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.)

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Thanks for your comment, I will take a look at it and put it up at the earliest.