Saturday, July 21, 2007

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Shot with Canon PowerShot A630 at 2007-07-21

Gayathri houses leading international firms like Mckinsey, Ernst & Young, Alamy Images, RMESI and Tata Elxsi.

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Shot at 2007-07-21

Seen from Peepul Park are the tops of Periyar, Bhavani and Thejaswini. (Left to right)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More of Technopark construction.....

The 460,000 sft Leela Infopark - the largest private IT building in Kerala - is approaching its full 14 floor height and has already over topped the nearby Nila.

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Shot with Canon PowerShot A630 at 2007-07-10

The first block of the 450,000 sft IBS Campus is fast nearing completion as well.

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Shot at 2007-07-10

Friday, July 13, 2007

Are Helmets and Seat belts enough......? Part II

(...continued - I thought I would break the post into two parts in the interest of preventing reader fatigue!)

However, the biggest problem still remains - the roads themselves. Trivandrum does have the best roads in the State and soon, on completion of the much-delayed Trivandrum Road Development Project (TRDP) will have among the best road network among major Indian cities, but a lot remains to be done. A large portion of road accidents are caused due to road related factors like design, condition of pavement, lighting, marking, signalling and so on.

As an ancient city, many of the city's roads follow age-old alignments and have not been scientifically designed. Most of the major roads have received upgradations, especially those under TRDP and will have well engineered junctions, bus bays and alignments. However, there are many smaller roads which have haphazard alignments. Often side-roads emerge at right-angles and encroachments are visible here and there. It has taken a year and a half, before the Government machinery went into action cleaning up some of the land for TRDP. The same needs to be pursued with other roads as well. Hopefully, with a major component of the JNURM funding earmarked for road development, more of Trivandrum's roads can be brought to world class standard.

Street lighting has been a bugbear of road users in the city for a long time now. The lighting of city roads is supposed to be the responsibility of the City Corporation, although the actual maintenance and installation work is done by the KSEB. This means the worst of both worlds prevails and hence unlit stretches of road are found in the city. One solution to this could be for the two bodies to form a periodic review mechanism to look at the upkeep of the street lighting system. A second option is to have the Corporation form a street light maintenance wing - although this may make things worse. Third, one can look at the two agencies jointly giving an Annual Maintenance Contract to a third-party, like Philips Lighting, along lines of a BOT contract. The Corporation often pleads lack of funds as an excuse for poor lighting, but this can be addressed to an extent by letting private sponsors take up the upkeep of stretches of street lights in exchange for advertising space. This arrangement has been successfully followed for parks like the ones at Kowdiar and East Fort. Aside from all this, there is a perplexing twist to the street lighting scene in Trivandrum which many of us would have noticed - the many miles of modern lighting set up by TRDP - except on the Kowdiar Avenue - are yet to be lit, many months after completion. This is criminal negligence on someone's part. It is undeniable that poor lighting is responsible for many accidents and many deaths on the city's roads - especially those involving pedestrians, cyclists and two wheelers. Maybe if someone filed a suit against the negligent authorities, issues like the un-lit TRDP lights would get resolved in double time. And it is high time something is done about the issue, because unlit roads kill.....period!

Another much bemoaned killer is the condition of the pavement on many of the city roads. Travelling on the roads in Cochin - they are more strips of craters than roads - I realised how relatively better off we are in Trivandrum, but that does not take away from the fact that a lot needs to be done. Potholes, the miniature incarnations of the geographical features found commonly on the Moon, are dime a dozen on some of the city's side roads while arterial roads are mostly in better shape, for now. One cause of potholing and rutting of pavement is inadequate drainage which results in water damage. The improvement of road side drains is thus a high priority. Damage to roads also happens due to poor quality of construction. This becomes stark when we compare the state of different roads in the city. The Punj Lloyd built TRDP roads have fared the best; secondary roads built using modern technology by other contractors have survived more or less intact but the side-roads built by small time contractors using mobile hot mix plants and labour have fared very badly. Roads built using modern technology like hot mix plants, sensor pavers, vibratory compactors and state-of-the-art construction techniques last much longer. They cost more to build but last much longer and hence the Total Cost of Ownership is much lower. Their design ensures better safety and by providing adequate drainage, prevent water damage. The advent of big contractors like Punj Lloyd, BEL and so on, has led to a lot of hue and cry about the survival of smaller, local contractors who cannot afford the equipment on their own. To ensure their survival, GoK can look at setting up some sort of cooperative among smaller contractors so that they can pool resources and buy the best equipment.

Of course, we cannot have all world-class roads starting tomorrow. But we can make a start, can't we? Other than improving the quality of roads, we can also ensure that repair of existing
roads is efficient and that roads don't need repair in the first place. Some of us may recall that
the Corporation had bought a pothole repair machine to much fanfare a few years ago. This unit was capable of taking aggregates from the dump truck which tows it, mixing it with bitumen and then spraying it using compressed air into potholes to fill them up. I had once tailed it to see it in action and it was like magic, but sadly this fairy tale had a sad ending. After one season of operation, the machine has been languishing under a tarp in the backyard of the Corporation office. Whether they ran out of skilled operators, had a breakdown which couldn't be fixed or simply lost interest, only the powers-that-be will know. Perhaps, the fact that it threatened the business of local contractors for whom, periodic pothole repair and re-repair is bread and butter has something to do with its quick and mysterious demise! Another machine is being procured at a cost of Rs. 40 Lakhs, I hope it has a longer working life.

Road damage is also caused through the frequent digging up of roads by all and sundry, from utilities to individuals taking water connections to the local politico trying to plant his flag. All these activities are supposed to be followed by adequate repair work, usually done by the Corporation, after collecting the due amount from the party who damaged the pavement. However, either the repairs take a long time to happen or the pavement is damaged clandestinely to avoid having to cough up the repair cost. A combination of stricter monitoring and enforcement and a dedicated road repair unit can remedy the situation to a great extent. This latter unit can be the same as the pot hole repair unit or the two can share equipment.

Finally, the last bit that can contribute to or prevent accidents is the traffic management system. This is a combination of traffic signals, law enforcement personnel, road network design and signage. The TRDP project is adding modern signalling systems at 36 junctions. Some of them are already up and running, and hopefully, all the junctions should be blinking away. The TRDP stretches also have modern signage, as is visible along Kowdiar Avenue.

The same standards have to be expanded to other stretches of city roads as well. This would be a first stage in upgrading them completely. However, it has to be kept in mind that one can't plonk a signalling system in the middle of existing roads without due consideration of the available road design. Else, it will result in a chaotic and unviable condition as seen at Sreekaryam and Medical College junctions, where in the end the systems had to be switched off till the roads were improved. The city's signalling systems are now mostly synchronised and eventually can be integrated into a computerised traffic management system which can also include a component like B-TRAC. In the meantime, the Traffic Police could perhaps tie up with local radio stations and mobile service providers to provide life traffic alerts which could reduce snarls and help save time, fuel and lives.

So, the issue of road accidents is not an open-and-shut one which can be solved through helmets and seat belts alone, it is a very complex situation which will require the concerted and dedicated efforts of road users, the Government and private enterprise to solve. Next time, we are stuck in a traffic jam (yeah, I know they are not all that common in Tvm) and evil and often violent thoughts are running through our minds, spare some time to think about how each one of us can help make our city roads safer - by obeying rules, staying off the bottle, campaigning for better roads and lights and what not. Else, one day we may end up adding to that tally of death or, worse, end up as a grim statistic ourselves.

Are Helmets and Seat belts enough......?

Gone are the days when a mention of an unnatural death used to get everyone's notice. These days, perhaps of the dehumanisation of urban life, we seldom bat an eyelid when we read or hear news of an individual accident or homicide. It is just another statistic to be filed away in some obscure corner of the short term memory, ready to be wiped away when the next installment of cricket score arrives.

I was shocked to read that nearly 2,500 people were killed last year on Mumbai's suburban trains. A mumbaikaar asked me "only those many?", when I mentioned the fact to him. He is right, especially when you consider how many millions of people use that notoriously over crowded system. Sadly, that is not the only instance of death becoming a mundane affair in the urbanscape of today. They are dime a dozen, the buses of New Delhi being another of the many places this phenomenon is happening. And closer to home, Kerala is one of the deadliest States in India to venture out on to the roads, as recent statistics show. A report in todays' The Hindu prompted me to think yet again about the issue, it stated that 438 people had been killed and over 6000 injured in road accidents in the Capital district last year (2006-07).

If we had heard of 438 people being killed in a single accident, it would have catastrophic news, worthy of a few front pages. The Perumon accident which killed half as many is still fresh in the minds of most of us, yet why doesn't anyone bother about the death toll from road accidents? Is it because death in installments doesn't merit our interest and concern or that the concept of the individual has lost meaning?

Of course, it is not that no hue and cry is being raised about the issue. The Government has been voluble in taking "steps" and "corrective actions", but sadly they seem to last no more than a week each time. The Kerala State Road Safety project is one long term initiative to improve the design and safety features of roads, but it seems to have progressed nowhere given the paucity of funds in the Treasury and the lack of focus among implementing agencies. The most common response when there is a spate of accidents is to increase the intensity of enforcement by the Traffic Police and Motor Vehicle department (MVD), conduct a few token awareness campaigns and to whip out that tired, old trick - compulsory helmets!

I have lost count of the number of times that helmets were made "compulsory". Last time, I checked they were supposed to be compulsory anyways. Even discounting popular conspiracy theories that these campaigns are only intended to boost helmet sales, it is nearly impossible to understand why a helmet rule (or the new seatbelt rule) cannot be sustained. If the Traffic Police and MVD can pick up motorists for offenses like drunken driving or over speeding, why can't the helmet rule also be enforced continuously? It is not as if the resilience of the human skull increases and decreases seasonally!

In the report, the usual suspects are well, the usual suspects. Two-wheelers account for the largest portion of vehicles involved in accidents. Actually, this is not surprising considering the fact two wheelers make up the vast majority of vehicles on Indian roads. Autorickshaws are right in front too, not surprising considering the fact that many a driver models himself on the driving antics of Vijay Amritraj in the Bond film Octopussy! Buses account for a small fraction of the accidents but these accidents possibly have more chance of fatalities and serious injuries than the ones involving light vehicles. Another interesting point is that despite the lower traffic conditions at night, a significant portion of accidents happen at night.

Given the fact that two wheelers account for many of the accidents and casualties on the city's roads and that head injury is a leading cause of death in such cases, the helmet law seems a prudent one. And so does the seat belt law, after all seat belts are said to reduce the chance of serious injury in a car crash by up to 50%.

However, life-saving as these might be, they come into play only once the accident occurs and cannot prevent one happening. So while a helmet or seatbelt might prevent loss of life, they may not prevent injury and damage to property. And of course, they can do nothing to prevent injuries to pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport systems.

There are many ways that accidents can be prevented or minimised. These are, of course, related to the myriad causes behind accidents. While the reasons behind each accident may be unique when considered in detail, the broad causative factors - human error, equipment failure, poor road design, natural causes and so on.

Human error itself, is a agglomeration of a lot of reasons - rash driving, drunken driving, sleeping at the wheel, failure of driving judgement and so on. Strict enforcement of driving rules can help to curb deliberately dangerous driving - the bottle and the thrill factors. Here, the Government is making efforts to bring in better enforcement. There has always been a shortage of law enforcement officials and equipment, but things are better now than in the past. The MVD is deploying US-style, radar equipped Speed Tracers to nab the local Valentino Rossi's and Kimi Raikkonens. One way of overcoming the manpower shortage would be to go in for an electronic traffic management and information system on the lines of B-TRAC in Bangalore. Combined with a system of remote cameras and traffic sensors, such a system will help law enforcers expand their presence radically. It will also enable rapid response which can help prevent impending accidents and also the efficient management of data which will enable sterner punishment to be meted out to repeat offenders.

An area of concern these days is underaged driving and untrained drivers. On a recent visit to a top city school, I was blown away to see that 11th and 12th standard boys (I hope they were atleast in the 11th or 12th) were buzzing around on high performance bikes. I remember the flutter I had caused when I landed up in school with a ungeared scooter (with the due license!), these days a Bajaj Pulsar 180 seems to have replaced the puny Bajaj Sunny in school yards. A stern view needs to be taken of this trend. Not that the only solution is to put everyone back on the school buses. In the US, one can get a car license at 16. That the US has more car accidents than any other nation is another matter (they also have the most cars in the world right now), but maybe we could also look at basing the driving license age on skill rather than on years spent on the Earth. Till then, we may have to put everyone back on the buses or most of them anyway.

The other part is whether licensed drivers are licensed to drive or to kill. A few years ago, one could often get a license without a test if one were influential enough or had a big enough bank balance. Those days seem to have gone now, but the structure of our driving test - the legendary figure eight still remains the centrepiece - leaves a lot to be desired. However, with car companies like Maruti coming up with their own driving schools - which maintain high standards - things seem to be looking up.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Technopark updates.....

Here are a few pix I snapped at Technopark this week, mostly on the progress of ongoing work.

Firstly, the Behemoth. Kerala's largest IT building - Thejaswini - dwarfs people with its bulk, all 850,000 sft of it. Finishing work on this mammoth structure is ongoing.

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Shot with Canon PowerShot A630 at 2007-07-10

Turn the other way, and another giant - Bhavani - looms up and fills the frame.

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Shot with Canon PowerShot A630 at 2007-07-10

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Lakeside city...!

If I told someone that a few years from now, Trivandrum's most sought after address could be "X, Lake Drive", he or she would check to see if I had spilt a few marbles when I got up in the morning!

But consider this, high-rise apartments, malls, an international convention centre, luxury hotels, hospitals, a national institute, amusement parks and IT parks around a beautiful, green fringed lake.

No, I am not taking about about exotic location in a country far, far away. This could be what our own Aakulam Lake will look like in a few years' time. And this is not wild speculation or an overactive imagination at work. Most of the projects I have talked about are either underway or in various stages of execution. Some of them include:

- International Convention Centre Complex by the Raheja Group
- National Institute of Speech and Hearing campus
- Plaza Centres' mixed use project - 2.1 million sft of IT Park, mall and hotel
- Southern Fun City theme park at Aakulam
- Southern Air Command
- Aakulam and Veli Tourist villages
- SFS Cyber Palms
- PTC Aquascapes
- SFS Waterscapes
- Heera Infocity and so on and on.

So the development has started. Throw into the mix, India's largest IT Park, which is just 1 Km from the lakeshore - the Infosys campus is closest to the lake - as well as one of India's busiest and most modern International Airport, and we have an even stronger winner! Of course, to ensure that all of this comes to pass, several steps need to be taken urgently.

- Ensure that the restrictive and defunct TUDP regulations are removed and replaced by standard environmental protection rules to prevent bottlenecking of development while ensuring that the lake and its ecosystem are protected.

- By creating a boulevard along the lake-shore, the Government can pre-emptively prevent any encroachment of the lake as create a buffer zone to prevent adverse environmental impact on the lake itself.

- The boulevard can include a stretch of pristine lake shore, a walk way with landscaping and benches as well as a 3-lane road, skirting the lake.

- Put in place regulations to ensure that a suitable portion of the green cover around the lake is retained. For example, it can divide the lake shore into sectors and stipulate that atleast 60-70% of each sector should be virgin greenery.

- Install adequate civic infrastructure like water and waste treatment plants, dedicated electricity supply and so on for the expected population influx into the area.

- Include the area under an Integrated Development Master Plan for the entire IT Corridor extending from Kovalam to Mangalapuram.

- The International convention centre complex already has a marina project included in it. A larger marina can be built as a prime destination for sea-going yachts for which Trivandrum will be the closest marina to the international sea lanes.

The writing on the wall is clear - the area around Aakulam Lake is destined for massive development given its strategic location in between Technopark, the Airport and the city, as well as its pristine beauty. By being proactive, the authorities can prevent this ideal opportunity from turning into a town planning and environmental disaster, with accusations and counter-accusations flying all over the place. Instead, it can be used as chance to create an amazing neighbourhood of the fast expanding city. A unique chance to create an area where the modern - IT parks, malls, highrise apartments and marinas - meet the stunning beauty of natura - the lake and its green shores!

Perhaps soon, Aakulam Lake Drive will become one of India's most happening addresses!