Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Wrong Response....?

What does one ordinarily do when a product gets sold out? The logical answer would be to order more and to maintain higher stocks if the demand is constant. However, it often seems to use the words "logical" and "bureaucracy" in conjunction is oxymoronical. Maybe, just moronical is more apt. The rapid growth of the IT industry in Trivandrum and Cochin is just such an instance of a sell-out, where demand is escalating rapidly, fuelling economic development, and here's how our "far-sighted" babudom responds (An report from The Hindu) -

"A number of construction companies have announced projects in the vicinity of the Technopark here too. It is feared that the spurt in construction activity will have serious ramifications for both IT destinations in the near future. Scarcity of drinking water has already become acute in the Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode corporation limits. Also, dearth of parking space is being felt in the three cities. A sudden increase in the number of users will also lead to collapse of the drainage system. Construction of buildings is being planned in total disregard for the available infrastructure facilities and a sudden breakdown cannot be ruled out. If the development pattern goes haywire, it is feared to have serious implications, sources said. Hence, the department, as a precautionary measure, is gearing up to establish a scientific land use regime in developing cities and their precincts. Building rules have already been enforced in 200 panchayats in the State including 12 panchayats adjoining Kochi corporation. There are complaints that Floor Area Ratio (FAR) norms are being thrown to the winds by the construction companies and Local Self-Government Institutions (LSGIs) which are empowered to prevent such violations are not taking timely action against those who violate the norms. In the wake of the complaints, the department has decided to monitor the construction activities in the IT hubs and also ensure that buildings are being constructed in compliance with the FAR norms."

It is true that building rules are observed more in the breach. However, this move to focus more on cutting down or slowing development rather than on improving available infrastructure is quite negative and alarming.

After all, the development of IT has not happened overnight. For example, the IT Corridor in Trivandrum - the Kazhakkoottam to Kovalam stretch of the NH-47 Bypass - has been mooted as a concept for years now. Successive Governments were aware of the impending development boom around Technopark and choose to ignore the demands this would place on urban infrastructure.

There is no starker example of this neglect than the fact the so-called IT Corridor, used daily by 15,000 Technopark employees and thousands of other people, has not been lit properly even almost a decade after it was built. It was only last month that the Government decided to award a tender for lighting up this 11-odd kilometres of busy roads which have accounted for many tragic accidents in the recent past. Did it take so long to realise that a busy road needs street lights?

So why is there a sudden concern over drinking water, parking space and drainage capacity when the civic authorities have been sitting on development plans for years, if not decades? The answer is simple, short term and highly visible action. The easiest way out of a sticky situation for the authorities is to demonstrate intent on a token basis and then hope that the populace forgets about follow-up in their collective amnesia. This way is usually easier and cheaper to accomplish and ruffles the least feathers.

The recent series of much-publicised "raids" by the Kerala Water Authority on apartment complexes. The press's collective clamouring makes this apparently "Robin Hood-ic"action the object of much applause and it plays well to the gallery. Apparently, the fine, up-standing gentlemen of the KWA are taking "stolen" water from the rich flat-dewellers and giving it to the needy proletariat. The truth is that it is all hog-wash! Disconnecting a few flats (temporarily, let's be assured) will save a few thousand litres of water a day. However, the KWA itself admits that upto 35% of the precious water pumped into its delivery network is lost, mostly due to a multitude of leaks, big and small. This translates to nearly 80 million litres of lost water daily! And this loss can be drastically minimised by early detection and repair of major leaks, maintenance of pipes, leak prevention in domestic connections, mapping of pipelines to prevent damage during other construction and so on. There exists technology like ground penetrating radar, Geographical Information Systems (GIS), leak sensors and so on, already available in Kerala, to do all this in an effective and efficient manner. And yet, all the KWA has till date to detect leaks seem to be a few dowsing sticks! The result? Leaks spring up on roads all over the place, the customary craters left by the repairs, water shortages to high-lying areas and an ever multiplying fleet of private tanker lorries. Once, I used to poke fun at Chennai for the state of its water supply, nowadays Trivandrum seems to be headed down the same dusty alley, not to mention the other cities in the State which are much worse off.

Rather than clean up its act, the KWA seems intent on stunts to ward off increasingly loud protests from its customers. The City Corporation has a similar tack too. Miles and miles of median lights built by TRDCL stand unlit to this day, months after they were put up. Someone still hasn't gotten around to switching them on! Not to worry about motorists and pedestrians getting killed and maimed on unlit roads, of course!

The case with parking space is no better. While the City Corporation owns large plots of land or has the power to acquire land in the city, its ambitious and often announced plans for multi-floor parking facilities have remained on the drawing board for over a decade now. Our leftist rulers often look to Bengal for inspiration, and there Kolkata has become the unlikely launchpad for a sophisticated parking solution. This fully automated parking facility slots your car into a multi-floor storage facility when you leave it and then retrieves it for you in a matter of minutes. There is no need to manually park the car and then walk out. These facilities are now springing up all over India on a Built-Operate-Transfer model. And who would mind paying a few rupees (around Rs 5/hour) to avoid the hassle of gymnastic parking maneuvers and assorted scratches, dents, dinks and exchanged expletives? With shopping centres and malls popping up across the city, it would be better to act now, rather than to regulate later.

In no way do I say that illegal construction should be allowed. But the focus on inspection and enforcement must be on safety and quality, not to cover up inadequate infrastructure. The use of building regulations to hamper development is only a stop-gap and will hinder long term development of the economy. This long term development is critical for the future of the State. One reason often cited for lack of infrastructure development is the lack of funding and the inability to raise user fees. Projects like JNURM, MGP and so on, are now providing capital funding while the apparent taboo on raising user fees like land taxes and water supply charges is often created by the political powers-that-be to generate votes. For example, a middle-class family pays less for its monthly water supply or its yearly land/property tax than for one litre of petrol. While lower income sections of society need to be appropriately shielded from user charge increase, how many of the middle and high income segments would begrudge a minor additional expenditure if they are guaranteed better roads, parking, efficient garbage collection and a good water supply? Not many, I suspect. But then, low user charges are a convenient cover for our civic authorities and political leadership to hide behind for giving us poor quality civic services and infrastructure.

Finally, could it be that the regulatory slowing down of development is aimed at ensuring that slow moving infrastructure development can catch up to the fast paced building boom? Well, the answer is a resounding NO! IT Parks and apartment complexes are not exactly not built over night, are they? These major projects take 18-36 months or longer to complete themselves. Long enough, to build the required roads, pipelines and urban infrastructure. If not to complete the work, atleast to take major steps in the right direction. And it doesn't have to be the US or Europe for this to happen. Fast paced urban infrastructure development is happening today, around us in India. Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Gurgaon and many other cities are all at the forefront. In Trivandrum, the pace at which Punj Lloyd completed work is an example of how fast things can be built, if the will exists. Many of the cities I mentioned, like Bangalore, were late starters but they are certainly sparing no effort to catch up and even go ahead of the game. And it is no surprise that the investment and jobs are going there.

Trivandrum and Kerala have already been left behind once in this race. After all, Technopark was India's first IT Park way back in 1990. We lost the plot for almost the next 15 years due to a lack of vision. If we repeat that folly now that we have got a second chance, we may miss the bus permanently. What we need is regulation to ensure sustainable, planned and safe development, combined with fast paced infrastructure development to cater to growth.

What we most definitely don't need is to down shutters when there is a sell-out happening, it may gets a few claps now but there sure will be a dead silence later.

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