Saturday, August 30, 2008

Technopark Phase III to be launched on September 3, 2008

As if news of the launch of two massive IT campuses in Trivandrum - UST Global and Infosys - weren't enough, here comes an even bigger one!

Work on Technopark Phase III, spread over 92 acres and expected to create over 4 million sq.ft of space and 40,000 jobs is being inaugurated on Sept 4, 2008.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the ceremony and here is a copy for all of you. :)
Please do try to attend the function!
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The invitation says that when Phase III is complete in 2012, Technopark (Phases I, II and III) will have over ten million sq.ft. of space and over 100,000 employees. This will make it one of the top technology hubs in the world and Asia's biggest.

Amazing! Especially since these figures do not take the mammoth Technocity project into account.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Order from Chaos....!

I recently finished my latest read, Chaos by James Gleick, and as I pondered over the incredible concept of order within chaos, of the beautiful but strange world of fractals and the arresting hypotheses raised by the Chaos Theory, I couldn't help letting my thoughts wonder back to a form of disorder we are all used to - political strike action.

The signature of Chaos - The Mandelbrot Set

Lately, Trivandrum has been subject to two intense versuons of this age-old form of political action, in the form of a "Secretariat Blockade" by the UDF followed by a "National General Strike" by the Left. I can't recollect what the reasons stated where, I don't care much for whatever they wanted, neither do, I suspect, the 99.9% of the public inconvenienced by these two supposedly democratic protests.

Trivandrum usually fares worst in Kerala because as the Capital City, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a cause or even a very poor excuse for a cause lands up here to voice their protest in any of a myriad forms. So, leaky taps in Kasargode and power-cuts in Idukki all land up at our doorsteps. I suppose that goes with the territory of being a capital, a bane suffered by every such city from Washington D.C. to Beijing (maybe not, after Tiananmen) to New Delhi. But whether the frequency and often ferocity, of the human turbulence witnessed in Ananthapuri may not be very common.

Sticking to my policy of keeping politics off the blog as much as possible, we will keep well off the tricky path of discussing the morality of public protests, bandhs et al. As long as democracy persists and all democratic parties will need various forms of protests to stay in the limelight, it is very unlikely that anyone will listen to the vast majority and put a tight leash on protests. Whatever feeble attempts have been made by the Judiciary are observed more in the breach these days. So what can we do, if the torrent of protest actions is unlikely to abate in the forseeable future?

Well, we need not suffer in silence. There are steps which can be taken without breaking our heads against the wall of common political apathy to mitigate the impact of such protests while maintaining the right to political expression.

1. Shift the political centre outside the CBD - The shifting of the Collectorate to its new home in Kudapanakunnu is a sure first step (although I guess that readers residing in the vicinity may feel otherwise). If the prime target of most protests - the Secretariat - can be moved to some 1000 acre plot near Attingal, imagine the relief felt by the city. And with more space around it, the protestors can have an easier time too!

2. Put a toll on protests - If everyone has to pay for the use of public infrastructure, so do protestors. Any protest with more than a specified threshold of protestors can be asked to pay a token amount as toll. What is the use of protest if there is no sacrifice? How one counts heads within a chaotic rally is another matter altogether, but it can be accomplished with some accuracy using surveillance cameras.

In case of protests which force organisations to close, be it be a corner shop or Technopark, the outfit responsible should be forced to cough up a major share of the lost revenue. Technopark, for example, makes about Rs 6 Crores a day!

3. Better Traffic Management - To start with, protest marches can be physically penned into one lane of the road using temporary barriers, atleast at intersections. We would need a lot of barriers, ropes and cones, but it will atleast permit a modicum of space on the road for everybody else. Secondly, effective policing to allow crossings at all major junctions. Thankfully, the new grade separators being built as parts of CRIP will be a boon in this sense. More flyovers and underpasses will help. Thirdly, information is very valuable to avoid protests. Few of us would dive kamikaze style into a rally, if we knew it was passing by. Chances are, we don't know. The City Police can dessiminate traffic information using its smart web-site , radio channels (Radio Mirchi does a pretty good job already!), electronic traffic message boards or even via an SMS messaging service.

Traffic Information Display

4. Efficient Public Transportation - Means that we don't have to negotiate the hurdles ourselves, and that there are less private vehicles on the road to get jammed up. Even with our humble KSRTC bus fleet, the difference is visible. On days where most other Kerala cities are paralysed when their private buses stay off the road, the KSRTC keeps Trivandrum buzzing. Imagine what could be done with the proposed mass transit buses and mono-rail! Of course, the Govt. will also need to make public transport an essential service so that its employees don't scoot as well! The last few times that general strikes were called in Kerala, the KSRTC in Trivandrum was geared up to operate atleast a significant part of its usual services, but there were no passengers, lol.

5. Integrated Townships - These are cities in miniature, self-contained and secure. Take the massive Technocity project as an example, it will have huge IT parks (more than 15 million sq.ft. of space), residences, malls, hotels, schools, hospitals, sporting facilities and pretty much everything one can want to live and work. The concept is referred to as "Walk to Work", which has rather special connotations in our context. If you live within walking distance of the office, little short of a cyclone can stop you getting there. Soon, the area from Aakulam to Thonnakkal may become such an eco-system, especially if the Government extends the police protection currently provided to Technopark to the entire region.

6. The most important thing is for all of us to realise that strikes are NOT holidays. The kind of rush one witnesses in front of video rental shops and the ubiquitous BevCo booze shops on the day before a general strike is a sure sign that there is a holiday mood in place. What's the worst that can happen out if we venture out in the midst of a strike? Not much actually, unless you happen to wander into the cross-hairs of particularly vicious bunch of miscreants. And this is less likely than winding up in a road accident. The sum total of all injuries probably comes down significantly on a General Strike. So, let's venture out next time someone decides to call a general strike for something. I did for the last couple of bandhs, and I am still here.

7. There is always this option....

But, let's not get to that....yet.

A combination of the above structural measures could help mitigate the vagaries of the those all-too common protests. Trivandrum is the capital, so protests are unlikely to vanish once and for all.

Fingers crossed on that, see you when the next "bandholiday" rolls in. Cheers!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Render Unto the Government.....

A few months ago, some of you mentioned that my ideas - at least the sane ones - needed to be aired to the right people. Else they would remain mere ideas, at best a source of brief entertainment. That, of course, is not the whole idea behind this blog. In which case I would have tried to emulate the successful course laid down by my bosom buddy, BVN. Taking the idea behind this blog - to evolve and popularise ideas for urban development - to the next level, I have been engaged in getting some of the possibilities that we have discussed to the authorities.

In association with a bunch of maverick, far-sighted young professionals called the Trivandrum Development Front, I have started interacting with some of the people who make decisions which affect our daily lives within the center of power in Kerala - the Secretariat. One recent submission was a proposal to develop a monorail network in Trivandrum. The Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project has already initiated a study for an Integrated Urban Transport Project in Trivandrum. Our plan is to ensure that monorail technology, possibly the best option for Trivandrum, is included in the study.

The presentation that we submitted to the Chief Minister and Minister for Local Self Government is available here. It has been received pretty positively by the authorities, who to their credit, have called us for discussions with their consultants soon. I am hoping that those will be productive sessions where the aspirations of the citizen can be combined with the wisdom of the expert.

The engagement with the Government is an ongoing process and we are talking with the authorities about a portfolio of projects including the ITIR, JNNURM and Vizhinjam. Once the TDF website is up in a few days' time, more updates will be readily available. Stay tuned, folks. Hope to hear your views on the proposal soon, thanks in advance!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Vizhinjam 2050

Thirty years have rolled by since the Millennium turned, India has bulldozed its way to the number three spot in the world economy, overtaking Japan 2030. Now its sights are firmly set on the top spot, as China and its ageing population lose steam. and the US declines steadil y. Eventhough the US retains some sort of lead in a few fields like financial services and R&D, pretty much everything else has passed to the two Asian giants. Most of the world's goods have a "Made in China" or "Made in India" stamp on them. These goods are moved from factory to consumer on some of the world's biggest's ships. The Malacca-max container ship will be over 450 m long, 300,000 DWT of deadweight and have a draught of more than 20 m. These behemoths will each carry up to 18,000 TEUs and be the conveyors of a major portion of the world's trade.

Vizhinjam will be one of the few ports in the world capable of handling these giants and thus has become extremely congested as ships vie for the chance to dock first at India's deepest port." - World Shipping Journal, Aug 2031

This scenario is not hard to imagine given the explosive growth both in India's trade and the size of container ships. Already, the world's biggest container carrier has a capacity of 11,000 TEUs.

2050 is way off, but this gives us a chance to step into the realm of imagination and think of a few innovative if extreme ways to expand Vizhinjam. Today, geography and the presence of heavily populated or tourism areas around it limit the size that the port can achieve. At full capacity, the port will be able to accomodate 12-15 ships and have a capacity of 6.5 million TEUs, which is only 25% of what Singapore or Shanghai handle today.

Statutory Warning: Leave your logic and "are you crazy?" questions somewhere safe before you indulge in the rest of this article.

1. String of Ports: This is possibly the easiest strategy to implement and is based on models implemented successfully in major ports like Singapore and Los Angeles. Here, multiple harbours form the port, like Singapore has Jurong, Pasir Pajang, Keppel and so on. Different harbours in the same port can handle different types of cargo based on their draughts or they could handle the same type. Most of the world's biggest ports often adopt this approach as one harbour is seldom big enough or deep enough for indefinite expansion.

In the case of Vizhinjam, it is flanked by several ports. The most evident are Colachel in Tamilnadu and Thangasseri near Kollam. Colachel has a draught of about 12 m and is often referred to as a competitor for Vizhinjam as a transshipment terminal, especially due to the interest shown by the current Union Shipping Minister. However, Colachel - once a part of Travancore and the scene of Maharaja Marthanda Varma's triumph over the Dutch - may not be able to compete with Vizhinjam in terms of draught. Neither can Thangasseri which currently has a draught of around 5 m.

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Satellite view of Thangasseri Harbour

The process of transshipment involves the movement of containers from big "mother-ships" to smaller feeder vessels which can access shallower ports. Mother-ships need deep ports like Vizhinjam to dock in but the feeder vessels don't. Even shallower ports like Cochin (current draught 10.2 m) can accomodate them. Herein lies the basis for the multiple harbour strategy.

Assuming Vizhinjam can tie up with Thangasseri and, much easier said than done, Colachel, feeder vessels can dock at these two ports while Vizhinjam handles only the giant mother-ships. Assuming that 50% of the capacity of Vizhinjam is taken up handling feeder vessels which will now be freed up, the capacity of the port can be effectively doubled, to about 13 million TEUs.

But the two satellite ports will be about 70 Kms from Vizhinjam, how will they become integrated and how can containers unloaded at one port be loaded without much delay at another? The answer is pretty simple - a dedicated Rail Corridor. Twin rail-lines running from Kollam to Colachel. Containers can move between the ports in less than two hours and using an integrated container management system will make the entire harbour-plus-rail system seem like one port. Moving a container off a ship, storing it, retrieving it and loading it on another ship will seem like it is happening within one harbour rather than across two harbours 70 Kms apart. Of course, there remains the small matter of building the rail corridor and getting our neighbours in Colachel to agree, but it can be done with today's technology and geography. And if this works out, minor ports like Kayamkulam can also be roped in to accomodate feeder vessels.

2. The Lakes option: Some of the world's leading ports have made use of existing bays and lakes, and this could be another avenue to expand the capacity of Vizhinjam. There are two candidates which immediately suggest themselves for this role - Vellayani and Kadinamkulam lakes - both of which are a few kilometers from the port.

Vellayani Lake

Vellayani is close to the port site and can be linked to the sea by constructing a short canal to it. The lakes have a depth of around 2 m on average and this can be dredge to about 8 m to permit feeder vessels to enter. In the case of Kadinamkulam, the lake already opens to the sea, so the estuary only has to be widened and deepened. Containers can be moved among the ports using dedicated rail links as in the earlier option. In the case of Kadinamkulam, water transport of containers is a real option since the old canal - recently renovated - extends from the lake all the way to Kovalam. And north of Kadinamkulam, the waterway extends first to Varkala, then to Kollam and finally to Kottapuram near Cochin. This will eventually extend all the way to Manjeshwaram. This means that cargo from across Kerala can be brought to Kadinamkulam and thence to Vizhinjam, and vice-versa using cheap water transport.

Kadinamkulam Lake

This strategy will also help to roughly double the eventual capacity of Vizhinjam by moving feeder traffic out of the main port. The technology is also readily available. In fact, it is said that the legendary, far-sighted Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer envisioned creating a port by linking Vellayani lake to the sea. The downside of this idea would be the ecological impact of the massive dredging on the lakes as well as the complete commercialisation of two lakes which would be future tourism destinations and potential water sources for Trivandrum city.
3. Going Offshore:If it becomes impossible to find space for expanding Vizhinjam on or along the shore, then we might have to look somewhere that is being looked at by many of the world's massive infrastructure projects - the open sea! That is not exactly where one would expect to find airports, ports or whole cities. Well, think again. Two of the world's biggest airports - Kobe's Kansai International and Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok - are built out at sea, as is China's biggest port - Yangshan. Not to mention the cities being created off the coast of Dubai in the form of the Palm Islands.

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Kansai International Airport

Mankind is becoming increasingly more confident in reclaiming land from the mighty ocean, something pioneered by the Dutch hundreds of years ago. This could be the ultimate future plan for Vizhinjam's expansion.

The projects mentioned above have used the technique of reclamation of land wherein either soil from the shore or material dredged from the bottom of the sea is dumped on a patch of sea-bed till it breaks the surface and becomes a patch of solid land. This may be difficult in Vizhinjam due to the depth of the water and the likely ecological impact. For example, the giant Yanshang container port near Shanghai is nearly 30 Kms offshore but is built in only about 13 m of water. Even 5 Kms off Vizhinjam, the depth will be close to 50 m or more. The amount of material needed to build up a large artificial island at this depth will be colossal, putting even the Palm Islands to shame.

The answer could be to copy what the oil industry is already doing. The biggest tankers in the world, the so-called supertankers, cannot be accomodated in many ports (Vizhinjam wouldn't bat an eyelid about taking one of these behemoths). So most supertankers are loaded and unloaded out at sea at offshore terminals. These can either be platforms just like oil-rigs or can be floating structures called Single Point Moorings such as the one off Vyppin, built by KRL because the Cochin Port was too shallow to accomodate big tankers.

A platform-type Offshore Terminal for Supertankers

For an offshore container terminal of the type that could be used in Trivandrum, the platform model can be adopted. A long platform built out at sea will act as the Quay alongside which the ships will dock and on which the massive quay cranes, characteristic of container terminals, will move around. Unlike Tangshan which has a much greater area at its disposal, the Trivandrum Off-shore Container Terminal will not be able to stack more than a few containers on it, as any increase in deck area would mean a major increase in the cost of the supporting structures. So once a container is unloaded by a quay crane, it will be dropped onto a pallet and immediately whisked away on a high-speed transfer system, across a long bridge and to a stackyard ashore. The container will be tracked all through its transfer using RFID technology and it makes little difference whether the stackyard is right next to the quay or 5 Km away. An ideal choice for the high speed container transport system could be a cargo monorail or even a maglev. The entire terminal will have wave-shields fitted to mitigate wave impact on the ships during rough weather such as during the monsoon season.

While the offshore terminal is the most futuristic of all the concepts that we have looked at, it is clearly possible even with today's technology. And it has the capability to enable Vizhinjam to match and even to beat the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

To those of you who have been patient enough to persist with my ravings this far, a big thank you! Normally, I never deviate too far from the pragmatic aspect of development, but once in a while it pays to let fly your imagination and dream aloud. Truth often evolves in ways that fiction may not even visualise. After all, if I had told an audience 25 years ago that we would be building airports, ports and whole cities on the sea, there is more than an even chance of me having shared a cell with you-know-who at Arkham Asylum. And today, we don't even bat an eyelid at those same miracles, so let's dare to dream big for Vizhinjam and who knows.....?!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Vizhinjam gets Security Clearance

Kerala's biggest infrastructure project, the Rs 8000 Crore Vizhinjam Deep-sea Container Transshipment Terminal, has been accorded clearance by the Defense Ministry. The letter of clearance was sent by Defense Minister Mr. A.K. Antony, to the State Government today. The Defense Ministry has also requested that GoK agree with the developer to allow Indian Navy warships to dock at any time in the port.

This is a sign of the growing strategic naval importance of Trivandrum due to the proximity of one of the world's energy lifelines (the Persian Gulf - Malacca shipping channel) and the increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean area. I would not be surprised if the expansion of the Coast Guard base at Vizhinjam is accompanied by a permanent naval presence as well as the deployment of maritime patrol aircraft at Trivandrum International Airport.

Vizhinjam has received Foreign Ministry clearance as well.

More on this soon, in the meantime do take some time off to go through this excellent website on the Vizhinjam project and the dedicated thread on