Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Recap of 2008

As we have been doing for the past couple of years, let's quickly take stock of what transpired in Trivandrum in 2008 AD. We had focused on five developments when we looked ahead at the year on February 6th. Let's see how they have fared:

1. Vizhinjam - In February, we had predicted that the bid would be completed by the end of the year and indeed it has. The tender to develop the $ 2 Billion port was awarded to a Lanco-led consortium on May 13th. The project then swiftly achieved all Central clearances. However, a legal challenge by a disqualified bidder, Zoom Developers, has led to a protracted legal battle which has currently reached the Supreme Court. It is expected that the legal hassles will be cleared up in the next few weeks and that development of the project can go ahead. Lanco expects construction to start in late-2009/early-2010.

2. Technocity - The Government of Kerala formed KSITIL, a SPV to implement Technocity and other, smaller IT projects. The RFQ for Technocity and Technopark Phase III was released shortly thereafter and 9 major developers including majors like Forest City, Emaar MGF, K.Raheja Corp and L&T were qualified to bid. However, the financial tsunami of September 16 has put the developer community on the back-foot across the world and the bids have been postponed by the Govt. in order to get better results. In parallel, the Govt. may also try to tie up with investors through the MoU route as many international firms have expressed a keen interest in the Technocity project. It now looks like mid-2009 before the first investor can be tied up even as land acquisition for the 450 acre project proceeds.

In parallel, Technopark has started development of the Phase III campus with 2.1 million sq.ft of space due to be constructed in a Hafeez Contractor-designed futuristic campus.

GoK is also planning to develop an Information Technology Investment Region (ITIR) around Technopark-Technocity and the studies on the project are already underway.

3. Airport Development - This is well on track as structural work on the Phase I of the New International Terminal (T3) and the Air India MRO nears completion. Phase I is expected to be operational by April 2009 and Phase II by October, while the MRO will be commissioned in June.

4. IIST and IISER - Full marks here - both institutions are already operational, the IIST at the VSSC campus and the IISER at the CET campus. Their own sprawling campuses are already under development.

5. Road and Rail Development - Work has restarted on the Trivandrum City Road Improvement Project (TCRIP) with Punj-Lloyd deploying subcontractors for the initial work. Meanwhile, tendering of the 4/6-laning of NH-47 from Trivandrum to Cherthalai has been completed and work is expected to start soon. Work on the MEMU services on the Trivandrum - Kollam route have commenced while the development of Kochuveli Satellite Terminus is ongoing. The upgradation of Trivandrum Central to world-class standards is on hold as the PPP model for the entire 16-station project is under discussion in Delhi.

Work has also started on the K.Raheja - Marriott International Convention Center Complex at Aakulam while the first Phase of the 10,000-seater Infosys campus is under construction and is due to be operational in April 2009. The 460,000 Sq.ft. Leela Infopark is also near completion while work is on at Phase II of the IBS Campus and the NEST Development Center.

While the global economic crisis has impacted the city's economy, the residential sector continues to power when the rest of Kerala is flagging with leading players including DLF slashing prices elsewhere. The 36-floor iPark project by Nikunjam is the signature of the ongoing development in Trivandrum's housing market. Malls by Nikunjam, Condor and Kshitij are under development.

The retail market is also doing well with outlets from Big Bazaar to Sunny Diamonds opening during the year, with many more expected in 2009.

And last, but not the least, Trivandrum was chosen to be the host city for the 2010-11 National Games. Preliminary work is already in progress to develop a 50,000 seater main stadium, an Athletes' Village and associated facilities with a total outlay of over Rs 1000 Crores.

On the whole 2008 has ended better than 2007, although on a slightly glum note due to the world-wide financial melt-down. The devil has been in the details for projects like Vizhinjam and Technocity which have made significant progress in the year but are still a little short of the finishing post. Let's hope that they, along with a host of new developments will make 2009 a year of resurgence for Trivandrum. Stay tuned for a perspective of 2009.

Enjoy your New Year's Eve, party on folks and stay safe!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Terminal 3 nears completion

The structure of the New International Terminal (Terminal 3) at the Trivandrum International Airport is almost complete. Work on the 1st Phase is over and the steel-work of the 2nd Phase is on.

The state-of-the-art terminal building, designed by the world-famous firm of W.S. Atkins, will be commissioned by April 2009. At 350,000 Sq.ft., the giant terminal will be the most modern in Kerala and one of the most advanced designs in India.

It will be a refreshing change from the staid architecture found elsewhere in Kerala's airports. Kozhikode's new terminal has made a start at a new design style, but T3 will be the first real step change with its all-steel-and-glass design which follows the trend set by iconic airports like Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok.

Friday, December 26, 2008

IFFK - Curtain Falls

My last movie at IFFK 2008 was one of my most eagerly awaited ones, "Dreams of Dust". Eagerly awaited because it had received good reviews in its first outing, it had an intriguing plot and it was from Burkina Faso, a country few of us can locate on the map and whose cinema was probably not likely to be high on the download list of the Torrent universe. What is a film festival for, if not to experience the really exotic among films and genres?

Dreams of Dust was well shot, it captured the oppressive and dehumanised nature of the life in many parts of Africa where a few dollars are a fortune, for which people have no qualms killing each other.

The story of the lead character doesn't fail to strike a chord with anyone who has been to a strange new place or in a strange new role, despite the remoteness of its demographic and geographic context from any of us. The stories of the miners scratching out a living digging out near-barren gold ore with their bare hands doesn't fail to tug at the heart-strings either.

The subtle twist in the plot towards the end left me and BVN wondering whether right and wrong blend into each other in such extreme conditions of human existance. Perhaps, the end was a bit too abrupt but the movie left plenty of food for thought.

IFFK Day Three

IFFK may long be over, but let me finish my reports about it a week late due to a short trip to Delhi and Lucknow over the last few days.

My only film on Tuesday was "The Class", a film which portrays the dynamics between and amongst students and teachers of a multi-racial classroom in Paris.

The winner of this year's Palme d' Or at Cannes, the film was distinctive for the long shots in the classroom scenes which immerses or rather forces the viewer to be part of the environment in the class itself. All the more relevant in view of the racial tensions gripping Paris and many European cities, including London and Madrid in recent times, the film is an interesting insight into the contrasts within a pronouncedly multi-racial society.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

IFFK Day Two

My second day was on Monday, as Sunday had been spent checking out wifey's cooking at home. Having assured myself that the rest of my life was suitably provisioned with tasty cuisine for the rest of life, I tried out Kedma.

The Second World War and all things associated with it have been the center of focus of my military history interest and the formation of Israel, immediately after the War - the setting for the film - has never failed to get my admiration.  Ever since I read "90 minutes at Entebbe" - the story of one of the most heroic and audacious commando raids in history - I have admired the tenacity, courage and resourcefulness of the people of Israel. Kedma paints a vivid picture of the early days of the creation of Israel when the Jews fought not just the Arabs but the retreating British as well. The ultra-long, uninterruped camera shots employed by Amos Gitai, especially the introduction and climax, were the highlights of the movie.

BVN, ever the true friend, apparently refused a seat to Kamal, which made the screening extra special!  

Saturday, December 13, 2008

IFFK Day One

December 13th found me and BVN in front of Kripa theatre for our first film at IFFK 2008. Uncannily we had turned up in the same combination of light blue kurta and blue jeans, it would have taken only a couple of scraggly beards and a few beedis to turn us into stereotypical movie critics. That didn't happen, but our first movie did - albeit after a ten minute delay.

Hiroshima, My Love is a 1959 classic about the tryst between a Japanese architect and a French actress. It explores the personal tragedy that she experienced during the Second World War, juxtaposed with the collective tragedy of Hiroshima. Altogether an interesting if slightly slow movie, still relevant today fifty years on.

On to Ajantha, for the next movie - Half Moon (Niwemang) - is a tale of a bunch of Kurdish musicians who make a tortuous trip from Iran to post-Saddam Iraq to perform at a music contest. A bitter-sweet movie, it takes a few metaphysical turns, with a few laughs on the way, before reaching a tragic conclusion. We recognised Golshifteh Farahani who plays the title role, from the recent Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies.

Good crowds in all the theatres and the arrangements seem to be even better than last time's. Stay tuned for more!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Let's Market Trivandrum

We often say that refrigerators can be sold to Eskimos with the right marketing pitch. While that might be an extreme interpretation of how well a good marketing campaign can work, it is undeniable that a well thought out and laid out strategy can work wonders. Indeed, even if a product is excellent, it may never sell without potential buyers becoming aware of it. A well kept secret is the last thing you want in the sales game. The case of an investment destination is no different. Just as the world's most beautiful beach may as well not exist if it is not on the tourist map, a city needs to be "discovered" by investors before its true potential can be realised. So what can be done to put Trivandrum, one of India's most exciting investment destinations, on the world map of the investor community?

Kotler and co have made the science and art of marketing a lot simpler to understand but a city is a complex product indeed. It is huge and very dynamic, and composed of a multitude of components which often synergise or conflict with each other. A city changes over time and its attractions change even faster. And finally a city has a set of very diverse stakeholders, whose interests are even more diverse.

Investment Promotion

Cities are promoted formally and informally. The former strategy has been practised in many major cities, especially in the developed world for decades yet it is often impractical for smaller cities, especially in the developing world due to lack of coordination among various stakeholders and lack of resources. Dedicated "City Promotion" agencies are usually the best way to ensure a focused, powerful and balanced campaign and usually funded by civic bodies and private enterprise in conjunction. Interesting examples include "Invest in America" and "Visit Singapore". Promotion agencies identify the key attractions of a destination to various potential stakeholders, zero in on the USPs and make them as well known as possible through a mixture of online, print-media and direct marketing. Of course, such agencies need a clear mandate and an even clearer budget, which of course means that the results of the destination promotion have to be demonstrable. The initial outlay and the effort entailed in coordinating the efforts and inputs of so many agencies is a major obstacle in setting these organisations up in Indian Tier II cities like Trivandrum.


One form of aggressive destination marketing is to conduct roadshows and to attend key investor events. This enables direct contact with potential investors. The usual channels used to create awareness among investors - print media, the web and electronic media - are examples of carpet bombing, in marketing terms, and it can be considered lucky if even 0.01% of the audience are the actual targets - investors. Setting up meetings with them or participating in pre-arranged events ensures that all the effort expended reaches the target. The key requirements for success in such ventures is a good sales pitch and an equally good team. The Kerala Govt. has conducted quite a few roadshows (such as this one in Chennai or this much more ambitious but even less successful one in the US) and made annual visits to key industry events like CEBIT and GITEX, not to mention homegrown versions like BanglaoreIT.In The results have been uniformly disappointing, other than a few free trips for all concerned and even fewer expressions of interests from this firm and that, nothing concrete has ever come out of it all. Guess that says much about the effectiveness of the sales pitch and team, when investors are still flocking to Technopark without being wooed.

The Media

Another avenue of marketing is indirectly through the media. After all, much of the news in the media revolves around locations. Why not ensure that the right messages go out through the media? In the absence of direct information, organisations often take whatever is written in the popular press to be the gospel truth. Even in an industry as sensitive to the investment climate as real estate, major developers often invest based on little more than hearsay! Of course that lands them in very hot waters later, which is part of the reason that the honeymoon with real estate has ended in India. Being a part of the realty sector, one often gets to hear anecdotes of this nature, once I remember a doyen of the industry in Kerala trying to convince me that Wipro was planning to employ 70,000 people in its Kochi center, till I told him that was more than the company's total strength at the time! The poor gentlemen had been led to believe otherwise. But just as consistent media reporting can mislead, it can also help form and reinforce reality. In fact, the recent change in the reporting styles of a lot of the media with respect to Trivandrum has been noticeable, reports about major projects and their positive impacts have become more common. And the effect is already visible, names like "Vizhinjam" and "Technocity" are now far more familiar than they were just a year or so ago. Sadly, the vast majority of city news items continues to be about the machinations of State politics or the need to fix this pothole or that broken window than about the ways and means to take Trivandrum to the global stage. Personally, I have been able to make a couple of contributions in this regard as a guest columnist for The Hindu. (Two recent articles were about Integrated Townships and The Realty Hotspots of Trivandrum) I hope a lot of us can make similar contributions by writing for papers, after all who knows better about our city than we do. I am glad to note that of late, the content has become very positive and forward looking with a bunch of young writers and editors coming forward to see Trivandrum as a vibrant city and not as "sarkar-town" as a lot of the old foggies still do.

What We can do.

Finally, we can all do a little bit ourselves. I have heard many of our brothers and sisters deride Trivandrum when someone from outside the city asks about it. "infrastructure is bad" or "not enough shopping" are amoung the variety of poor opinions that I have heard being aired. Surely, many of you would have heard someone or the other say similar things. Not to say that Trivandrum is a modern Indian vision of Utopia, but I daresay, it is very decently placed. In terms of quality of life, costs, beauty, urban infrastructure, security and many other parameters, we are well above the average for a developing country like ours. Don't take my word for it, but the consistently high rankings our city as scored in many professional city comparison studies is proof enough. And as has been said ad infinitum if we don't speak up for ourselves, who will? So the next time, someone asks you, "How's IT doing in Trivandrum?", tell them "It's doing good, Technopark's growing fast and we already have Infosys and TCS setting up campuses here." Don't tell them, "Naaah, we are nowhere near Bangalore." Tell the right answer, the truthful answer. There is nothing to fear about telling the truth. (Apologies for sounding like a Washingtonian grandpa!)

There is much to be done in getting the message across. Everybody has to play their parts - Government, industry, civic organisations, NGOs, you and me! It is high time that a coherent destination branding and marketing strategy is put in place, because it is critical not just to stay ahead of the pack but even to stay afloat.

A First Step - TRIBIZ

Fortunately, there are a few initiatives in progress. One of them is by the NGO Trivandrum Development Front, which is a organisations composed mostly of young professionals that aims to promote developmental activities in and around Trivandrum. They have developed a website, TRIBIZ, the aim of which is to create awareness about Trivandrum's potential among the investor community and to provide an interface with them. Their latest initiative is a concise and comprehensive Investor Presentation, which outlines crisply Trivandrum's strategic advantages as an investment destination and potential focus areas for investment (It can be downloaded from a link on the home-page.) The website also talks about facets of the city like its key advantages, quality of life, tourist spots and provides an interesting list of studies on Trivandrum down by TDF and other agencies.

The website and its Investor tool could become the starting point for our own personal campaigns for our city. Passing the information, especially the presentation (s), on to interested people we know will help to create wider awareness about how attractive our city is to investment as to the tourists who flock here from across the world. And perhaps, considering how wide our networks are these days, it is quite likely that the information will sooner rather than later reach investors looking for the next hot place in India to put their money in. Get started, folks! Thanks!

(I am putting a permanent link to the Investor Tool on the sidebar, here so that anyone can easily navigate to it at any time.)