Friday, February 22, 2008

Action more than words.....

I got a lot of feedback and suggestion on the Aakulam post from many of you, thanks a lot! Some of you had suggested that I send the gist of article to the concerned authorities and see if something will be done about it. Although I am quite skeptical about it, I will be doing so - I am still mulling over how exactly it is to be accomplished. One idea is to approach some of my friends in the media and see if it can be published as an article, which may awaken the powers-that-be. Another is to submit in memorandum form to the authorities. In the coming days, I will try all avenues in the hope that atleast one will click.

I have received lots of feedback on many of the posts here. Most of it has been very positive and encouraging, in that it is great to see people taking an interest in the development of their city, a topic often classified in importance below the result of the latest cricket match and the price hike of petrol/milk. Some of it has been from readers who feel I am slamming some other city and who are drawn into sparring over that. But even such criticism is welcome since it reminds me to stick to firm facts, due to which the same indignant gentlemen often end at the sagging end of the debate.

A lot of you have advised me to stop scratching around in Blogspace and get some of the content here into the wider media so that more of us may read and understand, and atleast a few of us may take suitable action. After all, the media seems to the most powerful force prompting political action (or action of any sort) in Kerala, right next to Politburo and Soniaji.

The idea will be to get some of the articles into print, hopefully as a column of sorts, if not, as individual articles. I will be talking to a few of my media contacts and seeing how things can be worked out. Of course, I will be keeping all of you posted on the progress of that. Once again, thanks for your support and keep your comments and encouragement coming! Cheers!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

To the glory of Aakulam

A few months ago, or maybe it's been a year, I had written about the awesome potential of the Aakulam area to become a superb lake-district, the likes of which are yet to be seen in India. One possible comparison could be the Powai Lake in Mumbai which also has a similar combination of lake, greenery, hills and highrises. But I am sure that even those of my friends who have spent time at Powai would agree when I see Aakulam is far more beautiful, surrounded as it is by idyllic, emerald-green cover. (Actually, Aakulam and Powai share another commonality, the first Raheja-Marriott convention centre is at Powai, the second is coming up at Aakulam).

Long a tourist destination, known for its laid-back style and carpets of water hyacinths, Aakulam today is transforming into one of the hubs of development in Trivandrum! After all, when you have a dozen new apartment complexes, four townships, four luxury five-star hotels, three malls, two IT parks , two world-class convention centres and an international tertiary care hospital coming up within a two kilometer radius and in the space of the next three years, it would be natural to refer to this area as a key growth centre.

There are too many residential projects to enumerate easily, but the commercial projects are as follows:
  • Plaza Centres mixed-use development (2.1 million sq.ft. - IT park+mall+hotel)
  • Infosys campus (1.5 million sq.ft.)
  • Unitech Mall
  • SFS Mall
  • Raheja - Marriott International Convention Centre and luxury hotel with marina
  • DLF-Hilton luxury hotel
  • Columbia Asia hospital
  • Tamara Group's international convention centre and hotel complex.
Add to this atleast a dozen or more major apartment and villa projects, and we are talking about over 10 million sq.ft. under development. Another 10-15 million sq.ft of various kinds of space is being developed within 3-4 Kms of the lake.

I was blown away by the sheer scale of what is happening, when I sat down and tallied up the score. I am sure many of you will also be, not many of us would have thought such momentous changes would be visited upon this little lake of ours! And while development always improves things overall, more often than not there is also a downside to it.

In the case of Aakulam, we will see a permanent and floating population of around 1-1.5 lakhs descending on its environs which were sparsely populated till now. And people bring a lot of trouble most of the time. They need power and water, create garbage and sewage and clamour for more space all the time. And dozen of new construction sites will do no favours for the lake and its environment. And when land is at a premium, there is always the temptation to grab some more...where else but from the lake!

I am not painting a picture of doom here and we don't want the so-called "concerned citizens" trying to throw a spanner in the works. The problems posed by rapid development are not insurmountable. In fact, they can be effectively managed, to create sustainable development.
In the case of Aakulam, by taking a few simple but effective steps, the authorities can preserve the lake without slowing down the pace of development.

1. Create an effective Area Master Plan - As far as I know, the town planners are still using a city plan drawn up in the 80s. To put that in perspective, that dates from when I was riding a tricycle! I have certainly moved up in life in terms of transport since then and Trivandrum has similarly moved up on the urban ladder to become a metropolitan centre. I think it will be well worth the time and effort, if the authorities can quickly (read, in less than a year) draw up a broad land use plan. Keeping in mind the upcoming developments, it can segregate commercial and residential zones, as well as areas for common utilities, drainage and road access. Most importantly, this plan has to look ahead to atleast 15 years in the future and prepare for the impending surge in demand not just for space, but for services as well.

The planning exercise should be preceded by a detailed mapping exercise of the region, resulting in a comprehensive GIS map which can then form the basis for all further planning.

2. Provide Utilities and Services - Making plans is one thing, implementing them is something else altogether. And sadly, we see that in India, the plot is often disastrously lost somewhere in between.

For Aakulam, which is about 12 Kms from the city centre, the provision of utilities is a key challenge. Whereas power and water are available from the current networks, sewerage is yet to reach this area. With the new Sewage Treatment Plant coming up at Muttathara on the NH Bypass, it will be logical to lay a trunk main line along the Bypass from Kazhakkoottam to Kovalam to collect all the waste for processing at the plant. Alternatively, a smaller STP can be set up at Kazhakkoottam to handle the sewage from the Chackai - Kazhakkoottam region which will see a population influx to the tune of atleast 3 lakhs in the next 8-10 years. Additionally, since the city's water supply lies on the other side of the urban area and taking into account upcoming mega-projects like Technocity (estimated population of 1-1.5 lakhs), it may be prudent to identify and utilise a new source of water, potentially Kadinamkulam Lake.

3. Creating a Lake Drive - The prevalent building rules call for varying extents of setbacks for developments from the edges of various water bodies. Around Aakulam, builders will have to atleast set their developments back by 100 m from the water-line. While this is fine on paper, the best way to ensure that no one gets their feet wet is to put the line on the ground. What I mean is to construct a road around the lake. It can be a 4-lane road with median and tiled sidewalks. The sidewalk on the lake side can be developed into a boulevard with trees, lamps and benches. On the otherside, parking spaces and food courts can be created at intervals. The entire idea would be to convert the road into an attraction while at the same time using it to protect the lake. After all, it would be impossible to clandestinely empty sewage into the lake without cutting across four lanes of road. Ducts along the road can provide power, water, sewerage and connectivity to the area. Finally, this road can take the pressure of the narrow, winding roads which now service the shores of the lake. These side-roads will be ill-equipped to take on the demands placed by rapid development and may prove to be choke-points very soon. After all, what is the fun in having a world-class convention centre but a narrow, winding, pot-holed road to get to it?

If well planned and developed, Lake Drive will beat the pants off any other stretch in Kerala and could well become one of the hottest addresses in the State, if not in the country.

At first glance, it may look like a lot of work and a lot of expenditure for a under-staffed, cash-strapped Government to do, and that too in double-quick time. The best way out of it is to involve the other stake-holders in the process. The most important private stake-holders are the major developers who will be pumping close to Rs 4,000 Crores into the area in the next 5 years. If the proposed steps clearly improve the attractiveness of their projects, there is no reason to doubt that all of them will pitch. It is simple economics, if better roads, water supply and cleaner surroundings push up the value of each square foot of an apartment by Rs 100, a developer will be willing to part with Rs 10 to pocket the remainder.

The simplest way to garner the support of developers would be to levy a special fee for constructing in the Aakulam area. However, this may not be very effective in the end, because the amount collected is put into the general civic system which may end up deploying only 5-10% for the actual work at Aakulam. The best and most effective way is to create a Special Purpose Vehicle to collect the levy and carry out the work. It may not need to be an Aakulam Development Authority, if that is the case Trivandrum would be swamped in such bodies, but a special task force of the Trivandrum Development Authority (TRIDA) or of the Kerala State Urban Development Project (KSUDP). Perhaps called the Project Aakulam Task Force, it would be empowered and equipped to make plans, garner resources and execute work in the Aakulam Lake area.

It may be asked why Aakulam should be shown such preference when explosive growth is happening across the city. The answer is simple, Aakulam and the surrounding areas are where we could end up paying the highest cost for uncontrolled development. So it is imperative that the right steps be taken to protect the area while encouraging development at the same time.

Hmmmm....I look forward to regular evening walks on the lakeside boulevard in a few years from now. Hope to meet many of you there!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Looking back at 2007 (Part II)

Last time, we looked back at what I had predicted for 2007, what happened and what didn't.

Now, let me take a stab at what we can look forward to in 2008. For the sake of simplicity, we will make only five predictions. Lol, call it playing safe or prioritisation, as you wish.

1) Vizhinjam: The dream port has to be numero uno in any wish-list and the reasons are so familiar that I will not go into them again. Suffices to say that this is one project which can quite literally change the face of Trivandrum and Kerala.

With five consortia bidding for the project this time around, it seems fair to expect that one of them will be awarded the project by April or so. Financial closure and planning for the Rs 5320 Crore project will take close to a year at least. However, some of the preliminary work could start before that.

Expected Start Date: November/December 2008

2) Technocity: The bidding for Kerala's largest IT project is expected to be conducted by April/May 2008. The Govt. plans to split the 450 Acre project into multiple plots of different sizes and to award it to many bidders. Design and approvals for the project will take atleast 6 months, so work can be expected towards the end of the year.

Expected Start Date: October/November 2008

3) New International Terminal/Air India Hangar: The Airport has been one of the rare places where work has progressed pretty much on schedule. The New Terminal Phases I & II are heading for scheduled completion by September 2008. Work on the Air India MRO complex should also be completed towards the end of the year.

Expected Start Date: September/October 2008

4) IIST and IISER: Classes at the IIST have already started and those at the IISER are to start this academic year at the CET campus. With strong interest in the State Government and even stronger pressure from the Centre and the public, construction of the campuses for the two world-class institutes - for the IIST at Ponmudi and Valiamala and for the IISER at Vithura - should also start soon.

Expected Start Date: June/July 2008

5) Road and Rail Projects: The much-delayed Capital Road Development Project is back on its feet. Once the contractor has finished re-mobilisation, work should start off in March/April. The upgradation of the Trivandrum Central station to international standards should be tendered out towards the middle of the year along with the other 16 stations selected for upgradation. Work on the suburban services planned between Trivandrum and Kollam, as well as on the expansion of the Kochuveli Terminal should also start in a few months.

Expected Start Date: April/May 2008

There are host of other projects like the TCS and UST development centres, Raheja-Marriott convention centre, Plaza Centre complex, Condor mall, Kshitij mall, Unitech mall and the DLF-Hilton luxury hotel which should start work in the first half of 2008, but they come outside the category of "vital projects".

Unlike last year, when it was a 50-50 affair as to what happened and what lagged, I believe that 2008 will be better in a pronounced manner. From the happenings of the last two months, it seems that the fortunes of our city are on the upswing!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Total City

Total City is an integrated township project, promoted by the Total Group, on 42 acres of land in Trivandrum. It looks like a collection of super-tall apartments, villas and commercial space. The towers are the tallest in Kerala.

The location seems to be somewhere in Kumarapuram. The Western and Northern suburbs of the city are undergoing a high-rise explosion!

Vizhinjam Begins

The Tenders for Kerala's largest project, the Rs 5300 Crore Vizhinjam International Container Transshipment Terminal were received yesterday, in what could be the beginning of the single biggest piece of good news Kerala has had in years. The bidders included some of India's premier developers and some of the world's leading port operators and logistics players. 16 companies in all, arrayed as 5 consortia.

The list of bidders are as follows: (Clickable links in most cases)

1.M/S Nagarjuna Construction Company Ltd + Maytas Infratech + OPM, Singapore

2.M/S Lanco Infratech Pvt Ltd + Lanco Power + Pembinaan Redzai Sdn Bdh, Malaysia

3.M/S D.S Constructions + Apollo Enterprises Ltd + KGL Ports International, Dubai

4. M/s Videocon Industries Ltd + Gammon India + Gammon Infra + Sical Logistics.

5.M/s Zoom Developers + Portia Management Services, UK + Peter Fraenkel & Partners, UK

> All consortia have a combination of developers and operators. This shows a well thought-out strategy to consortium formation, ensuring competencies not just in port construction but also in port management.

> Each consortium, except for that of Gammon & Sical, have an international partner with considerable expertise in the field of Port Management.

> Except for Gammon and Zoom, all the companies are fresh entrants to this round of bidding.

> This is the best response to any major project in Kerala so far. In comparison, Vallarpadam only managed two bidders - Dubai Ports and IL&FS (the latter is only an infrastructure financer). Possibly, only the upcoming Technocity project bid may surpass this, as the Developers' Conclave held on January 24th attracted the likes of Emaar MGF, Unitech, K.Raheja Group, Parsavnath, Embassy, L&T, IVRCL, GMR and so on.

Considering all this, it seems highly suspect that the Kerala media chose to blithely ignore the announcement of the bid submission, despite the same being announced at a major press conference by Ports Minister, M. Vijayakumar.

Except for The Hindu, no paper or local news channel carried the news in detail, despite it being the most important single project Kerala is likely to see for a long, long time. The fact that Vizhinjam can change the face of Kerala like no other project is not lost on anyone with a semblance of intelligence, but still most of the media chose to ditch it in favour of "ground-shocking" items like the red-faced return of a tired, old leader to an equally beat-up party or sordid details of the latest land scam from Kalamassery.

Au Contraire

A fitting footnote to the historic and criminally underreported news about Vizhinjam would be the wide coverage given, atleast by two prominent Malayalam channels, to the arrival of a super-tanker, the "Star 2", at Kochi Refinery's Single Point Mooring (SPM) platform 22 Kms off Cochin. Much ado was made about the fact that this ship, bearing 280,000 tons of crude, was the first super-tanker to call at Kochi and that the SPM would save KRL over Rs 200 Crores a year.

Earlier, I had seen one of Kerala's top newspapers proudly proclaim that this SPM is 22 Kms offshore as compared to others, mostly off the Gujarat coast, which are "merely" 10-15 Kms away from the shoreline.

I wonder whether it takes such a Herculean ( more apt) feat of intelligence to understand the basic fact that a SPM is built at great cost simply because the nearby port (s) do not have the draft to handle supertankers. The further out the SPM, the lower the depth near land, necessitating the location be pushed farther out to sea. Our proud reporter probably didn't understand that the location of the SPM so far out was not a compliment but a damning indication of the shallow draft thereabouts.

In comparison, the same super-tanker can approach to within two nautical miles of Vizhinjam today, without any dredging or hubbub! With a bit of dredging, leviathans with 20-22 m of draft can be laid up within the harbour with ease.

Surprising then that the same channels which took the trouble to send camera teams out in boats 22 Kms out to sea failed to show a single frame from a Minister's press conference shot in the Secretariat, in the heart of the State capital. Pity!

(In case you didn't believe the bit about supertankers passing so close to Vizhinjam, here are two of them crossing each other a few miles off the coast! This shot was taken from the Terrace at the Leela Kempinski Kovalama, with a Canon A-630 which posseses no more than a 6X zoom.)