Monday, May 28, 2007

Subscribe today...!

As ever, I am ever thankful to all of you who read my blog perhaps now and then, or perhaps regularly. It is your interest and comments that help to keep me going. I have added a subscription option to the blog, so that those of you with readers can get a copy of each post as I put it up. There are different options for you to select the feeds using some of the most popular readers. It is convenient and ensure that you don't miss any post.

Happy reading and thanks once again!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Operation Munnar...!

Operation Bluestar or Brasstacks would not have gained such popularity in the local media as the much vaunted "Operation Munnar". The populace seems to be enchanted with the sight of the "CM's three man army" leading an army of earthmovers to pull down encroaching luxury properties of the high and mighty. Justice at last and in public to boot, always popular with the gallery. And the applause has been deafening and is quite likely to translate to a few extra votes next time the ballot boxes.....err...voting machines are trundled out, despite the dynamic inertia of swing politics and short memory spans our voters are well known for.

I, for one, totally applaud the speed and seemingly unbiased approach shown in this drive and the fact that this has been mirrored across the State, including in our own city. After the demolition derby last month along the M.G.Road, the cheering and curious crowds might be a bit thinner on the ground than in other places, but eviction has indeed begun. There is absolutely no locus standi for encroachment of public land and the offending structure must go, even if to make an example to deter others. That much is undisputed.

What I wonder is if the underlying nexus which supports such encroachment will be tackled as well? Perhaps the odd small shop here or extra fence there could have escaped the scrutiny of the authorities. But could it be true of huge resorts, high-rise buildings and what not? Was the Revenue Department so blind....or perhaps they recruit only from among the visually challenged (with all due respect to them)?! The answer is more obvious than the encroachments themselves, plain as day infact. Most of these could never have happened without the collusion, passive or active, of the concerned authorities. Many of these would have permits and title deeds - issued under the table of course. The news reports mention that "title deeds were cancelled", so who issued them in the first place?

Such spurious title deeds will contain the details of who issued them in the first place. How many of these generous gentlemen have been brought to book? While the list of demolitions is tallied up daily like a cricket score (ahem, the Aussie score obviously!), there has been no report of any officials being arrested. Maybe the odd peon here or a clerk there, but what of the powers-that-be? Many of this permits, like those to operate resorts and hotels or major shops, have to approved by multiple entities at the higher echelons of various departments. Anyone care to find that out?

So maybe the word "prevention" is difficult to come by in India, but what of cure? These encroachments did not pop up overnight, that no administration or Chief Minister before VS got wind of them. They have been there for years on end, and yet no action was taken. Many encroachments are on roads oft travelled by Ministers, Secretaries and the like or in their home constituencies. Maybe, the tinted glass of their air conditioned cars was too thick to notice buildings sticking out over streets or being built on filled in water bodies or felled reserve forests, lol!

The previous Government could perhaps be excused, since it was itself trying to engage in the biggest encroachment of all, under the guise of the so-called "Smart" City project. Trying to package a mid-sized real estate developer called "TECOM/DIC" as an "IT firm" so that it could be granted the lavish incentives - like 240 acres of free land - guaranteed under the IT Act to IT/ITES firms. The same incentives which were denied to real IT firms like Infosys or TCS who had to cough up crores to buy land inside Technopark. Despite the changes forced into the agreement by the current Government, there is one curious fact which seems to point out that the whole schmoodle is still a scam. Ordinarily, when a company announces a large project on 200-odd acres of land, they have some sort of master plan in mind. Here, our friends from TECOM - duly kitted out as sheikhs - say they need a year to figure that "small" detail out - although they claim the precise figure of 8.8 million sft of space and 90,000 jobs. (It is to be noted that this figure mysteriously tripled from the original promise of 33,000 jobs overnight - literally - quite a magic trick!). Lol, any professional firm would dread the financial impact of such a lapse, not so in this case.

So, if anyone thinks that the nexus which is behind encroachments and other real estate scams is at only at the lower end of the administration, take a pill and look at the facts again.

Administrative intransigence is not thing, whole-scale fraud is quite something else, and it seems both are merrily at work. Of course, Kerala is much better off than elsewhere. But that is no excuse for not shifting around and cleaning out that most hallowed, feared and detested of establishments, the Government bureaucracy.

The multitude whose complexity drives the common man to the verge of frustrated insanity and prompts him to start handing out doles under the table. It is also a multitude feared and used by all political entities. Which gobbles up a lion's share of the State's budget each year. And on and on....

It is time that changes sweep through. Changes like IT enablement, like performance appraisals and pay linked to that....like relooking at skill sets. Some of these are happening, most are still stuck in the files that the bureaucracy itself needs to process. Lol, that could take some time.

Till then, quick fixes like "Operation Munnar" will play to the crowd and accomplish little else. Perhaps it will serve to give those in power and those who abuse power second thoughts next time they issue a spurious permit or title deed. If it does that, it has done its jobs and three cheers to those who had the guts to go out and walk their talk!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

And here is the real deal!

End the speculation, here is the actual renders of the Infosys Campus at Trivandrum. And it's a hot scoop, quite literally. I just got back from the campus site, where the perspectives have been put up as part of the groundbreaking ceremony attended by VS.

Looks awesome and massive. A joint creation of top architect Hafeez Contractor and Trivandrum's leading architect Iyer & Mahesh! See and enjoyyyy!

Campus Layout - 50 Acres

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Software Development Block I and Customer Care Centre

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Software Development Blocks I & II

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Phase I - SDBs I & II and the Customer Care Centre

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Infosys to start work on Saturday

And so it begins. Work on Kerala's largest IT campus is all set to start on Saturday. No, it is not "Smart" City or any other city, lol! It is the massive 50 acre campus of India's iconic IT powerhouse, Infosys Technologies. After two years of delays, work is starting on the complex. Infosys says that, according to President and CEO-designate Kris Gopalakrishnan, that it will employ about 5,000 people in Phase I which will be complete in one year! And the eventual number seems to be the 12-15,000 mark, with about 2 million sft of space. The time line seems to be three to five years. One thing is certain, the big time is here...and it is here to stay.

Over to you TCS, PCS, UST and all the rest.....get cracking!

Here are a couple of possible perspectives of the campus. The final design could be very different and we hope to see it soon. It's been heard that the campus could be a Hafeez Contractor creation, like most of the others than Infy has built. Sobha Developers will be the civil contractor.

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It seems certain that there will be a central waterbody. Different alternatives for the design of the Software Development Blocks and Food Courts are shown around the artificial lake.

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The campus may also have a Visitors' Centre and ancillary facilities like a hotel.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Aakulam International Convention Centre

The Aakulam International Convention Centre is a massive hospitality project coming up along the shores of the Aakulam Lake. It is a PPP development by the realty major Raheja Group and the Govt. of Kerala. It will comprise an international convention centre, luxury hotel, shopping mall and more. The Rs 150 Crore project has already kicked off. Here are some pre-bid perspectives from the website of the initial architects, the Kumar Group. They sure are spectacular and I hope the final design will be close to this.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Some fun.....on your back!

We have heaved past 3000 views on the blog.....and a biggg "Thank You" to all you folks who have taken a little time out to browse through and to give constructive feedback and encouragement. It's a big boost and I hope I can keep things going.

On the side, here is something all of you can try out. It is a neat service started by a friend of mine, an ex-management consultant who has seen the light (smart feller!). There have always been times when we want to literally show off what we think - by putting a few "expressive" words on to a tee-shirt and wear it around. Maybe some cliche phrase, a slogan or simply our own mind-speak. It's been said that clothes speak a lot about the man, well here is a chance to do that, quite literally.

The site is: www.dilsebol.com

It lets you customise t-shirts whatever you wanna put on your back...or chest. A good way of saying "ILU" or, letting your boss know you're putting in your papers....or showing your appreciation for how closely Dilbert models the corporate world. Good way to freak out, and to still get some utility out of it. Last time I checked your creations are door-delivered to you and your last name doesn't have to be "Versace" or "Strauss"! Check it out, junta and have a lotta fun!

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.