Saturday, March 29, 2008

Join the Plea for a Re-establishing the High Court in Trivandrum

The struggle for re-establishing the High Court in Trivandrum has gained strength over the past few months and over the last month or so, it has become a burning issue in Kerala, with the protests boiling over into the streets of the capital and passions running high.

Many of us may wonder why there should be two High Courts in the same State? After all, despite our small transgressions, Kerala is probably the most law abiding State in India. And if at all two Courts are necessitated by Kerala's linear shape, why one in Trivandrum, can't it be in Malabar as well?

There are some key points that all of us need to understand in order to answer these questions.

  1. The High Court was never "always" in Cochin. To begin with, the High Court of Travancore - the only independent State in Kerala for most of the British-era - was in Trivandrum. During the formation of Kerala, with Thiru-Kochi to begin with, Trivandrum was chosen as the Capital. The reason was simple, Trivandrum was the only city with modern public buildings and utilities. After all, Trivandrum is still the only city with sewerage, total water network coverage, a public transport system and so on even today, 60 years after State formation. Once the capital was fixed beyond debate, there was a clamour for some institution to be located in Cochin and hence the compromise was to shift the High Court there.
  2. The High Court, by definition, deals with cases in which the State Government is a party. Other types of cases only reach the HC on appeal from lower courts. Since the State Government is located in Trivandrum, this usually means whole trainloads of Government officials, ranging in stature from clerk to Cabinet Secretary, have to travel to and stay at Cochin to attend cases, lest they incur the wrath of the Judiciary. This places a heavy burden on the already thread-bare State Exchequer. With HC Bench with full filing powers at Trivandrum, all this expenditure can be avoided. The delay often seen in cases due to the inability of Govt. officials to travel to Cochin, because they are held up by official work in Trivandrum can also be avoided. This will definitely help speed up the course of Justice. It is estimated that anywhere from Rs 30 to 100 Crores can be saved annually in this way. To get a perspective on the magnitude of this saving, it would pay for 25 Kms of 4-lane roads, 5,000 low-cost houses or 5 crore mid-day meals for kids.
  3. The last-ditch argument is that a HC should be at the geographic centre of Kerala. This holds no water at all, since the location is to be dictated by function more than location in this case. If the former argument were to hold, then the Supreme Court (and pretty much anything else in New Delhi) would need to be at Nagpur. And then the capital of the United States would be in Kansas and that of Russia in some god-forsaken Siberian hamlet.
The case, to use the pertinent word, is iron-clad. It does not take an experience High Court justice to give a quick verdict on the matter. The trouble is everyone has understood the point, except for their Honours. Perhaps the thought of having to shift shop 200 Kms south may not be too attractive. Neither might the thought of being downgraded from the kings of the sandbox to class C VIPs in the capital city. Let's hope they see the light soon.

In the meantime, I hope all of you will sign this online petition which asks for the establishment of a full High Court Bench in Trivandrum. And please do pass it on to your friends as well. Thanks in advance and cheers!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

TRIDA awakens....

Perhaps a little birdie whispered in some rather high-placed ears or, more likely, the planners have woken up to the needs of one of India's fastest growing cities, ten years too late. Well better late than never. As many of you may have understood by now, I am referring to this year's budget by Trivandrum's master developer - TRIDA.

The salient features of TRIDA's budget announced yesterday are:

  1. Three multi-level parking plazas to be built along M.G.Road to ease parking congestion
  2. A 35.25 Km long Outer Ring Road from Kazhakkoottam to Vizhinjam.
  3. A 8 Km Inner Ring Road.
  4. Commercial complexes on BOT basis at Palayam and Medical College
  5. Complexes to rehabilitate traders at Pettah, Pazhavangady, General Hospital junction, Peroorkada and Vazhuthacaud
  6. Reconstruction of Chalai market
  7. Completion of ongoing TRIDA road-widening schemes like Vazhuthacaud - Thycaud.
  8. Mixed use complex at Kazhakoottam which will include a bus terminal, shopping complex, fire station and office space.
  9. Classifying the area around the Secretariat as a Special Zone for speedy development.
  10. Preparation of detailed town planning schemes for Kochuveli, Kudapanakunnu and Attukal.
What it means for us

Parking plazas have been talked about ever since I can remember, but the difference this time is that TRIDA has made it the top priority for the year, in view of the massive congestion felt in the Central Business District and other core areas. Perhaps in view of the steady revenue that Multi-Level Car Parks (MLCPs) would provide, TRIDA plans to go ahead with the development of these facilities on their own, if a BOT model takes time. Also, TRIDA has dropped plans of identifying public land - which never took off - and now plans to acquire private land in the best locations, if need be.

The Outer Ring Road (ORR) actually follows the alignment of an Intermediate Ring Road. The route is Kazhakkoottam - Thundathilpoudikonam - Mannanthala -Peroorkada -Vattiyoorkavu - Peyad - Thachottukavu - Pottayil - Naruvamoodu -Punnamoodu - Peringamala - Vizhinjam. While this covers more than 35 Km, it merely strings up the outer suburbs of the current area and does not add outlying areas to the fold. As suggested by many of the you in response to my previous posts, a true ORR would have been aligned across Mangalapuram - Pothencode - Venjaramoodu - Nedumangadu - Neyyatinkara - Vizhinjam. But considering that TRIDA is going to start land acquisition for this current alignment, the first time they have progressed this far, this is a good first step at putting in place a true radial-and-ring road network. Let's hope that the land acquisition, mostly through suburban areas, will be faster than that for the TRDP work, which is yet to be completed 3 years after it took off.

TRIDA is finally understanding the value of its prime land bank by developing commercial space on it at strategic locations. The use of the BOT model will be a real change in policy, especially in view of the relative lack of success in managing existing complexes such Saphalyam and Kedaram. A BOT operator will ensure that the complex gets the best tenants and is well maintained.

Chalai market occupies valuable real estate near the centre of the city, space which can be partially freed up for other development by reorganising the market more efficiently. Currently, the city's main wholesale market is disorganised and congested. A total redesign along with provision of peripheral infrastructure like wider roads and a new truck terminal, will help to make it a better shopping and commerce destination. The Chalai Re-development Project has been pending for many years now and has resulted in the needless freezing of a lot of land, when it finally takes off this year it will bring an end to many of the area's woes.

TRIDA's road widening schemes have been blazing along at a pace which would put a snail to shame. This year, TRIDA has decided to inject some fresh life to many of these schemes which are in limbo as roads to nowhere. With the road projects under CCDP and JNURM grinding to life, it seems to be raining road projects. This could be a positive development if the work can be smartly planned to result in a well integrated city road system.

Technopark is planning to hand over about 4 acres of its land adjoining Kazhakkoottam to TRIDA to set up a bus terminal and commercial complex. Although KSRTC has been mooting this model for a long time, as a means to utilise its high-value land bank to extricate it from its debts, the proposal from TRIDA looks like the first one which will actually be developed. Being a greenfield project, it is unlikely to run into any of the administrative, political and operational hassles which projects like the Thampanoor bus terminal, which has been stuck for more than five years.

Expanding modern urban planning to key growth areas like Kochuveli, Kudapanakunnu and Attingal will help to promote balanced growth in the future. TRIDA will do well to include even faster growing areas like Kazhakkoottam - Mangalapuram and Vizhinjam in the urban planning exercise. This will avoid complaints later that too much has been built on too little land, with the required infrastructure ten years behind the development boom.

After many years, TRIDA has come out with a forward looking budget which seeks to have a positive impact in many areas at the same time. I wish Mr. Ajayakumar - the TRIDA chairman - and his team all the very best in implementing the plans - which is where the agency will have to prove its real mettle. In a period when Trivandrum is witnessing the fastest growth in its history, a farsighted development agency is a key component to success.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Viva Singapore!

It's been a while since I wrote my last post. Those of you who have been wondering if I have given up the ghost or, at the very least, given up blogging can rest easy. The reason being that I was off with my better half for a belated but much-cherished second act of marriage - the honey-moon! We spent some of the last ten days or so in Singapore, Penang, Phuket and Kuala Lumpur, and the rest on a delightful lil' ship called the Super Star Virgo.

Though I didn't have much spare time for musing, the trip did get me thinking about the remarkable transformation that Singapore and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia have undergone in the last three decades.

In the 1950s and 60s, Singapore and Malaysia would have been hard to distingush from the Trivandrum of those days. In fact, in many ways - like having a modern bus transport system, sewerage system and so on, Trivandrum would have ranked a little above them. Hardly a few decades later, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have left our pretty, little city far behind. Today there is little to distingush them from New York or London. In some ways, like in the case of Singapore's world beating metro rail system, they have overtaken those metropolises.

While it is easy to be amazed by the progress made by these countries, there are valuable lessons to be learned by us. After all, that is the real essence of success, what others can learn.
There are a few key things that these nations have done which have been critical in their achieving progress in just three decades what took most developed nations the better part of a century. Understanding these key strategies could help Trivandrum mimick this meteoric rise (we will talk mainly about Singapore, although many of the points apply to Malaysia as well) :

* Strategic use of Location: Singapore marks the dividing line between Indo-Arabia and East Asia, which together encompass the lion's share of the world's tradable oil supply, half its population and three of the its most powerful nations - India, China and Japan. Situated on the vital Malacca Straits which is a choke-point on the world's West-East trade route, Singapore was ideally placed to tap into the vast stream of commerce passing through here. Initially, the island state focussed on developing manufacturing capabilities, turning incoming raw material into finished material. So oil coming from the middle-east was refined and sent to economies across the region, while cheap subcomponents coming from East Asia were turned into sophisticated goods which were exported to Indo-Arabia and Europe.

Singapore had access to the plentiful labour of the surrounding, less developed region. This included India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Using a combination of this cheap manpower and technologically advanced manufacturing, Singapore rose to prominence as a manufacturing hub along with Taiwan.

Later, the port also discovered another facet of its location - its suitability as a transshipment hub. Straddling one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and blessed with a relatively deep harbour, it took advantage of the relative lack of draft in harbours elsewhere in the region. The principle of transshipment is simple, it is based on the fact that the cost of carrying cargo declines with the increase in size of the ship, economies of scale. However, big ships - like supertankers and super container carriers - can only enter deep ports, with depths of 18 m or more. Till recently, there were very few ports with such drafts in Asia. Except Singapore. Effectively utilising this fact, Singapore has rapidly become the world's busiest container port. The Port of Singapore handles almost 30 million containers a year. A lion's share of India's container traffic is transshiped through Singapore.

Looking at the flood-lit expanses of quay cranes, giant ships and endless stacks of containers which make up the port's multiple container terminals, it is not hard to believe that this port controls the pulse of the trade of many nations, including India.

Ever on the move, Singapore has now added cruise operations to its list of specialities. My own voyage started there, on board the 80,000 ton Super Star Virgo - a mighty cruise ship, which is one of a host which operate out of or dock at Singapore's Cruise Terminal. With its long, beautiful coastlines, huge population and traditional tourist spots, it does not take rocket science to figure out that Singapore has another winning idea.

It doesn't take even bullock cart science to realise that Trivandrum occupies a similar location to Singapore. Indeed, in many ways, our location is superior to that of Singapore. Just take two key aspects. First, in terms of transshipment, Trivandrum lies on the main shipping routes - just like Singapore - but has deeper draft (18 - 25 m) and is much closer to Indian ports. For example, a container travelling from Bangalore via Cochin to the US has to be hauled on a smaller vessel (< style="font-weight: bold;">* Strong, Far-sighted Planning: Most observers would have been mystified at the massive construction projects undertaken for the Changi Airport or the Port of Singapore at the time they were started off. Few would have understood the horizon that the planners were aiming at, not a few years thereafter but a decade or two ahead, when Changi is one of the region's busiest and the world's best airport or when the Port of Singapore is the world's busiest port. Even today, as Singapore reclaims more of the Marina Bay, it may be a little hard to comprehend that the project is in expectation of Asia becoming the world's economic powerhouse, with twin engines in India and China.

* Far-sighted and Strong Urban Management: Urban planning cannot look five years into the future or even ten. It needs to look atleast twenty or twenty-five years ahead. The reasons are simple, urban development projects typically take atleast ten years to complete, given their scale and complexity. They are extremely integral to society, where fundamental changes can take an entire generation to occur. Major developments like a township may take many years to manifest all their effects. For example, when Changi Airport came up, little was understood about the myriad townships and business parks which would come up close to it, yet the Metro and other infrastructure was planned with that in mind.

Far-sighted planning has to be combined with strong management and execution. Often, the development of Singapore has been at odds with some of its people, such as those due to lose their homes to a Metro expansion or a new building development. In most cases, development has won out. The benefit for the greater number is the driving force behind such often unpopular decisions. The increased convenience to hundreds of thousands of people using a new Metro Line is felt to offset the heartbreak of a dozen families who have to leave their old homes. Not that it is the Chinese way of development - where you find out your home is supposed to be demolished for a new road when the wrecking ball comes crashing in through your bedroom window at 3 AM! Amazing though the dragon's progress has been, such bulldozer tactics are not to be condoned. There is every reason to take care of rehabilitation before moving in with the wrecking crew. But the key thing is that projects should go ahead if the cost-benefit analysis makes sense, even after the social costs are factored in. A straight road should not end up as a squiggle due to "social" or "political" consideration.

In Trivandrum, the first step to implementing this way of doing things is to have a strong planning and execution authority. Something which has the scope and powers of TRIDA, the District Administration and the City Corporation, and the efficiency of a private corporation. As mentioned in an earlier post, this can be achieved by creating a new centralised planning agency which is conferred sufficient autonomy under the aegis of a special developmental area - the Trivandrum Capital Region - which in its current definition has slightly more area than the island of Singapore.

The next step is to give it a professional executive structure merged with a democratic legislative body. To those of us who would like to deep-six the legislative, it is a near impossibility, and a good thing too - especially in view of what is transpiring in China, or rather Tibet, these days.

Not that it is a totally foreign concept to Kerala. Recently, the KSEB brought out a new masterplan for Trivandrum in which they have factored in the growth of Technopark and Vizhinjam. Glad to see someone's reading the newspapers already!

* Effective Combination of Public and Private Funding - Singapore rejuvinated its cash strapped economy, at the time of independence from British rule, through tight fiscal control and by attracting external investment. In the beginning, much of it came from regional businesses - Malay and Chinese before the fame of Singapore as an attractive business destination grew and investment came in from across the globe. Much of the Government's own investment has gone into infrastructure which facilitates further investment.

This kind of investment can be seen as a multiplier, since it facilitates other inflows which are many times greater. Simple recipe, take a deserted part of the island. Reclaim some land, level some more. Add some roads, electricity and other utilities. Create a semi-autonomous administrative body for it. Invite investors and stir well till it simmers. Voila! You have a new industrial township from which you can collect millions of dollars of tax and recoup your initial investment many times over. Not that this is unique to Singapore, it has been successfully practised in many developed economies. And the latest additions being China and Dubai, both on mega-scales. The unique thing about Singapore is that much of the private capital pumped has not been so private - a major share comes from Government controlled investment vehicles like Temasek. Thus the income generated from the initial investments has been ploughed back in to create even more wealth. The money that money makes, makes more money......well you get the general idea. Singapore's Temasek and Ascendas are major global players in the property Perhaps the only other place where the Government is such a large realty player is in Dubai, where real estate behemoths like Emaar and Nakheel are under State control. But then again, Dubai had more money to begin with and it remains to seen whether its grandiose developments can emulate the success of Singapore.

It does not easily dawn on policy makers that direct investments such as building IT parks or LIG housing will have minimal multiplier effects. In the case of the former, the inflow may spawn a few apartments and restaurants. But if the investment is made in the basic infrastructure for a new township, it may catalyse many times more investments. For example, if the Govt. of Kerala invests Rs 300 Crores in an IT building, it may create about 1.5 million sq.ft of space and about 15,000 jobs. But when the same amount is invested in acquiring land for and creating the basic infrastructure for an IT-based integrated township (in this case Technocity), it can bring in over Rs 6000 Crores of private investment and create 150,000 direct employment opportunities. The revenues to the Government and the benefit to the citizens of Kerala are much more in the latter case. In this sense, the new Public Private Partnership-friendly policy of the Kerala Govt. is welcome, heralded by the Technocity project and the formation of the two investment vehicles - INKEL and Kerala Information Technology Infrastructure Ltd (ITIK) - which will fund the basic infrastructure for major projects across Kerala.

Specifically for Trivandrum, there needs to be an agency which can raise funds for developmental projects and also raise capital on its own. One way of doing this is to identify and assign a land back to the agency which can be sold outright through action or used for Joint Ventures, to raise capital for various projects. While a good share of such capital must be used for socially beneficial schemes like low cost housing and so on, a major portion must be earmarked for projects which create further value like infrastructure development. The idea behind the agency's funding is quite simple, like in the Singapore model. Suppose, 100 acres of land are acquired at Thonakkal and given to the agency. Today, or rather four to five months ago, the land is/was cheap. Now along comes Technocity at nearby Pallipuram, with the potential for 150,000 jobs. The land prices nearby go through the roof and the agency is sitting on top of a goldmine. Easy money to invest in more such projects. A tactic that urban development agencies like the MMRDA have been using to great effect for many years. Of course, this development agency must be empowered to plan, execute and manage its own projects. (Read more here.)

The good part is that there are already some positives about the lessons from Singapore. Atleast in a few places, those lessons are being learnt and even put into practice. There will undoubtedly be more innovative strategies that can be used to fast track Trivandrum's development, for no two cities are the same. But the two cities that we talked about - our own Ananthapuri and Singapore - have a lot in common and perhaps they may yet share a common future.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kerala IT.Com 2008 is here

Kerala's premier IT show is back for yet another edition. This time it is back where it belongs - at Technopark, the State's IT hub - after a disastrous deviation in 2006.

The event is spread across the next three days - March 13, 14 and 15th. With the Technopark campus thrown open to the public and an exhibition by the Whos Who of the global IT industry, this is one opportunity which should not be missed.

Please try and attend it, and also ensure that everyone you know also goes. Thanks and cheers!