Thursday, March 29, 2007

Demand Market!!!

Many of you might be wondering where is all this IT space demand that I keep talking about - is it for real or only existent in the realms of my mind?

Well, here is some proof that the demand for IT space in Trivandrum is going through the roof, pun unintended! This is a list of space requests which has been published on the Technopark website. It includes some of the biggest names in the business - Emaar, Ascendas, Rahejas, PCS and many more.

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So like the man asked, "where's the wood for the trees?" or in this case, "the space for the IT parks?" Sadly, the answer is none is available as of today. Technopark Phase I is bursting at the seams with buildings. With the Leela Infopark, IBS campus, Tata Elxsi campus, NEST building and the TCS development centre all in progress, there will soon be about 4 million sft of space on the campus. Anymore buildings and Technopark will no longer be the "Greenest Technopolis in the World", its much-cherished nickname.

And due to the dilly-dallying of successive Governments, Technopark Phase III, with an extent of 100 acres, is late - by the small matter of nearly three years! Even today, the physical acquisition of the land has been suspended due to a dispute in the valuation of land.

Apparently the geniuses at the Revenue department have decided to offer paltry sums of 6,000-10,000 rupees per cent in an area where the prevailing market prices are in the range of several lakhs. The tenants are ready to move out if the offer is hiked a bit, atleast to match the compensation paid for the land acquired under Phase II. It wouldn't have taken Albert Einstein to figure out that Phase III compensation had to be atleast a wee bit higher, considering the fact that the IT Corridor is witnessing the highest rate of real estate inflation in the State. Instead, our smart boys went and reduced the amount!

It is interested to note that the same Government was open to paying up to 90,000 rupees per cent for the land needed for that will-o-wisp project called "Smart" (???) City. Despite the fact that it has been controversial at best and bird-brained at worst, this kind of money (over 80 Crores all told) has been lined up for the project land acquisition. In the case of Phase III, the investors are all accredited developers or IT companies. Emaar and Ascendas are international majors while firms like the Raheja Group, Embassy and PCS are well-known national giants. Yet, it seems GoK wants to take "penny-wise, pound foolish" to extremes here!

It is heard that the land will be revalued and the new compensation will be paid out in a matter of weeks. However, in a time of penury for the State Treasury, let's keep our collective fingers and toes crossed. Stay tuned, for updates!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

More pix from M.G. Road

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The cladded front of the Santa Paint House building rises above the rubble, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Demolition at M.G.Road.....Delhi Ishtyle!!

Finally, they have gotten to demolishing the last remaining bottleneck on the M.G. Road - the stretch of shops from Pulimood to Overbridge. After the High Court specified grace period expired on March 23rd, demolition crews using JCBs and escorted by a large posse of riot police, moved in swiftly to pulverize the structures.

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Within hours they had turned the stretch of old buildings into a series of heaps of breaks and rebar which resembled the heart of quake struck Bhuj than the main avenue of Trivandrum.

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Hats off to whoever planned and executed this operation. One would more likely think it was the work of some clinical private developer or perhaps, the Israeli Army, than of our usually bumbling administrators. But applause is due here, for the work was carried out with the minimum of conflict and mess. There were a few heated debates here and there, when the author was on scene, but they were muted - perhaps due to the fact that there were about a couple of hundred of very bored looking riot policemen hanging around!

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I know it sounds gluttonous when one asks for too much of a good thing, but if only this was done a year or so ago, as planned. We would have been driving down a 6-lane M.G.Road end-to-end. I suppose there are those who believe late is better than never, but as far as development is concerned that's just not good enough. Here's hoping that the rest of the land clearance for CRDP is expedited as is that for projects like Technocity.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In the business of building a city....

We often say that private enterprises are much more efficient than the Government. One quotes how much better a Reliance or a Tata is at doing things than the pachyderm of an organisation that is collectively called the "Government" or "the Public Sector". Intuitively the reason seems simple, the private sector has that most inspiring of all factors - the Profit motive. Private industry is incentivized to perform better since its rewards are usually directly linked to the output. On the other hand, what does a Govt. employee get for going that extra mile? Nuthing! Conversely, there is usually no penalty for putting his feet up and taking it easy. However, things are not as simple as the carrot-and-stick.

A public sector enterprise is a wholly democratic setup in most cases. It's intentions are to promote the public good through commerce, as the name implies. In fact, it is a means of dispensing social justice; it could be through employment generation or through economically priced products. This often means that such organisations are not the most efficient or the most agile. For example, the complexity of checks and balances necessitated by a lack of apportionable responsibility and a culture of non-incentivized work spawns the so-called red tape tangle which has tripped many a worthy project.

Similarly, the Government and its attendant organisations like municipal bodies and PSUs often lack sufficient resources to adequately support major projects. This could be due to the inability to collect sufficient revenues through taxes, user charges etc for fear of public outrage or due to the fact that whatever funds are available are often diverted to projects which have more manifesto value than make economic sense or create tangible impact. In short, organisations of this genre are sure fire ways to haemorrhage scarce resources and to ensure vital projects are either non-starters or are delayed to the point that their viability is threatened.

The sad proof of this phenomenon is visible all around us. The Vizhinjam project, KSTP, innumerable sick and interred PSUs and what-not.

In recent years, two ways have emerged of working around these difficulties -

- Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) projects

- Public Private Partnerships

Both these models combine the resources of the private sector, their operational efficiency and expertise with the accountability and social justice of the Government. Projects under these models maybe more slightly more expensive, all told, than those undertaken by the Government but the main benefit is that they get completed, mostly on time. The biggest examples for these models are the National Highway Development Programme and the development of the airports at the Metros.

Government of Kerala has floated a spree of such ventures - Vizhinjam International Seaports Ltd. (VISL) , the much-heard about CIAL, the recent Infrastructure Kerala Ltd. and so on. Some of these have been successes; others not so. Let's say that the jury is still out.

So what does all this mean for Trivandrum? After all VISL has been formed for Trivandrum's dream project - the super transshipment hub at Vizhinjam and the newly formed infrastructure company was mooted with the initial aim of setting up a high-tech corridor between Trivandrum and Kollam. The answer is.....not much, atleast for now. VISL has been named as the nodal agency for the re-tendering and execution of the $ 1 Billion mega-port, and it remains to be seen how much it can do. The latter company seems to have conveniently forgotten its initial aim and now seems to be keen on setting up IT parks and IT corridors anywhere else but in and around Trivandrum. In fact, a lot of these GoK set-ups seem to be have some sort of predilection to only focus on projects about 200 kms North of Trivandrum and there on. It is only the degree of Northwardness which seems to vary with which of our eternal political fronts is in power.

Is there a solution to our city's woes? Yes, I believe there is one; a rather radical one but a solution which is possible. It works around the establishment of a Infrastructure Development Company for Trivandrum, let's call it IDC-T, for now. Let's lay out a few of its basic rules.

  1. IDC-T will be created on a PPP model with one Govt. nominated director as well as the submission of audited financial reports to GoK
  2. The GoK director shall be a qualified urban planner/project manager
  3. The initial corpus will be around Rs 100 Crores.
  4. IDC-T will have atleast 51% public equity. This will also include public financial institutions.
  5. The remaining will be apportioned among GoK and donors.
  6. Donors - large corporate houses with operations in Trivandrum, wishing to contribute to the city's development but unwilling to get directly involved. An example could be a large IT firm with operations here.
  7. A portion of the equity, possibly either from the first 51% or even the latter 49% can be placed with private equity firms.
  8. The company will have a Board of Directors representing GoK, the financial institutions as well as competent directors - management professionals, CEOs, urban planners etc nominated to represent the public.
  9. The organisation itself will be lean with a professional CEO and a small core team of finance, legal, engineering and project management experts.
The aims of IDC-T could be:

  1. Conducting detailed studies and preparing project reports for various developmental projects
  2. Project managing BOT developmental projects like those in infrastructure, transportation and housing in association with GoK
  3. Identifying, awarding and managing BOT projects on its own such as car parks, urban lighting, parks, focused transportation services etc which do not depend on GoK
  4. Master planning and project managing the development of the IT Corridor and co-ordinating with all concerned GoK and GoI agencies as well as private developers and IT firms.
  5. Overall marketing of Trivandrum as an investment destination, including road shows across the world and periodic investor meets.
  6. Build up a land bank to foster investment
  7. Provide facilitation services for incoming investments.
Prima facie, its capital and revenue streams could be raised through:

  1. Equity and debt
  2. Negative grants paid up front by BOT operators
  3. Revenues from direct BOT projects and indirect user fees
  4. Grants from GoK, GoI and international funding agencies
  5. Donations from corporate and individual donors
These are only the initial thoughts of a very concerned minds. Something like IDC-T seems to be the only way out of our predicament. When we know for sure that no one else is going to throw us a line and haul us out of the pit, it is prudent to look about and find a grappling hook and rope to haul ourselves out. IDC-T could be that very tool. If it had been already set up, the IT Corridor would perhaps been more than a concept now and we would have a host of urban infrastructure projects in place by now.

It is only an idea now. I look forward to suggestions from all of you. Do drop them in as comments or feel free to mail me. After all, the only thing we have got to look out to is each other. Everybody else seems to be looking North, lol!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Trivandrum Central heads for a make-over

One of my first truely amazing experiences as a child was my first visit to the railway station. Later I was to learn that the noisy, busy place with its hustle and bustle and the hooting locomotives, and strange announcements was called Trivandrum Central. It was then, still is and will continue to be the largest and busiest station in Kerala and the second most important station in the Southern Railway, after Chennai.

In those days before "budget" air travel and company-paid fly backs, Trivandrum Central used to be the starting point of many a wonderful journey across the length and breadth of India. As a young boy, traveling to the next town or state was like traveling to a whole new world. Lol, atleast I loved thinking that it was! Nonetheless, trips to Bombay, Ooty, Bangalore and what not started off here, and were wondrous experiences.

It also helped that I am crazy about trains. Steam engines are supposed to be what attracts most people about railways with their fairy-tale qualities and almost anthropomorphic personalities, I have never had the luck to see and hear a steam locomotive, except for that famous dwarf version on the way down from Ooty many a year ago. But, trains still attract me a lot. I have always been fascinated by machines, and they don't get much bigger, more powerful or louder than a big diesel-electric loco pulling a looong train. Yeap, there are jet aircraft and rockets which are sexier, but one is not exactly likely to see them often, despite the fact that India's fifth biggest airport and its spaceport were right next door.

The crowds at the station, with their immense diversity and always on the move, never cease to fascinate me. Two hundred thousand people use the station daily now and fifty trains come and go on average. The chugging diesels, belching black smoke as they laboured to pull their twenty coach burdens away and ear-splitting air horns send a tingle down my spine even today, not to mention when I was still being towed around by my parents.

The last time I was at Trivandrum Central, about a month ago, I was amazed at the transformation the station had undergone in the last year or so. After having done a pilgrimage of almost all airports in India in the last couple of years or so, I had thought railways stations would be a rude shock. Boy, was I impressed. Plasma display panels, real time train status indicators, LED coach position displays and a plush, A/C waiting room, not to mention a spanking new parking lot and yes, e-ticketing! I was half expecting a sleek jet aircraft to pull upto the platform instead of the Guruvayoor Express!

Yes, it seems a certain Mr. Yadav has been putting money where his mouth is, in between delivering lectures to smarty-pants B-school grads who used to pretend to know where Bihar was on the map. The cleanliness of the station and the expansive new multi-cuisine food plaza were all impressive. Of course, Trivandrum Central has been perhaps the cleanest station I have seen during my extensive tramping across the Indian rail network, but what I saw recently was a step change.

However things are all set to get even better! In December 2006, the same Mr. Yadav laid the foundation stone for the upgradation of Trivandrum Central to "world class" standards. It is among 18 major stations in the country and the only one in the State to be chosen for this. Now, "world class" is a term thrown loosely around, but more details have emerged in recent days in the media as to what the Railways plan to do with their main station in the State. You can read the details by clicking on the blog title or by going here.

After going through the proposals and earlier ones pertaining to facilities being added to Trivandrum Central, here is my $ 0.02 on what the station will be like in 2010:

- A one million sft terminal building will come up along the South side of the existing station yard. This will replace the "Coach Care" unit and the current Second entrance complex.
- Given the layout and space constraints of the yard, the terminal may need to be "single-ended" like that at Chennai Central in which trains arrive into it from one and reverse out.
- There would be two levels for platforms and tracks. One level would handle arriving trains and the others would handle departing trains. Whichever few trains do not terminate at Trivandrum Central could be handled on either level or at a different set of platforms.
- There will also be new platforms for Mainline Electric Multiple Units (MEMUs) which will run as a suburban service for the Trivandrum Capital Region, from Varkala to Neyyatinkara.
- Other facilities like waiting rooms, restaurants, offices and so on will be situated on the third and fourth floors of the station. The entire complex will utilize escalators and lifts for vertical movement of people.
- A budget business class hotel built and run by a top-class chain will be part of the Station complex. Tenders are already being invited for the same for major stations across India.
- A multi-level vehicle parking facility will be integrated to accommodate the ever increasing volume of vehicles parked by commuters and long distance travelers.
- A major shopping and commercial complex may also be integrated into the station to provide supplementary revenue to the BOT operator of the Station.
- This would be preceded by the shifting of the Coach Care facility to Nemom. A suburban rail terminal could also be set up at Nemom; another possible but relatively unlikely location is Putharikandom.

The expansion of the station may require some additional land to be acquired in addition to the land currently being used for the Coach Care facility as well as some other railway buildings adjoining the Power House.

The fact that the Power House Road is being widened as part of CRDP and that a flyover will soon be constructed over M.G. Road, from Thakaraparambu to land right in front of the proposed new Station building will be tie in nicely with this proposal. It will ensure that there is adequate traffic flow capacity to cater to the tens of thousands of people who pass through the Station each day, with a direct link to the Intermediate Ring Road.

Hope to hear more details about this exciting project soon. Stay tuned!

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A satellite image of Trivandrum Central with the site of the new Terminal complex outline in Red

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Space University coming......

The Indian Space Research Organisation has announced that it will be investing about Rs 70 Crores to set up a Space University in Trivandrum. As the location of its largest facility, the sprawling Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, our city is the logical location for ISRO to set up their training centre.

The facility will train engineers in advance aerospace courses and provide the cutting edge skill sets that ISRO needs for its state-of-the-art projects. Combined with the upcoming Indian Institute of Science, Engineering and Research (IISER) and existing institutions, this institution will propel Trivandrum to the leading edge of engineering education and research in India.

With the VSSC and its cluster of facilities, the aerospace firm KELTech, Technopark, Trivandrum International Airport, the upcoming MROs of Air India and Essar and other facilities located in and around Trivandrum, an aerospace SEZ could be a good idea. A similar one has been proposed at Bangalore, around HAL, and the same initiative can be taken here by the State Government.