public opinion is directed in favour of developments at Technopark. I cannot recollect even a single public demonstration calling for the speeding up of projects there, despite the fact that it is and will continue to be the largest employer in Kerala. When we delight in calling hartals and bandhs for reasons ranging from the execution of a genocidal maniac called Saddam to the Indo-US Nuclear agreement, I fail to understand why the politicos and the public balk at even a dharna for a mega-project like Vizhinjam, which could change the trading map of the entire region? Or why is it that the newspapers devote space, ad nauseum, to the Dubai World container project when they scrooge over giving attention to a port project which is 4 times its size and a dozen times more important. Or why such a hue-and-cry is raised over handing 100 acres of land to India's most prestigious organisation - ISRO - while laurels are heaped for handing over 250 acres to a unproven firm which has nothing to say for itself, so much so that its "Success Stories" webpage is empty?!

Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come to see through the make-believe part of things and analyse them for what they really are. Levitt and Dubner have pointed something that all of us do but seldom recognise. Failing to distinguish the Substance and the Hype surrounding an issue usually leads us to support the wrong cause or to fail in supporting the right one, at the very least. And when those causes are major public projects, from which all of us stand to benefit, we cannot afford to be led away from the right choice. Otherwise, the real projects could all go elsewhere and we would be left clutching at phantasms which may never come to and were never meant to come to their predicted fruition.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Your speak!

It is always great to get feedback from all of you out there, because it helps me understand the pulse of the people and also identify aspects and details that I may never have though of.

Prasant has identified and enumerated 22 infrastructural improvements that he feels Trivandrum urgently needs. Anish (scorpiogenus) has added his perspective to the items in the list. I think both these gentlemen have done an insightful and intuitive job which sadly seems to be difficult for our urban planners to emulate.

Blogger prasant said...

If Trivandrum has to grow to become a major destination in South India,it needs several infrastructural improvements
1.Making Airport- Kollam Road 6 or 8 lane road.
2.Construction of a Trivandrum-Thiruneveli-Tuticorin express way.
3.Ring road from Chirayinkizu to Katakada-Kaimanam (Vizinjam Stretch already exists) ( 4 lane).Conversion of Karamana-Peyad/Kattakada road to 6 lane.
4.More Star hotels
5.Atleast 2 International Convention Centers.
6.More MBA schools of National/International Standards.
7.Packaged tourism (covering Trivandrum,Kollam,Nagercoil,Tirunelveli districts).
8.Setting up of a professional Urban Development Authority.
9.Increasing the role of City Corporation from mere rag pickers to development facilitators.and calling it Metro Corporation.
10.Development of Additional runways/revamping of the old/scrapped runways in international airport with runway extending into the sea.
11.Setting up of Industrial Parks in other parts of district.
12.Seeking the help from the engineering colleges(for eg. CET) in and around City for city development.
13.Improving the mass transport system(City Bus) by forming seperate authority (Like BEST or BMTC) or increasing private participation in the same.
14.Increasing the number of auto services in and around city,ensuring fair wages.
15.Development of Kazhakkuttam/Chirayinkeezhu railway station to a major station(with the name Infocity or so(so that people can easily spell and also can serve as a brand name for the place).
16.Renaming Kochuveli rly Station and Spacecity Rly Station.
17.Setting up of a space technology and aviation museum ( with the help of Southern Air Command(IAF) and VSSC).
18.Setting up of an electronic City in the suburb.
19.Laying floor tiles in all the footpaths near all roads inside the city and near technopark,so that less dust is generated.
20.Creation of more Parks and Gardens inside the city and in suburbs.
21.Creation of a Commercial Street(at least 4 km straight Stretch) with full security and skyscapers/building specification away from Statue ( the area infamous for notorious activities and vandalisation,hampering the development of city.)
22.Creation of more Flyovers, Subways and Double Roads.

If atleast five things are implemented in a time bound manner,you can see the city growing by its own.

10:52 AM

Blogger scorpiogenius said...

Prasanth & Ajay

Those 22 necessities for the development of Trivandrum as a global city could just be refubrished slightly. Im suggesting slight additions or changes to Prasanth's ideas, which I think will boost the overall development.
#1. Converting Bypass and the Kollam- Nagercoil highway into 6 lanes. If you dont wish to see another Hosur Road like nightmare, we must have minimum 8 lanes with dedicated bus lanes and service roads in Tvm-Attingal sector, soon to be a super Techno corridor!
#2. Tirunelveli Road is a great idea. I dont know the possibilities of a rail-road corridor, but Kazhakkuttam could be developed as a junction for the Trivandrum- Punalur Railway line via Nedumangad and could be connected to Tirunelveli through Shenkottai. Regarding suggestions #15 & #17, It would eventually happen and we could develop another junction @ Nedumangad, with a new line connecting Balaramapuram and to the proposed rail link to Vizhinjam. So this railway would serve as a rail-bypass to Trivandrum Central and satellite stations of Kochuveli & Kazhakkuttam. Interestingly, it would also constitute a circular railway around the city, as in Delhi, from Kazhakkuttam-Nedumangad- Balaramapuram/Neyyatinkara- Vizhinjam. This would turn Kazhakkuttam as a hub for suburban rail and would make it Dadar of Trivandrum.
#8. Regarding professional Urban Development Authority, we already have a good idea in your blog, don't we Ajay? 'Corporatising the Corporation' the November archive.
#11. Industrial Units...very very crucial! We cant rely only on IT, we need manufacturing/ trade/service industries to mushroom in the suburbs. May be Vizhinjam Terminal can act as a catalyst, but do we have the large chunks of land??
#13. Mass Transit. Well, BRTS is the best bet, economical and viable but we need dedicated lanes for buses and of course traffic discipline so that private vehicles dont ply on them. Suburban Rail System is on the cards already. Water Transport(Kollam-Kovalam through TS Canal) is an attractive option. Metro Rail, will not be financially successful as of now, but who knows, may be in 25 yrs time when Trivandrum reaches that level.

You are right Prasanth, just implement the above 5 ideas, and you will find the remaining 17 of your plans automatically becoming realities.



My personal favourites are:

#1. Creation of a 6/8 lane IT corridor along the Mangalapuram - Vizhinjam axis: Earlier we had been taking of a 6 lane road from Kazhakkoottam to Kovalam. But with the arrival of the Rs 6000 Crore Technocity at Mangalapuram and the even more massive deep-water port at Vizhinjam, the length and capacity of the corridor has to be expanded. With GoK and NHAI finally agreeing on the BOT model for the 4-laning of the NH-47 from Trivandrum to Cherthalai and Kanyakumari, 4-laning of the IT Corridor will happen by 2010. By then, 4-lanes will be woefully inadequate and it will be prudent for GoK to either request NHAI to 6/8 lane this stretch or add the additional lanes by itself.

#2. Highway to Tirunelveli & Tuticorin: Trivandrum has always had strong trade links with the hinterland of Southern Tamilnadu. There is already a proposal for a road via Ambasamudram. With the coming of the Vizhinjam port, these areas could provide the land needed for setting up SEZs and port-based industries.

#3. and #22. - Ring roads and other improvements - They are already covered under the Mobility Plan proposed for JNNURM. Hopefully, with 80% Union funding, things should happen faster than the often-still born projects of the State Government.

#8. & # 9. - Setting up a professional Urban Development Authority: Totally agree to that one, as I had gone into in detail in an earlier post.

# 10. - Airport Expansion: This is a trouble-some item in view of the land constraints faced by any city-based airport. Trivandrum International Airport is right in the middle of the metropolitan area, which makes for very quick and convenient commuting but which also precludes acquisition of large extents of land. A possible solution is forming in my thoughts, and I will try to put it down in my next post.

# 15. - Railway expansion: Expansion of Trivandrum Central and Kochuveli stations is well underway. The suburban train service from Kollam to Neyyatinkara (till Trivandrum Central in Phase I) is already under implementation. Suggestions by Prasant and Anish to create a ring-railway will work in parallel with a ring-road system to decongest the core urban area and speed up the city's outward expansion.

There is a recommendation for an elevated Light Railway System in the Mobility Plan, which can be combined with the EMU-based ring railway line. The line from Punalur can pass via Venjaramoodu and Nedumangad to meet the main line at Nemom/Balaramapuram, bypassing the congested Trivandrum Central. A line from Kazhakoottam to either Venjaramoodu or Nedumangad would close the loop in the ring line. This alignment will minimise land acquisition within the urban area, which would prove very costly and difficult. Nemom is already proposed as a Coach Care Facility and suburban terminus. Thus it could be an ideal junction. Kazhakkoottam will be the other junction and probably will handle a greater passenger load considering its proximity to Technopark, Technocity, various Kinfra industrial parks and the upcoming residential hub of the city.

# 21. - Creation of a new Central Business District: Great idea! This could already be in motion along the Chackai - Kazhakkoottam stretch of the IT Corridor. With mall, IT space and hospitality projects by DLF, Plaza Centres, Unitech, Rahejas, Columbia Asia, Tamara and other international & national majors, in addition to those by regional majors coming up along this stretch, there will soon be a ultra-modern CBD coming up in parallel to the existing one.

Hope to get more great feedback like this in the future too. Keep your suggestions coming and thanks in advance!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Weekly updates

A lot happens in a week, especially in a booming market like Trivandrum. Just dawned upon me that it would make sense to do a round-up of all the development news so that everyone is aware of atleast the major goings-on. In reality, it may not be possible to do an update every week, but I am hoping to be rather frequent with this. The idea is to minimise those often incredulous "did that happen here" or "is it already in Trivandrum" type questions. Here goes:

December 1 - 15:

  1. India's biggest and best film event, the 12th International Film Festival of Kerala came to a wildly successful conclusion on the 14th, attended by over 9000 delegates from across the world who saw almost 250 films from all corners of the globe.
  2. The Govt. notified the remaining 250 acres of the massive Technocity project, thus clearing the way for physical acquisition of the 450 acres of land for Kerala's largest IT project, estimated to cost a whopping Rs 6,000 Crores ($ 1.5 Billion).
  3. The submission date for the Vizhinjam deep-sea port was extended to Jan 31, 2008 to accommodate requests from bidders, including top international firms, for more time to complete their feasibility studies.
  4. Nitesh Estates, a leading Bangalore-based builder, has announced a 600,000 sq.ft mall in Trivandrum, in association with a Citibank arm. This comes close on the heels of Unitech's announcement of its mall project in Trivandrum.
  5. Air India has issued the call for tenders for constructing their MRO Facility at Trivandrum, with a stipulated completion time of October/November 2008.
  6. Meanwhile, AAI has called for tenders for the construction of the Second Phase of the New International Terminal of the airport and the project is slated for completion in November 2008, along with the First Phase. AAI has preponed Phase II work in light of the tremendous traffic growth at Trivandrum.
  7. Berggruen Hotels has announced the establishment of their Hospitality institute in Trivandrum. The US hotel operator is currently building their first property in India in Trivandrum.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How smart do you need to be?

I recently came across a Blog Readability test on a friend's blog . Despite the fact that he was not too impressed by its result , I thought I should give it a go too.

It was one of those black-box type thingies. As in the kind of black box into which you plonk in a number of mundane looking ingredients and out comes a clone of Pamela it Monica Bellucci (gimme two of those...!). The internal workings of these boxes are mysterious, as mysterious as quantum mechanics (to those of us not endowed with Feynmann-type noggins) or the impossibilities of Indian politics. For all I knew, when I typed in the URL of this blog, the processing could be done in equal probability by an AI algorithm running on a supercomputer or a bored chipmunk hitting a random button in exchange for a nut. But, with the innate pride of all writers, I gave it a spin and it said......

cash advance

Bitter-sweet, ain't it? For all the post-grad studies and time spent in uber elite organisations, all I could churn out was somewhere in between high school and under-graduate levels. Hmmmmpppphhh!

Wait a second, wasn't the idea of the blog to make for easy reading that everyone could understand so that people could appreciate the growth of Trivandrum and the issues surrounding it? So, it is a good thing that the blog got a relatively simple rating. And going further along that line of thought, maybe the blog is actually a bit too complex - if that large portion of the population which has not yet attained the Under-grad level can't make head or tail of it (La cosa maledetta รจ nel Latino)!

So while the editorial board feels a tad belittled, it is back to the writing board to make things a little simpler. On a more serious note, I would appreciate feedback from all of you on whether the content needs to be made any simpler. Many thanks and take care!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Save the British Library!!!

I am sure many of us have used the British Library at one time or the other, especially for rare references for all those projects that we have undertaken. Recently, the British Council has shocked the patrons of the Library by announcing its sudden closure from April, 2008. (Read the news report)

Vociferous protests have arisen against this move to close one of the most valuable resource institutions in the State and efforts are on at all levels, including that of the State Government, to reverse the decision and to preserve this venerable and valuable institution in Trivandrum. An online petition has been created to support this effort, and I request you to take a few minutes off to sign the petition.

Please pass on this link to any of your friends or relatives who may want to support the cause as well. I fervently hope that the British Library will continue to be an integral part of life in Ananthapuri for a long time to come, with all our support. Thanks in advance.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Hotel on wheels

We have all heard of hotels on wheels.....on rails rather, but here is a another, even more interesting idea.

Rotel is a German tour operator whose USP is the mobile hotel. And I kid you not, Rotel offers tours across various parts of the world on caravan-like vehicles which can provide accomodation for dozens of people. Rotel stands for "Rolling Hotel", by the way.

Rotel Website (Site is in German)

One of these giants is in Trivandrum today. After a lengthy and hair-raising chase down the Highway, yours truely managed to catch up with the giant truck as it parked for the night close to the Uday Samudra Beach Resort at Kovalam.

The Mercedes Benz truck at the front acts as a coach for the guests during the daytime when the convoy does its travelling. The trailer provides bunks for the night and other amenities.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Nikunjam Builders has just announced the towering 36-floor iPark near Technopark. This giant will be one of the tallest buildings in South India. And it stands tall among the ranks of high-rises in Kerala.

The area north of Kazhakkoottam is all set to become a high-rise zone as buildings of 100 m or more height are possible here according to the height restrictions due to the Airport. Technocity, which is even further away, is likely to see a plethora of high-rises, including possibly a signature tower of at least 50 floors.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I have added a few new touches to the site, including a gallery and the links to some related sites and the blogs of a few friends. Do look through them when you get time. Ensoiii!

Stay tuned for the next update this weekend.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Singapore is a FINE city...!

Singapore is becoming a favourite tourist destination for Indians, including Keralites. The outbound tourist traffic is expanding by the day as evidenced by the difficulty in procuring air-tickets to and from there. It seems that the attractions of the closest enclave of first-world civilisation to India is enthralling the tourists from God's Own Country. The skyscrapers, the malls, the Metro and of course, the "spotlessly clean" city.

Usually, the last bit stays with them the most. They spout on and on about how "Singapore roads are so clean that one can lie on them." Nice that they are so positively inspired by the model city-state. All the more pity then that the instant they step out of Trivandrum International Airport, they crumple up and throw wrappers, boarding passes and other assorted trash onto the roads of their own city, without as much as a second thought! And perhaps spit on the sidewalk for effect, before walking to their illegally parked car and discarding the luggage trolley in the middle of the road.

And it is not just is Hong Kong, New York or a dozen other other-worldly places which we regularly hear high praise sung of. And to end it all, the deriding of the home-town when it paints a poor picture in comparison. And there is no denying Trivandrum does not compare favourably with Singapore, New York or Geneva on many counts like quality of infrastructure, affluence, urban cleanliness or lawfulness, even if it manages to beat the pants of many of these ubertropolises in terms of natural beauty and culture.

But who's responsible?

Who litters the streets without a second thought....who takes spitting on the road and smoking in public for granted....who digs up the roads clandestinely at night....who jaywalks and who plasters every available surface with posters advertising every imaginable thing?

Surprise! Yes, the answer is you and me, us, the "fine" citizens of this fair city. Not me, we may say....but how sure are we?

Littering has been with us since we got off the trees, well earlier as well, I bet. The simple thought that dumping something unwanted somewhere that we don't have to clean up is an inviting proposition indeed. So inviting that it makes even the most educated, affluent citizens into litter-bugs. Despite the fact that Trivandrum has one of the best solid waste management systems in India, thanks in great part to the hard-working Kudumbasree teams, one often sees speeding cars - usually high-end cars - drop bags of domestic waste onto roads as if they were Stuka dive-bombers from WWII. I suppose it never occurs to these folk that other people have to walk on and drive over those same roads.

All of us join the cacophony of complaints against pot-holes and other assorted holes on our roads. Why, there are even websites set up by frustrated citizens to highlight this issue. And it is a menace as well, accounting for a non-trivial fraction of the accidents on our roads. The common culprit is supposed to be the unscrupulous contractor and his accomplice, the even more villainous PWD engineer, who together conspire to create poor quality roads. Well poor road construction and the heavy annual monsoons are partly to blame. But if we believe the remaining potholes are the work of gremlins (locally known as vethalams/odiyans!), then it's time we woke up. One may be forgiven for thinking so, especially in light of some holes and trenches which seemingly appear overnight on previously smooth roads. The explanation is much more mundane and even less palatable - this is the handiwork of some of us who decide to cut a corner or two.

Most of these trenches are dug up by people seeking water or sewerage connections and reluctant to pay the fees levied for repair of the road. And these same outstanding citizens grumble and protest vociferously when they run over someone else's trench. At the best of times, the mechanism for repairing dug-up roads is slow, as evidenced by the time taken to repair trenches dug by the KWA or BSNL, where repair costs are mandated. So, when trenches are dug at night with the object of avoiding repair charges, the time taken to repair the damage is often measured in months and dozens of accidents. I wonder how many of these offenders get prosecuted. After all, finding the culprit doesn't require the talents of ol' Mr. Holmes or Ms. Marple, a water or sewerage connection is slightly tough to explain away. When the student protester who breaks the odd windowpane or windscreen is expeditiously charged with the Prevention of Destruction of Public Property (PDPP) Act, why is the same not done to a nocturnal excavator who causes thousands of rupees of direct damage (to the road) and much more in indirect damage (to assorted shock absorbers and spinal columns!). I don't think that the Act will ever be applied in this case, for it will bring storms of protests about excessive punishment and the citizen's freedom - after all, the Right to Dig, is enshrined in the Constitution, right next to the Right to Spit & Litter and the Right to Jay-walk! Similar to the storms of protests over banning public smoking (which probably kills more passive smokers in a year than Hitler managed in his Final Solution.) or for punishing encroachments of public property.

Here we come full circle to Singapore. The most common tee-shirt that is bought as a souvenir from the city is one which states "Singapore is a FINE city!" True, isn't it? Well, if one looks more closely, it is evident that the sentence is bit more than mildly sarcastic, and it in effect refers to the innumerable fines which are levied for things that are concerned mundane in India - spitting, buying chewing gum, littering, peeing in lifts and feeding uncaged monkeys (the last two may be less frequent than the rest, I hope so.).

Singapore's signature T-shirt

It is not that one day the fine citizens of Singapore all decided to turn a new leaf and took a resolution never to litter/spit/jay-walk ever again. While the resolution of the populace to transform their city into a first-world enclave was the overarching theme, draconian penalties and strict enforcement were the tools. At one point, Singapore banned the ubiquitous chewing-gum so as to prevent discarded wads of gum interfering with the closure of automatic doors on subway trains. Here is a sample of what you get in trouble in Singapore for and what the penalties are - "selling or importing chewing gum S$1,000 (£370), dropping gum or litter S$1,000, dancing in public S$5,000, skateboarding S$500, smoking in most public places S$1,000, hawking without a license S$500, vandalism S$5,000 and public speaking without a permit S$2,000." So it has been a mixture of the carrot and the stick, and a pretty long stick at that.

Can the same approach be adopted in Trivandrum? The recent protests against the ban on non-recyclable plastic is evidence that the atmosphere is not very conducive. In India, democracy is taken to mean liberty to do as you please. Thus, new rules and the enforcement of rules would come as a rude and unwelcome change to all and sundry. However, history shows that rapid societal change is usually catalyzed through changes in the governing and legal framework. The Marxist revolution, the advent of democracy in the US, the introduction of temple entry in Travancore or the disappearence of chewing-gum from Singapore are all the results of decisive action.

For this, the first step will be strong political will, which in turn will happen only when the interests of the people are impressed upon their representatives. Secondly, a strong enforcement authority is required. Since most of the regulations will pertain to municipal matters, an empowered municipal authority is an ideal monitoring and enforcement agency. The Police may not be the best choice, as these infringements would constitute no more than petty crimes in their scheme of things and thus come at the bottom of their already overworked priority list. Thirdly, all of us need to think twice before we drop a piece of paper or toffee wrapper on the road or park a car right at the foot of the "No Parking" sign.

Fines may not be so bad, in the end. They can help fund a lot of the cash-strapped Corporation's work. By deterring people from committing offences as well as aiding in development work, they will play a dual role.

In the meantime, think twice before you drop that next wrapper on the road and make sure you tell your friend not to do so as well. I have practiced that all my life. It may get you a few wierd looks, but your conscience will be clear and your city a tiny bit cleaner.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

10,000 and going strong!

We have just hit 10,000 views. Lemme take this opportunity to thank all of you for taking some time off to read my banter. And for the great comments and support that I have received.

The comments on the blog only appear after I read them and get a chance to put in a response, which I feel makes more sense. I try to check up and respond as frequently as possible and regret any delays that have happened.

Writing this blog has truely been a journey of discovery. I have had to research extensively for many of the articles here. While many of the subjects themselves were familiar to me, looking for similar examples elsewhere as well as best practices related to them, has taught me quite a lot. And one tends to think more when writing about an issue than when simply considering it. In fact, we often write about only a small portion of our thoughts while the rest are simply stored away. In this way, writing helps to open many points of view and many approaches, even if only one or two finally make it into written words.

Whereas many of the articles here have been on problems and issues suffered by developmental projects in and around Trivandrum, I have tried to approach them from a constructive point of view. Rather than endless cribbing or finger-pointing, indulged in by many blogs on Kerala, a positive approach will serve some purpose. We can't expect the powers-that-be to read the blog and wise up, but if the blog manages to create awareness and interest about the issues that we all face, I will be a very happy guy. And from your response, I see that there are many people who share similar thoughts and feelings and appreciate updates on what is going on and why. Many of us, even those right in Trivandrum, may not have the time and opportunity to track issues and to learn more about what happens behind the scenes. So, it is important to share information and create awareness, and thus build up pressing public opinion for a development centric policy for Trivandrum and the surrounding areas. That's my $ 0.02.

Once again, thank you all and hope we can keep going for a long while yet. I fervently hope that one day there may be little to worry about in terms of Trivandrum's development and thus only good things to write about, but I fear just as much that the day is far yet.

Wish you all a good day ahead and a Happy Diwali!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Corporatising the Corporation

Think of a dynamic, professionally run property management company which operates a sprawling 46,000 acre township that is home to over 1.5 million people and includes an international airport, deep-water seaport, a dozen luxury hotels and superspecialty hospitals, world class R&D and educational institutions and a 25 million sq.ft knowledge zone. The company employs thousands of staff to take care of dozens of services to be provided to its customers. Led by a professional management and publicly listed, it raises hundreds of crores each year through a variety of means.

Now, if you thought I was referring to a mega-township like the King Abdullah Economic City , managed by a professional property development and management firm like Emaar MGF , you could easily be right. After all, big integrated townships are the rage these days in the real estate industry. And bigger the better, with sizes approaching and often exceeding 25,000 acres.

But what if I told you that I was in fact referring to a possible incarnation of that all-too familiar and often begrudged organisation, the Trivandrum Municipal Corporation?! You would think that I lost my marbles sometime in the recent past....quite understandable, given that the Trivandrum Corporations track record for efficiency, project execution and financial prowess is not exactly exemplary. Far from it! Yet, such a seemingly impossible but highly desirable state-of-affairs can come about, with the application of a few tried and tested management principles and strategies, which have helped little known companies grow into billion-dollar giants.

The fact is that there are two bodies which are primarily responsible for the development and upkeep of the Trivandrum metropolitan area - Trivandrum city and its suburbs. Namely, the Trivandrum Municipal Corporation (TMC) and the Trivandrum Development Authority (TRIDA).

Although their roles and responsibilities converge at many points, there are some broad areas of clear demarcation. TMC provides civic services - from street lighting to solid waste management to education and health - and is governed by a directly elected body of councillors. TRIDA looks after end-to-end developmental activities - including land acquisition, project tendering & management, operation, maintenance and BOT projects, and is mostly run by nominated members.

The synergies are very strong. Both TMC and TRIDA focus on the same geographical area, although TRIDA's sphere of activity is slightly larger. Both the organisations have to find income to meet capital and operating expenditure often running into hundreds of crores annually. And although TRIDA is much less visible to and interacts less intensively with the common man than the TMC, both have significant impact on all our lives. Finally, and quite sadly, both face the same kind of problems - budget shortages, inefficiency, red-tapism, capability gaps and manpower shortages.

It doesn't take rocket science to see that some reorganisation could make a lot of difference to the way these two lumbering behemoths work.

Of course, we are not talking of taking the democratic element away. Far from it, we would look at making it more effective. Whereas the TMC element in the merged entity, let's call it the Trivandrum Metropolitan Development Corporation (TMDC) will handle public policy, the erstwhile TRIDA element will focus on the execution, operation and maintenance of the entire civic infrastructure. Separating the Legislative and Executive elements will give both a chance to operate more effectively. For example, when a legislator is also part of a Standing Committee on a particular issue - say Public Works - his/her thinking may be clouded by operational issues and hence the policies made not be the best ones, since there may exist ways and means unknown to him/her of operationalising the best policies. In reality, it is unlikely that the TMC will be ready to relinquish all of its powers within the TMDC framework, so it may retain the taxation, record keeping, health and education parts while all project functions are devolved.

Now to understand how TMDC can be more effective than its predecessors, let's lean on some cutting-edge management policy. This part is drawn from a recent article in the Mckinsey Quarterly, entitled "Organizing for Effectiveness in the Public Sector". ( You can read it here, if you have a log-in. I suggest that you do read it or get an account soon to do so.)

The authors refer to public-sector institutions like TMC or TRIDA as being "large, complex bodies which are insulated from competition and have mixed, sometimes non-financial goals." They believe that five redesign levers can be used to create more efficient and effective organisations.

Strengthen the Top Team: There is no denying the importance of the top management team, be it a corporate giant and a municipal corporation. The management not only decides the strategy of the firm, but also directly or indirectly its operations, brand image and almost everything about the organisation. The two key elements of the management teams are its members and their effectiveness as a team. A career politician may not be the best urban planner or administrator. As a recent Tata Tea ad goes, politicians may not have any of the qualifications necessary for the posts that they hold. So it is essential that TMDC be infused with professional talent - managers, urban planners, engineers, architects and so on. The top team of TMDC must be a combination of elected and judiciously nominated/selected members. Next the team must work as a cross-functional unit and formulate strategy which can be quickly and efficiently translated into action.

For example, creating a "strategy to wipe out poverty" will be of little help, whereas a strategy to use Self-Help Groups to improve economic self-sustenance is much more readily implementable, if less grandiose.

Separate the Design and Provision of Services: This is essentially what we talked about earlier, in having separate legislative and executive wings. So while the legislative focuses on policy, the executive wing can focus on execution and operation, and can be more easily held accountable for their performance. This divergence of roles also helps to focus on more on bringing about quick and sweeping change.

The executive can focus on improving efficiency and effectiveness. One ready example is by combining procurement of goods and services. While the different departments of the TMC and TRIDA earlier bought cement, steel, diesel or printer catridges in disparate, relatively small lots, a combined purchase wields far greater power with suppliers and consequently gets a better deal - be it in outright discounts or better after-sales services.

Define the Role of the Organisational Centre: Most organisations, the TMC and TRIDA are no exceptions, have large headquarters setups, large not just in the size of the buildings but in that of the staff and the accompanying budget. In a Yes Minister-ish model, these often end up being the biggest cost head on the annual budget. By strictly defining the role of each and every department and staff member, a lot of rationalisation can be achieved. For example, in TMDC, the people coordinating between TMC and TRIDA become redundant. In a country, where laying off a public sector employee is as likely as an ice cube in hell and as politically dangerous as throwing a live grenade down own's shorts, it needn't be the case. Staff can simply be redeployed to front-line offices and units, which being smaller are usually more accountable, or they could retrained to acquire new skill-sets. In short, we can go from a behemoth whose one end doesn't know the address of the other, to a series of agile units aligned around a small but capable HQ.

Integrate Performance Management: Usually considered as difficult as untying the proverbial Gordian Knot because of unionisation, sedentary pay structure, the absence of competition and what not, performance management can still be deployed in an organisation like the TMDC. With smaller units making the measurement of outcomes easier and innovative performance incentives like further education opportunities or faster career progression, there is a good chance that performance management can be operationalised successfully. While this is so, it will still be one of the most difficult parts of the change management efforts for the TMDC. One critical factor will be keeping things simple, some performance management systems are so complex or opaque that they are often accused of being full of favoritism and often end damaging the organisational culture. Additionally, the benefits of the system must be quite evident to all levels of personnel.

Learning New Skills: This doesn't necessarily mean that the sweeper on the roads learns skills to be a councillor and vice-versa, although it may give the latter a better understanding of the hardships of the former. Rather, this part of the organisational transformation will initially target to help personnel acquire new or updated skills which will directly help them to perform their existing roles better. So this could be to help the road sweeper learn how to operate a vacuum machine or the councilman a PDA. This sort of training is already happening at TMC as it progressively converts from seas of dusty files to an electronic office. Its one-stop interaction centre has already proven to be a boob to the harried citizens of Trivandrum. Later, the training can be expanded to include areas related to the current function or even to aid career progression within the functional area. This strategy of skill improvement in related areas helps to bring the most significant and the fastest benefit in terms of productivity improvement. The last-stage could be bring in a limited type of multi-tasking by acquiring news skills and experiences, but still usually within one broad function.

Well, the theory sounds fine, but what will it bring you and me? After all, we will be footing most of the bill for this exercise. For starters, it will increase efficiency within TMDC by setting better strategy, ensuring better execution by skilled staff who are also motivated to go that extra mile. This in turn drastically improves the customer experience, which translates into you and me having an easier time the next time you drop into a TMDC office or having streets swept daily...with machines to boot! Brightly lit streets, wide roads, plenty of water - sounds too good to be true.

Well, it could be far too good to be true if one crucial ingredient is missing - money. Without that, any amount of efficiency will not matter. It is one trait both the TMC and TRIDA share, the chronic shortage of funds. While this state of affairs is mostly due to the unviably low user fees (read land tax, building tax etc) and inefficient financial management of the two bodies, it is exacerbated by the lack of any innovative ways of fund raising. The first part of the solution is to rationalise the user fees, a process already being started by the developments signed with the Asian Development Bank. Even the Left Front has come to terms with the fact a hike in user fees is necessary to prevent the local self-government bodies going bust. Coupled with sound financial management, this will help somewhat to fill TMDC's coffers but still not be able to fund major capital expenses. For this, TMDC will have to adopt a method of funding now widely used by its peers in almost all of India's other major cities and utilise the one valuable resource it has - land.

With an envisaged geographical extent of 500-600, the TMDC will have significant land reserves. These could either be smaller but high cost-per-acre plots in the city and its suburbs or larger but lower cost-per-acre plots in the outlying areas. In a State with the highest density of population in India, land is scarce and hence TMDC may not have the thousands or tens of thousands of acres at the disposal of its brethren in Hyderabad, Chennai or Kolkata. But this is where the State Govt. can step in, by transferring all excess land with its various departments to TMDC. For example, Kerala University is said to have almost 300 acres of excess land at its Karyavattom campus, right next to Technopark Phase I. The value of this land could be in the range of Rs 450-600 Crores. Quite a tidy sum by any standards, enough to fund 100 kilometres of 6 lane roads in Trivandrum or an entire Bus Rapid Transit System! A two-acre plot inside the CBD could fetch Rs 60-80 Crores, given the prevailing prices of Rs 30-40 Lakhs per cent! Examples of such fund-raising exercises are dime-a-dozen these days, as municipal bodies are increasingly left to fend for themselves by cash-strapped State Governments. It is not only the metros like Mumbai, Delhi or Hyderabad are able to reap the bounty, but tier-II cities like Vishakhapatanam, as developers race to establish themselves in these emerging investment destinations. And it need not be outright sales in every case. A PPP venture like the Rs 6,000 Crore Technocity will enable TMDC to receive annual payments whose cummulative value will far outweigh the proceeds of a one-time sale. Such revenue streams will help make up the lion's share of TMDC's annual operating budget. Come to think of it, TMDC should have already been in place to harness the Technocity project, being responsible for land acquisition and then forming a partnership with Technopark to create the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) with a private developer for the project itself. TMDC can also chip in with the basic infrastructure like roads as well as power and water supplies. Considering that the project is coming up on land in Trivandrum and is being promoted due to the success of our own Technopark, I find it natural that a share of the profits should be ploughed back here itself with the rest being used for ventures like district level IT parks in other districts, or maybe even to fund the near-bankrupt Infopark in Cochin.

The final element required is single-point responsibility and authority. TMDC should be able to coordinate the activities of all public utilities and services within its area. The first step in this direction has already been taken with the signing of an agreement which hands over the planning, tendering and ownership of the water supply and sewerage network in Trivandrum to the Corporation, while the Kerala Water Authority will remain the executive body overseeing the execution, operation and maintenance of all projects and systems. (Read the news here.) While this segregates and concentrates responsibility, we have to hope that it does not turn into another pass-the-buck contest. Under a similar agreement with the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), the Corporation is supposed to pay the KSEB to operate and maintain the streetlights of Trivandrum City. Disputes over payments between the cash-strapped Corporation and the equally poverty-stricked KSEB has meant dark, dangerous unlit stretches for all of us. And while the two bodies trade accusations, motorists and pedestrians alike are meeting with accidents. While the structure of the agreement with the KWA, wherein the latter retains all operational aspects, should hopefully prevent deja vu, we need to extra vigilant and safeguards need to be built in to ensure this. A cash-rich TMDC, its cheque book bloated by the release of its land bank, should also help prevent this situation from arising.

The formation of a TMDC is a crying need for a fast growing city like Trivandrum. Today it leads the pack of Tier II IT destinations, which include cities like Mysore, Mohali, Vizag, Coimbatore and so on, many of whom already have fully-fledged Development Authorities with ready land-banks. If we don't follow suit, we run the risk of being left behind by these cities and forced to pick up scraps with Tier III players like Madurai, Vijayawada, Asansol or Cochin.

With the formation of a strong and capable TMDC, Trivandrum which has lead Kerala by miles in terms of urban amenities like piped water, electricity, sewerage, telephones and public transport, will once blaze a trail in terms of urban development!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Technopark updates - October 24

A lot of action is happening in Technopark these days. This week, to be more exact. Two of Kerala's leading IT firms, both based at Technopark, have unveiled ambitious growth plans which will propel them into the big league.


IBS has inaugurated the first phase of its 450,000 sq.ft campus in Technopark Phase I. The campus will be complete by 2009 and employ 4,500 professionals.

UST Global

Just a couple of days later, UST Global has launched work on its 10,000 seater campus at Technopark Phase II.

The first phase with a built-up space of six-lakh sq.ft and a capacity to accommodate 5,000 professionals, would be ready within 12 months. The investment plan for the first phase was about $ 60 million (about Rs. 240 crore).

The second phase to be completed by 2010 would have a built-up area of four-lakh sq.ft and a seating capacity for 3,000 professionals. The proposed investment plan for the second phase was $ 40 million (about Rs. 160 crore).

Finally, the third phase had been designed to have a seating capacity for 2,000 professionals and it would have a built-up area of three-lakh square feet.

The software development area alone totals a whopping 1.3 million square feet, the overall campus could have a built-up area of close to 2 million square feet, when ancillary areas are also factored in!

The first phase is a behemoth with a total of 1 million sq.ft of built-up area, with about 14 floors at 70 m tall. Its yawning atrium is said to span a football field while the building's footprint extends over 5 acres! It will overtake the 850,000 sq.ft. Thejaswini as the largest IT building in Kerala and will be one of the largest single buildings in India.

Well, that is about 2.5 million sq.ft launched in the span of a week, but the good news does not stop there.


Work has finally begun on the signature campus of Infosys. The 1-1.5 million sq.ft campus, designed by Hafeez Contractor, will seat 8-10,000 professionals and be completely finished by 2010. The first phase of 400,000 sq.ft is expected to be complete by end-2008.

Tata Consultancy Services

Closeby, at Phase I, Infosys' arch-rival and India's largest software firm, TCS, is reported to be ready to commence work on its massive development centre by December 2007. The centre, the first in Kerala, will have over 1 million sq.ft of built-up area.

So it's raining campuses in Technopark, now if only the Government were one-tenth as active. The acquisition of the 100 acres of Technopark Phase III is expected to be complete by December as is the first 200-250 acres of Phase IV - Technocity. These have been pending for years now, and we can only hope that the burst of activity from the IT majors will spur, if not shame, the netas and babus into action!

I have often been told, sometimes by readers of this blog, that the "who's who in IT are already in Cochin". Well, I guess they mean TCS, Wipro and CTS - although 3 out of the 15-odd Indian and MNC majors in India is a long way from "the who's who already being in Cochin". Of the these, only small operations - less than 500 personnel apiece - are in place. Only Wipro has shown signs of expansion, with an 8000-seater campus by 2010-11. On the contrary, TCS is now getting ready to commence construction of an ODC in Trivandrum instead. In Trivandrum, all the majors - Infosys, TCS, UST Global and IBS - have started work on their own campuses, as I have detailed here.

I sympathise with those who choose to ignore reality, they have a serious malady indeed! It is blindingly obvious that actions speak louder than words. Whereas the projects in Trivandrum are already being built and occupied, elsewhere all those countless "millions of sq.ft" are still on the drawing board, if at all, despite years of relentless crowing.

On the website of Technopark, it is mentioned that about 3.2 million sq.ft of space has been completed and occupied, and that another 2 million sq.ft are under development, not even including Phase II. On the other hand, the Infopark, Cochin site mentions that "it plans to have 1.7 million sq.ft" without mentioning much about the actual space as of today. The creative use of the words "plan, expect, confident, will happen, in another 10 years" and so on - an integral part of any confidence trickster's repertoire , are the cornerstones of most news reports coming out of our neighbour by the Vembanad Lake. The saddest bit is not that such media reports come out in a most media-aware of States, but that so many of our enlightened citizens fall hook, line and sinker for all this.

Wake up!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Printed Word Unsaid.....

The CM's been making waves recently by conducting a road show at Bangalore for IT CEOs. Surprising? Well, maybe yes, though the incumbent has certainly taken more initiative despite limitations of ideology, political environment and experience (or the lack of it) than the previous gentlemen, who was all hype and no action. But the surprise of the visit was not in the happenings therein, not even in the official Govt. press announcements.

No, the bombshell was left to a vernacular daily, one which claims to be the big daddy of dailies. In this report, it claimed that during the CM's visit to the Infosys campus at Electronics City, Infy officials had reportedly said that "Trivandrum and other cities in Kerala need to upgrade their infrastructure to attract investments. Kochi is the only city in the State to have the requisite facilities to attract investment!"

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Wow, now that's an endorsement if any. Right? Well, maybe not, if one pauses to consider the facts. Infosys is developing a mammoth development centre - designed to eventually accomodate 10,000 or more techies - in Cochin.....err no....Trivandrum. So, why in heavens's name would they be doing that if they think Cochin is the only worthy "destination" in Kerala? Could they be making a titanic mistake in not following that pioneer of IT development (no, not Microsoft, not IBM) Dubai Internet City in making a beeline for Cochin?

Well forget that the latter does not have a muncipal water supply or a sewerage system. Forget that one often needs to borrow a lunar buggy from NASA to negotiate its roads which bear closest resemblance to the craters on the Moon or that to live here is to attract a higher life insurance premium on account of the likelihood of expiring on account of malaria or swamp fever. Forget even that Cochin accounts for less than 20% of the IT exports of Kerala and less than 0.2% of the IT exports of India, it is still after all the "IT hub of Kerala and a close competitor to Bangalore" That is, if the same vernacular daily is to be believed.

Shocked, like many a sane person, to read this latest report, I thought of dropping Infosys a mail and asking if they had radically changed their mind about Kerala. In the midst of contemplating whether to drop a line to Kris Gopalakrishnan himself (yea right!), I was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply in double quick time from the Infosys media office.

And here it is....I suggest you take a look yourself and see how "truthful" our media are.

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Chances are that there was no statement of this kind was ever made. Perhaps, someone said that cities in Kerala need to improve, maybe they didn't say anything at all. When there is a vested interest with a newspaper at its disposal, a whole lot of noise can be created.

I remember, a couple of years ago, the same daily had run banner headlines stating "IT giant Oracle comes to Cochin; 1400 jobs to be created", whereas the truth was that Oracle had opened a one-man sales office to service Small and Medium Business. Funnily enough, the same daily somehow overlooked the fact that the CM had put a lot of emphasis on the Rs 6000 Crore Technocity project - the largest of its kind in Kerala, while the others papers had carried it prominently in their reports! (Check out the report in The Hindu)

Instances of selective reporting and misreporting by a section of media are rampant these days. Perhaps it will serve them well to remember that whatever their claims of readership, the day these readers abandon them due to their lack of credibility, the advertisements will dry up too. Perhaps it is also time to send a clear signal that prejudice and bias will not be tolerated in an institution - like the press - which is supposed to be a symbol of justice and impartiality.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Pachyderms of the white variety....... (Part I)

We seldom bat an eyelid when we see a pachyderm of the species "elephas" a.k.a. the Indian elephant. After all, despite the recent fall in the numbers of tame elephants, these black giants are a common site on the roads of Kerala, plodding along or hitching precarious rides on lorries. Except for when an enraged elephant occasionally polishes of its mahout or vice-versa, the headlines seldom feature these symbols of Kerala. Much more print space and news-bytes are being grabbed by another manifestation of the species, one which doesn't exist in the real world but affects all of us even more profoundly - the white elephant. A reference to a King's prolific expenditure on his "sacred" white elephant which eventually bankrupted him, these days it has been coined to refer to any project - big or small - which has limited utility but ends up sucking in vast amounts of resources.

In a State whose exchequer cannot even afford to pay its employees without creating miles of arrears, one would think financial prudence would ensure that such projects are not considered for implementation in Kerala. But seeing what the Govt. is upto, one would think that a suicidal tendency has gripped the whole of that monumental white building formerly called "Hazoor Kutcheri" (a.k.a. The Secretariat).

The best case in point is a project which is often half-heartedly mentioned whenever there is a hue and cry about the cratered roads and snail-crawl traffic of Cochin - the Metro Rail. On the face of it, the whole thing looks snazzy and truely a mark of a metropolitan city, a word often and inexplicably tossed around these days in the same breath as any random mention of Ernakulam. After all, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and London all have a Metro, so why not Cochin? After all, it will reduce congestion on the roads and transform the city overnight. And with the backing of a personality as eminent as Mr. Sreedharan - the man who made Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro a reality against great odds - one would think that the scheme is on pretty firm ground.

Ahem.....think again. Actually the whole idea is on weaker footing than the worst marsh in Kakkanadu or Maradu. For starters, there is the size of the market. Mr. Sreedharan himself has gone on record to say that only for metropolitan areas with a population of 4 million or above does Metro Rail (here I refer to an elevated/underground rail-based mass transit system) become feasible. Hmmmm....last heard of, Cochin and its suburbs - even when the area nearly from Cherthala to Angamaly is taken into account - could only account for about 1.5 million people (1.3 million in 2001). So that leaves a slight deficit of....err...2.5 million people to reach the threshold of viability. Unless someone plans to ship in people en masse via the Dubai Ports' terminal, that's a biggg deficit - 2,500,000! And not to say that all the cities with more than 4 million people have Metro Rail projects. In fact, Cochin ranks 20th in the list of Urban Agglomerations in India. Of the top 20, only Calcutta (Population - 16 million) and Delhi (Pop: - 18 million) have operational projects while Mumbai (Pop: - 15 million), Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore all have projects still in the planning or construction (in the case of Bangalore) stage. Not to mention the remaining 14 cities above Cochin. Perhaps, that's why the Union Ministry of Urban Development has washed its hands of the project or why it has been in gestation for three years now. Metro Rail costs upwards of Rs 150 Crore per Kilometer, and the total cost will be more than Rs 4000 Crores of burden for the taxpayer - you and me. And when even the Delhi Metro is struggling to break even, this project will take forever to do so. There are already serious doubts about the viability and benefits of the Bangalore Metro, as voiced in this article. A project perpetually in the red means either a ignominious end or a massive bill for the public. After all, the netas and babus who moot such hare-brained but good-to-print schemes don't have to foot the bill for their follies.

What a city like Cochin (urban area population of 600,000 in 2001) needs is to have its roads widened and grade separators installed at strategic points. That will be much cheaper, if less glamourous, and much quicker to implement. At the most, a less-snazzy version of mass rapid transit system called a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) is what Trivandrum and Cochin need. In fact, Ahmedabad - a city five times the size of Trivandrum and Cochin - has already gone in for it, as have many major cities across the world. So perhaps, we should also contemplate a lesser pachyderm, one which suits the requirement.

Seemingly not satisfied with one behemoth white elephant, moves are afoot for a plan to create one in each district. No, they are not planning Metro Rails all over the place, that has yet to arise is someone's brilliant brain! Instead, the Govt. is planning to set up an IT park in each district, except for Trivandrum and Ernakulam. The idea sounds interesting enough, after all why limit the benefits of the "knowledge industry" (as IT/ITES is euphemistically referred to these days) to just Trivandrum and now to Ernakulam. Spread it around, after all there is a socialist (ahem....that's how us commies call ourselves now, to sound less Maoist) Government in power now, remember?. And it will be a first-of-its-kind exercise. Well, perhaps there is a good reason why it is so. A reason why states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra, each of which has an IT industry 15-20 times the size of Kerala's, haven't tried the same tactic eventhough the regional inequity is greater in their cases than for Kerala and hence the imperative to spread things around is more urgent.

The reason could be that the knowledge industry, unlike what has come before - manufacturing - is people dependent. And the people in question are not ones who would camp out in the middle of nowhere and pretend to be happy and industrious. They usually demand facilities (at least when they are still single and ready to mingle) - hangouts, chillouts and other assorted outs - which right now even Trivandrum and Cochin are only starting to provide. The knowledge industry also needs quality urban infrastructure and accomodation. Not to mention connectivity - both data and air. The latter seems to be a perpetual and insistent demand, eventhough the vast majority of techies only make a once or twice annual migration to that great, wide world called "Onsite" and back. So where does this put the plan to set up IT parks at all districts? In very murky waters indeed. So what will prompt IT/ITES firms to come setup shop in these new destinations, when most of them are atleast 70-100 Kms from the nearest airport and have no nouveau urban facilities to speak of.? Ever heard of a Cafe Coffee Day or Barista in Malappuram, or a five-star hotel in Pathanamthitta? Of course not to say that these towns don't have their charms, after all they are essential components of God's Own Country. But the question is whether they can compete with a Coimbatore, a Jaipur or a Vizag, and the answer is quite resoundingly NO. In plainer terms, they cannot even compete with the homegrown champ -Trivandrum. One more problem is that despite the recent proliferation of colleges (especially of the engineering variety), the great majority of existing and in-process (sounds rather mechanistic, I know!) talent pool is focussed around Trivandrum (19 out of 76 engineering colleges) and to a lesser extent, Ernakulam and Calicut.

So if the parks in the districts can't be sold (leased), where does that leave the Govt? With a bunch of empty buildings or land, at the very least. And on a familiar and worrying note, it again leaves the tax-payer with a rather large hole in the treasury. NASSCOM President Kiran Karnik, on his latest visit to Technopark, had a more practical idea - the familiar hub-and-spoke model. Make Trivandrum, the State's IT hub, a centre-point for IT developments in the adjoining districts like Kollam, Pathanamthitta and maybe even Idukki. Thinking beyond Baalus and Velus, we could even extend the linkages to Kanyakumari, Tuticorin and Tirunelveli districts which have about 50 engineering colleges between them. And what are these linkages? Transportation connectivity, for starters. 4-lane roads to all these places from Trivandrum, so that the travel time to the Trivandrum International Airport is cut from hours to one hour at the most. Build up Trivandrum as an IT destination, through Technopark. By developing Technopark Phases III and IV (Technocity) at double-quick pace, bring in at least 50-60,000 techies in the next 3-4 years. Then, keeping Technocity as the focus, allocate land or built-up space to companies in the "spoke" districts. Once companies are confident that these location are within the business and logistics sphere of Trivandrum, they will be more comfortable in moving there. This is essentially what Mysore, Navi Mumbai and Hosur are all trying to do now. While these towns are lapping up what is essentially the overflow from their neighbouring behemoths Bangalore and Mumbai, we still don't have that luxury. Trivandrum barely accounts for 1% of the national IT exports and Cochin for about 0.2%. Yet, with a bit of foresight and luck, those figures can go up and pave the way for the hubs to feed the spokes. Trivandrum and Cochin, for starters, and maybe Calicut a few years down the line. Price Waterhouse Coopers have been engaged to study the whole idea, and one hopes that they will advise soundly and that their advice will be received without being massively diluted by political imperatives.

End of Part I

(This is a long one, so it's going to be in two parts.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Pachyderms of the white variety....... (Part II)

As if we didn't have enough white elephants roaming around the State, here comes another one - in the shape of the proposed Kannur Airport. On the face of it, a fourth international airport to cater to the needs of the NRI-heavy North Malabar looks like a welcome proposal. It could avoid the long trips that the people of this region have to make to Calicut or Cochin Airports to catch flights to the promised land - the Gulf - be it for employment or to fulfill the sacred Haj. And with so many potential travellers in the region, there surely must be potential for a new airport.

At this rate, Kerala will be overrun with airports. They are already clamouring for one near Ambalapuzha. And the Union Govt.'s decision to lower the minimum separation between proposed airports and existing ones from 150 Km to 75 Km looks set to aid this proliferation. In this age of low cost carriers, let the common man fly. After all, there are airports in pretty much every town in the US and Europe and people more often fly than take a cab. Well and good. However, we are....ahem...atleast twenty years behind on the evolutionary curve of air travel than those regions, and even there, the budget carriers and legacy airlines alike are struggling to stay in the black. Too much competition, combined with the stratospheric cost of fuel these days is oft cited as the main reasons. And competition is bad not just for airlines, but for airports as well. Simply put, as more airports compete for the same base of passengers, the lesser the traffic each can garner. The three airports in Kerala already divide up the pie pretty well. To make matters even more interesting, neighbouring airports like Coimbatore and Mangalore are commencing international operations, luring away even more traffic. While in the case of short-haul and even longer duration domestic flights, increased competition may slightly expand the market by reducing fares, in the case of international flights this may not be the case. Kerala has perhaps the third highest foreign tourist influx in India, one of the highest NRI (non-gulf) populations and a burgeoning IT industry to boot. Despite all this, there is not even a single major non-Gulf based international airline (with the notable exception of Silk Air/SIA) flying out of Kerala. On the other hand, Amritsar (with a smaller airport and lesser traffic) now has direct connectivity to the US and UK. The reason, other than the Universal Brotherhood of Sardars, is that Amritsar manages to concentrate all the traffic of the State whereas in Kerala it is spread over three airports. Whereas regional and domestic flights can operate aircraft with capacities from 50 to 180, international flights typically use 250+ capacity aircraft like the Boeing B-777 or Airbus A-330 to achieve economies of scale. Hence, while the former can adjust to pick up smaller loads from multiple airports, the latter prefers to fill up at one airport. To take an example, even when there are 250 passenger per day from the three airports of Kerala to New York, no airline can afford to hop its aircraft across the three cities to pick up the entire demand. The result is that passengers from Kerala to and from the US or Europe are forced to hop via Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Colombo or Singapore. So while there is the convenience of an hour or two's saving in travel to the airport, one ends up spending up to a day more catching a connecting flight or flights. On the whole, a losing proposition.

The proposed Kannur Airport will eat into the traffic primarily of Calicut Airport, which even today has poor domestic and international connectivity compared to the State's other two airports. The basic point is that an extra airport does not generate totally new traffic, it will more likely tap into the traffic of existing airports in its vicinity. Thus, while Kannur Airport may generate a few of its users anew because of the convenience and lower fares, most of its traffic will be residents of Kannur and Kasargode districts who earlier used to use the Calicut Airport.

The State Govt. proposes to acquire 2000 acres for the project. Even if the proposed BOT model reduces the outflow from the State Treasury, it does mean a whammy for the Calicut airport. So, the sum total of things may be worse off than they are today. Two airports with poor connectivity in place one with a potential for good connectivity.

A better solution? Keep the three international airports as they are and develop commuter airports - say at Kannur, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta - which could have direct connectivity among themselves as well as feeder connections to the three main airport. The advantages - better international connectivity, lower overall travel times, lower development costs (for the commuter airports) and faster implementation. Instead of acquiring mammoth strips of land for the planned white elephant airports, the Govt. can better focus its efforts on acquiring the around 100 acres required for the drastically necessary expansion of the Trivandrum Int'l Airport and about 130 acres needed for the next phase of development of Calicut Airport.

So where's the rocket science in all this, the powers-that-be know all this, please quit yapping - you may say. And I would be damn happy if that were the case. Unfortunately, all that is in evidence is a runaway population of white pachyderms, even while the current Govt. loudly and frequently professes financial prudence. Perhaps part of the reason is that the most powerful and tortuous of the feudal provinces within the corridors of power - the Finance Department, is run by bureaucrats and accountants. With due apologies to both of the above, they may lack some of the abilities of true financial planners. A financial planner will recognise that there is often a strategic angle to a decision and not a purely financial criterion. So, the cheapest necessarily may not be the best. Having professional managers helps in this regard since they can examine all the contributory factors to and the resultant impacts of what may appear to be a purely cash-flow based go-no go decision. After all, it is very easy to be penny-wise and pound foolish (rupee wise and crores foolish, to put it in local terms). Add to this, the political motive - an IT Park or Airport (atleast the foundation stone of one) in your constituency is very strong resume point for the next election, especially so when there are only foundation stones to count and not live projects. So no matter whether a project is even remotely viable or actually suited to/required in that region, the decision is taken often on a purely political basis. Maybe that is why one tends to find tea research stations suspiciously located on the seashore and desalination plants located even more suspiciously on hill-tops.

Add to this the profit motive - the under-the-table profit of course - and we have a winning cauldron of skulduggery which prevents logical reasoning ever seeing the light of day except in very, very rare circumstances. Considering that a worthy in the Finance Dept. was recently given a dressing down by the CM for notching up a long list of objections to the Vizhinjam deep-water port project apparently to protect the interests of someone near and dear who owns a resort in the vicinity of the port site, one cannot discount the profit motive at all. In fact, it may be the strongest one of all.

Okay, we have seen some of the symptoms and causes of white-elephantiosis govermentus, is there a possible cure? No quick fix, I must admit - unless we adopt the Chinese (shoot everybody and don't ask questions later) model of dealing with financial incompetence. But for starters, one can ensure professional financial planners are called in for major projects. Independent viability assessments - perhaps involving that taboo C word, consultants - will also help. Will there be enough commuters to ever make Metro Rail break even or investors to occupy the oodles of space at "Smart" City if it ever does make it off the drawing board? A bit of prudent analysis will go a long way in answering at least the basic viability question, if not the nitty-gritties - like will a project even in 15 years or 18 years? Setup a citizen oversight committee to examine major proposals as well as random samples of more mundane decisions. And NOT pack this committee with retired Finance Secretaries and Accountant Generals, but more proactive, perhaps younger, souls. Those who understand that Excel-based modeling is mathematical analysis and not a fashion parade for plus-sized women, would be a big help, for starters!

Let's not hold our breaths over this. Maybe it will take the complete and utter bankruptcy of the State by its herd of white elephants for someone to realise that we should all have been smarter. Let's hope it doesn't need to get to such dire straits before we realise that truth - that we need to be smarter!