Thursday, December 31, 2009

Learning from Other States........

When a Hartal was declared in Kerala on Dec 28,2009 by the BMS (Yes, not too many of us know about it, it is the Sangh Parivar's labour union), the usual cacophony of voices in the media and on many a blog broke out decrying Kerala's "Harthal culture". Many a "Hartal Counter" ticked over and the critics went back to slumber, feeling smug at having done their civic duty. Of course, the usual line would have been "look at Bangalore or Hyderabad, and learn from them", but this time that common refrain was curiously absent or rare.

The usual level of smugness that many non-resident keralites (the "I-work-in-Hyderabad/Bangalore and we don't have hartals here" brigade) was kind of spoilt by the three week long shut down that Hyderabad has been experiencing over the Telengana issue. The poster-child for many of how a city can evolve into an IT hub even when much of the surrounding State continues to languish in abject poverty, Hyderbad's IT industry, the fourth biggest in India, has been almost paralysed as employees could not reach their offices on many days. So much so that many top firms have either put up key staff at hotels near the IT parks or announced holidays altogether. CII's flagship event which had been scheduled at Hyderabad, was shifted helter-skelter to Chennai. And to top it all off, the US has issued a travel advisory against travelling to Andhra Pradesh, which never fails to proudly show-case Microsoft, Google, CSC et al as its top investors.

And if you think the situation south of the border in Bengaluru is any better, you would be very wrong. I just got off the phone with a close friend in India's IT Capital who was telling me that crowds have been going berserk after the death of Kannada film star. The city has got an unwelcome sense of deja vu when the ugly scenes witnessed after the death of another film personality were repeated, almost as if someone was shooting a faithful sequel. Offices and shops were stoned, cars burned and roads blocked. Even more bizarrely, there were suicides over the filmstar's death by cardiac arrest.


My friend told me that posters of the late star have been put up in front of IT parks and malls, in the hope of avoiding a few well aimed stones. Moreover, some buildings have put up nets as a final defense. Apparently, if you don't have a stock of Kannada CDs in your car when you are stopped by a mob, there is a significant risk of having the windscreen bashed in. Cosmopolitan city, indeed!

While I have all respect for the fallen matinee idol and the need for self-determination felt by a section of AP, the point is that it is downright dumb to point out only Kerala as a state of frequent disruptions. Strike actions are prevalent everywhere, most notably in the NCR and Mumbai (the Shiva Sena and the MNS being the star performers, of course!). And it seems even more of a travesty when malayalees single out their own home state for blame.

Over the last few years, the amount of disruption to daily life and industry from strikes have drastically declined in Kerala. In fact, as Dr Thomas Issac pointed out at the India IT Summit 2009 in Trivandrum recently, Kerala experienced fewer man-days lost due to political disruptions than many States which are often show-cased as the champions of industry. Technopark, which is the largest employer in Kerala, experienced zero disruption, which is a lot better than what Electronics City, Whitefield or Gachibowli can claim.

Rather than sitting around and complaining, why not we venture out on a strike day and prove these critics wrong? I was out on Dec 29th, and the last time I checked my head was still where it belongs. No one stoned my car or broke my head. There were plenty of cars and bikes out on Trivandrum's roads. KSRTC did a great job running many of its services (the Volvos stayed off the roads, of course!) and the major institutions like Technopark and VSSC operated as usual. In fact, the German Ambassador to India visited Technopark on the same day and was very impressed by Kerala's IT hub. Trivandrum's a city of 1.5 million people, I am sure a few hundred activists cannot be everywhere at the same time to force a shut down.

The usual response to a Hartal is to kick off our shoes and relax on an un-declared holiday. In Cochin, the best way to realize there was a hartal or general strike the next day was to see long queues in front of the local liquor shop on a week-day evening. And if one's not in Kerala, but in Bengaluru, Dufai or the United States of America, the usual response is a bunch of holier-than-thou criticism of how things back at home have to improve and how the idiots still living in Kerala should learn from other States.

Let's stop all that and see if we can do our bit to make things better. And perhaps, other States will learn this too from us as they have learnt so much!

Monday, December 21, 2009

IFFK 2009 - Film 6

Film: Operation Danube
Language: Polish - Czech - Russian
Year: 2009
Director: Jacek Gomb
IFFK Section: World Cinema
Theatre: New

This hilarious film tells the story of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968 to prop up the communist Government. A tank crew of misfits, driving a WW II vintage tank smashes through into the pub of a small Czech town. What starts out as hostile exchanges eventually settles down into a symbiotic relationship and finally into complete cooperation. Things go to such an extent that Poles and Czechs get entangled in romantic relationships and decide to elope together to Vienna on the tank.

Though shot with humor in nearly every frame, the film showcases the fact that beneath the rhetoric which is the cause of almost any conflict, the ordinary people on either side have a lot in  common and little problems with the other side.

The screening was attended by the Director and a couple of his crew members, and the audience gave the a bout of rousing applause at the end of the film!

IFFK 2009 has managed to improve on the already enviable standards set by its 2008 edition. Innovations like the SMS booking facility were probably seen for the first time at any major international film festival.

With over 8000 registered delegates, it was not surprising that many shows were packed even in large theaters like New or Ajanta. We got crowded out a couple of times. The trend of the increasing proportion of youngsters in the audience over the past few days is very encouraging for the future of cinema in Kerala.

Once again, IFFK cements its place as one of the biggest and richest cultural experiences in India. Some of the delegates I spoke to reaffirmed the opinion that IFFK has left IFFI in its wake. No wonder that the Chief Minister pointed out that IFFK had become the main cultural event of the State. Hopefully, this means that the dream of a permanent central venue in the State Capital will be realised soon.

Looking forward to IFFK 2010.

IFFK 2009 - Film 5

Film: Stars in the Day (Pakal Nakshathrangal)
Language: Malayalam
Year: 2009
Director: T Rajeevnath
IFFK Section: Malayalam Cinema Today
Theatre: New

Yes, we went to a Malayalam movie too, would have not to do so in a Film Festival being held in Trivandrum. Perhaps the other way round, but what the heck! 

T. Rajeevnath recounts the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of a famous film director through the investigation carried out by his writer-son. The tale is full of twists and turns as the director's life and the many women in his life are laid out. The plot also takes a supernatural twist through a couple of seances and portray the protagonist, played by Mohanlal (yeah, he got cheered even by the IFFK audience), as a man who takes abstractness to the extreme.

Nice twist in the end, and a good movie overall. The screening was attended by the Director, and two members of the cast, Anoop Menon - who also wrote the screenplay - and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy.

IFFK 2009 - Film 4

Film: Bad Day to Go Fishing
Language: Spanish
Year: 2009
Director: Alvaro Brechner
IFFK Section: World Cinema
Theatre: Remya

The bitter-sweet tale of a con-man who exploits a burned-out East German wrestler and how they get into their last bout in a middle-of-nowhere South American town - Santa Maria. Shot with lots of hilarious episodes and a flash-back suspense style, the movie shows how the duo are pitted against a gutsy young woman and her strong-man boy friend. The ending is very poignant and unexpected, as the tale ends with a lesson about the almost inevitable death of fame.

Another good movie at IFFK 2009. 

IFFK 2009 - Film 3

Film: General Nil
Language: Polish
Year: 2009
Director: Richard Bugajski
IFFK Section: World Cinema 
Theatre: Remya

A beautifully executed tragic tale of a Polish war-hero who finds himself painted a traitor by the new Communist Government of his homeland when he returns from captivity. It poignantly tells of how the old general tries to bend his principles for a peaceful life but when that fails, goes back to being a proud soldier who goes to the gallows without a blind fold. A perfect example of how even the status of national heroes can change, relative to political beliefs and changing sensibilities.

Solid thumbs up!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

IFFK 2009 - Film 2

Film: Invisible Waves
Language: Thai
Year: 2006
Director: Penek Ratnaroung
IFFK Section: Penek 
Theatre: Ajantha

Based on good feedback on the same director's "A Transistor Love Story", we went to watch this tale of murder, betrayal and passion. In the end, it turned out to be little more than a pot-boiler where the protagonist commits a murder for profit, is double-crossed and on returning to seek righteous vengeance, lets his target go when he realises that the latter has a lot to lose while he has nothing left to live for.

Passable, but nothing more to write home....err...a blog post about.

IFFK 2009 - Film 1

Yes, India's biggest and most popular film festival has rolled in for the 14th time to its permanent home, Trivandrum. With over 250 movies being screened at 9 venues and over 8000 delegates attending the festival, IFFK is now in a league of its own.

The festival's organisation has also been getting better over the years. While online reservation started last year, the 2009 edition also introduced SMS-based reservations for almost all the venues. And considering the rush at many of the screenings, that was a well-conceived idea. The rush was such that film fans were routinely sitting on steps for some films and Korean and Iranian films witnessed the kind of scenes usually witnessed at the opening shows of Mohanlal or Surya blockbusters.

Film: Alphaville
Language: French
Year: 1962
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
IFFK Section: French New Wave
Theatre: Kripa

Image Courtesy: The Motley View

Viji, her brother Sanu and I went on the promise that it was French and sci-fi before the advent of CGI. With the exception of yours truely, the rest of the band were francophones, but sadly, Alphaville was far from a Forbidden Planet or Metropolis, and looked more like a poor, B&W imitation of a "Captain Vyom".

Solid thumbs-down!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Intelligent Trivandrum

I had written about the India IT Summit 2009 a few weeks ago. It was held at The Leela Kempinski, Kovalam on December 10 and 11, and I had the occasion of attending it, along with a couple of friends from TDF.

While a detailed update of the two day event will follow shortly (I hope), let me waste no more time in introducing the latest initiative of TDF in our constant drive to promote Trivandrum,

 (Yes, the acronym is IT and that's no accident!!)

Since the audience at the Summit would include a large number of CXOs of IT/ITES firms while the speaker list included some of the Whos-Who of the industry, including the leadership of Infosys, IBM, TCS, Cisco, Wipro, Microsoft, British Airways, IIT Chennai and so on, TDF realised this would be as good an opportunity to showcase Trivandrum as an IT/ITES destination as any.

And considering the fact that anyone else was unlikely to do so, we tied up with Technopark to create a concise brochure and video presentation to showcase Trivandrum.

Do take a look at the 8-page Brochure first.

And then see the 6 minute video.

The video ended up being the high-light of the presentations at the Summit, while the brochure was distributed to all the attendees. Members of TDF also got to interact with some of the IT/ITES industry leaders present at the Summit. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

And please do pass on both the brochure and video to all your friends and anyone interested in Trivandrum. Next time, someone asks you about your city, this could be part of your answer!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trivandrum Life by Srijith

A quick post to laud the efforts of my friend and fellow Trivandrum-lover, Srijith, for setting up TvmLife, a blog-portal dedicated to Trivandrum.

I hope to write for just as I contribute to another city-focused portal, TechnoparkToday now and then.

Srijith's current article is well worth a read, especially to those of us who reject helmets, seat-belts, red lights and other sundry traffic rules!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Vizhinjam on the Web

Kerala's biggest infrastructure project - the Rs 8000 Crore Vizhinjam Deepwater Port and Container Transshipment Terminal - has finally got a classy presence on the WWW. Long overdue one may say, considering the sheer importance of the project on a national and international scale, but I say better late than never.

Happily, the new website is partly the result of a suggestion made by TDF to the dynamic new Ports Secretary and CEO of VISL, Sanjeev Kaushik. When team TDF met him on Thursday, he was happy to let us know that our suggestion had in part prompted him to put Vizhinjam online in style. It is indeed a great sign that a London Business School graduate, with experience in such firms as the erstwhile investment banking giant, Lehman Brothers, is now in charge of the project. Perhaps, that has already been reflected in the selection of global consultants, IFC, as the project advisors.

Mr. Kaushik also let us know that IFC would be setting up a micro-site on Vizhinjam to deal with the details of the project from an investor's perspective as well as to act as a single point of contact during any future bid process.

The new approach adopted by the Government, of moving ahead after building a consensus among the local population and to commence infrastructure work  in advance of the bid, is the most positive and pragmatic that has yet been in the case of the Vizhinjam project.

Take a look at the website, folks!  (Link -

I love the intro, it makes sure that the significance of Vizhinjam as a regional hub cannot be missed. Do send in your suggestions about the website to and we will make sure they reach the VISL folks! 

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Take a Walk Through Technopark Phase III

Eventhough it was my birthday yesterday, here is a gift for all of you!

The fresh off the editing desk video walk through of Technopark Phase III, which also includes a few breath-taking aerial views of Phase I.

And the best part is that the work on constructing the first 1 million sq.ft. phase of the 3 million sq.ft. development is already underway with completion in end-2011.

Take a look and be amazed, folks!

More on this at Nishanth's blog

Monday, November 23, 2009

Volvo services to Technopark - Current Schedule

The Volvo services to and from Technopark have been getting a superb response from our techies. Yours truely has also taken a few trips on the buses and believe me, it is quite comparable to the experience in any of the services I have been in overseas, including in Singapore and KL. More on the trip and thoughts about the service later.

Right now, you can log on to to get the schedule. The timings may vary a bit depending on traffic conditions but the staff try to stick to it as much as possible. As more buses are introduced on the route, the schedule should get more and more refined.

Switch to the Volvos, let's make it work!

Check out this nice post on the Volvos by Pikutti and this one on a BRTS system for Trivandrum by Scorpio.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Volvos Ahoy!

Trivandrum today joined the ranks of  major cities across the world and India with the launch of the world's leading brand of luxury city buses, the Volvo 8400, at a function at the Central Stadium. Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan launched the buses for the first time in Kerala.

The service starts at 7:00 AM tomorrow!

Routes are:

Kovalam - Thiruvallam - East Fort - Palayam - Pattoor - Pettah - Kumarapuram - Medical College - Ulloor - Sreekariyam - Technopark

Kowdiar - Vellayambalam - Vazhuthacaud - Thycaud - East Fort - West Fort - Eanchakkal - Chackai - Beach - Airport

Sasthamangalam - Thampanoor - Palayam - Airport 

The fares start at Rs 10 for the first 5 Kms and then Rs 1.5 for each additional Km. 

Be there or be square!!!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

India IT Summit at Trivandrum, December 10 & 11

The Confederation of Indian Industry is organising an International event on the IT industry at Trivandrum - India IT Summit 2009. The two day event will be organised at the luxurious Leela Kempinski, Trivandrum on December 10 and 11, 2009.

The India IT Summit will bring the top leadership of the IT and IT infrastructure industries and the Central and State Governments to Trivandrum - Kerala's IT hub and will be an opportunity to showcase the city as India's 8th biggest IT/ITES destination and includes a visit to Technopark.

Stay tuned for more!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Hurry! Entries closing on the 4th

I will be presenting my views and those of TDF before the High Power Committee to Expedite Projects most probably on the 5th, and had a long and interesting chat today evening with Dr Jayathilak, IAS, who is the Member Secretary of the Committee. In addition to generic issues and solution themes, it is planned to focus on two of Kerala's biggest projects, the US$ 2 Billion Vizhinjam port and US$ 1.5 Billion Technocity as case-studies, so that specific action to speed up these landmark initiatives can be taken immediately.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that means you can send in your thoughts till the end of Wednesday, November 4th. Some of you have already sent in your ideas but I am sure there are lots more out there waiting for you to reach for the keyboard. Go for it! Thanks in advance, folks.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Updates of T3 - October 30, 2009

Minister M. Vijayakumar speaks from inside the cavernous Terminal 3, approaching completion at the Trivandrum International Airport.

Video courtesy: Asianet; Link courtesy: Trivandrum Fast Forward

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Lankan Question

While the malayalam media has chosen to give much higher coverage to such weighty matters as the alleged mischief of the son of a minister or what another is twittering, an interesting article in The Sri Lankan Guardian brings to light how distant eyes are focused on the strategic issues in our midst.

The article talks of how Sri Lanka is aligning itself to new partners such as China and Iran in a variety of ways. Most interestingly it talks of how China is keenly interested in port development in Sri Lanka:

China, for its part, views Sri Lanka as a strategically vital gateway for securing access to shipping arterials in the Indian Ocean . Hambantota will be more than three times the size of Colombo harbour and is designed to serve as a Service and Industrial Port when fully completed, 14 years from now. It also has the potential to be developed into a major transhipment port. In addition, the port will be able to accommodate a new generation of mega-ships and is to include four terminals (12 berths), bunkering and refuelling facilities, liquefied natural gas refinery, aviation fuel storage facilities, bonded export processing zone and dry docks.As the main symbol of growing Sino-Lanka relations, the new Hambantota port (construction of which began in January 2008) will serve as a key transit point for oil and gas tankers accessing the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Malacca Straits and the ports of Gwadar in Pakistan and Sitwe in Myanmar. Hambantota will also serve as a key maritime transit point to China ’s expanding investments among Indian Ocean island nations.
All that sounds familiar doesn't it - transshipment, arterial shipping lanes, transit point for oil and gas tankers? Everything which is mentioned about Vizhinjam. China has realised that even though it is inferior to Vizhinjam in proximity to the sub-continent and natural depth, Hambantota could become one of the premier ports in the Indian Ocean region, which along with the South China Sea/Eastern Pacific, would become one of the world's most active maritime regions.

The Guardian clear mentions that Vizhinjam is perceived as the top competitor to Hambantota. If only our folks realised this sooner rather than later.

Sri Lanka is said to have initially offered the project to India , which declined it for undisclosed reasons. One reason may have been political and commercial considerations, and India’s ambitions to upgrade its own ports in southern India , namely Vizhinjam, Tuticorin, and Cochin . Historically, there has been a fierce and longstanding rivalry between Indian and Sri Lankan ports, particularly Colombo , which dominates the region’s lucrative transhipment trade.
And it is clear that the Lankans are feeling the heat,

The Sri Lankan authorities are worried that the Colombo port might lose the advantages presently enjoyed by it vis-à-vis the ports in South India when the construction of the Sethusamudram Canal and the work of modernisation of the ports in South India undertaken by the Government of India is completed.’ Such views do much to put the Hambantota port issue in context -- the facility will diminish India ’s ability to compete.
 Sri Lanka has realised what India should have realised a long time back, that a world-class, deep-water port located on the tip of the sub-continent has the potential to dominate the Indian Ocean region (including the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal) just as Singapore dominates the Malacca Straits and Hong Kong has dominated the South China Sea. That these are two of the world's leading ports is a fact not to be easily ignored. There is only one Indian port which has the location and the draught to fulfil this role and that is Vizhinjam, which is already the deepest port in the entire Indian Ocean.

India’s dilemma is compounded by Sri Lanka’s ambitions to harness its strategic location astride Indian Ocean shipping arterials, with Dr. Priyath Bandu Wickrama, Chairman, Sri Lanka Port Authority, noting: ‘Over 200 ships sail this route [daily] and we want to attract them… Our vision is to consolidate the position of Sri Lanka as the premier maritime logistic centre of the Asian region.’
Any further delay in developing Vizhinjam is now plainly at the risk of losing the numero uno maritime position in the region. The bounty of developing the Rs 8000 Crore deep-water port and transshipment terminal is clear, 200 ships already sail by daily with many more to come - one third of the world's maritime traffic, that is one heck of a bounty!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Committe to rescue Mega-projects

Keeping with the line of the previous two posts, I was happy to find out that the Government of Kerala has a set up a High Powered Committee to examine causes for the delays in executing major projects and to suggest remedial measures. It is composed of the former Chief Secretary, Sri- V. Ramachandran and Dr. Jayathilak, Commissioner, Rural Development.

The objectives of the Committee include:

1. Review and suggest improvements for existing tendering and contracting systems
2. Identify and suggest remedial measures for organisational and process gaps in Government departments and agencies
3. Suggestions for expediting the Clearance of major projects
4. Improving Land Acquisition
5. Improve Project monitoring

The best part is that I have been invited to have a discussion with the Committee on the subject in view of my interest and experience in it. (I guess the blog's been going places, lol, or may be it was the publicity in The Hindu last week). 

I will be meeting the Committee sometime in early November and since many of you have come up with great suggestions on the topics I have written about, I request all of you to chip in with points and suggestions that need to be highlighted to the Committee. You can post them here or, better still, mail them to me when you get time. Let's put some thought to this, this is perhaps the best opportunity ever for the common man to have his say in the lofty game of mega-projects. Top marks to the Committee for its interest in what the public has to say. After all, the success of projects like Vizhinjam and Technocity will mean a lot to all of us and to everyone in Kerala in the years to come!

Getting more muddled......

In keeping with the media glare on the so-called "mega-projects", the New Indian Express has done a two-part expose on the shady dealings behind the Sobha Hi-tech City project which deals mainly with the setting up of shell companies and their links with the most-famous real-estate shark in Kerala, Sri Pharis Aboobacker. The setting up of shell companies is pretty normal to avoid the restrictions imposed by the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, which prohibit anyone from owning more than 15 acres of land in Kerala. However, the clear links of these shell companies with Pharis and the way they have been set up is a clear raised flag, which calls the entire project into question.

The way that the project was planned in land classified under CRZ 1 also makes wonder if there were any sane minds involved in the land identification and acquisition phase. There has been a massive out-cry against the possible ecological damage.  Why doesn't anyone wonder why the project promoters look for some other parcel of land? There are plenty of 400 acre parcels even in the same district, not to mention the rest of Kerala, without having to encroach on to wet-lands and mangroves.

The final nail in the coffin is of course the fact the promoter itself is trying to sell the land off to repay its mounting debts. If they themselves don't want it, why is everyone else so bothered, I wonder?

I sure do hope that the lessons learned from this debacle will be put to good use in the future in weeding out undeserving applicants to the mega-project clearance process.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Project Muddles and Puddles......

Scanning the sheets of Kerala's dailies or surfing through reports on the many malayalam news channels that crowd the airwaves of God's Own Country over the last week or so, one would be forgiven that it is raining mega-projects in our State. There's been talk of half a dozen giant projects ranging from deep-water ports to huge IT parks. Totalling well over Rs 20,000 Crores (US$ 4 Billion) in investment and creating over 200,000 jobs between them. The only catch is that while some projects are on an upswing, others are heading south and overall the picture for development doesn't look too good.

After a year of going from bad to worse, Vizhinjam's stars seem to be shining brighter for a change. The State Cabinet has sanctioned an allocation of nearly Rs 450 Crores for the development of supporting infrastructure for the Rs 8000 Crore deep-water port and container transshipment terminal. This would primarily involve  the development of road and rail connectivity as well as the provision of electricity and water supply to the port. NHAI has already consented to build the 2 Km of road needed to connect the port site with the NH-47 while the Indian Railways are examining the proposal to build the 8 Km partly-elevated rail corridor to connect the port to the main railway line at a cost of Rs 180 Crores. Power and water would be supplied by the KSEB and KWA respectively for which moves are already afoot. And to top it off, it's been reported that the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has expressed an interest in Vizhinjam. (Malayalam news link).

But while there is light at the end of the tunnel for Kerala's biggest infrastructure project, there is one mean and persistent shark still circling around. And entering on cue has been the bogey of this project, a company rather dramatically called Zoom Developers. After having managed to scuttle the last tender for the project through a protracted legal battle, it has now come back claiming that till its suit against the rejection of its bid is settled, the tender process cannot be restarted. They don't seem too confident of the outcome of that suit, since the company has simultaneously asked the High Court to include it in any upcoming bid! In the meantime, they have also managed to forget to attend the project meeting for their supposed project in Kalamassery which supposedly includes a 100-floor version of the tower of Babel. It's high time that the State conducts an investigation of Zoom's real motives and capabilities and black-lists them for once and for all.

Technocity, the other mega-project on the Government's list has also been having a less-than-ideal year so far, starting with the lack of response to its first outing due to the slightly poor timing - a week or so after the financial tsunami swept across the world in late September 2008. After dragging on for almost two years, the land acquisition for the 450 acre, Rs 6000 Crore project seems to be limping back on track, just in time as the IT business space market bottoms and rebounds from depths where billion dollar companies were committing hara-kiri by getting perfectly good IT SEZs denotified (I guess the Ministry of Commerce had to write the rules for that in a hurry!) In a sure sign that things are moving again, the State Cabinet approved the Rehabilitation policy for the Project Displaced Persons of the project. That this decision should have been taken 18 months ago is another matter, which would have avoided the delays in land acquisition due to public resistance. Of course, the powers-that-be would argue that there would have been little demand anyway, but the fact of the matter is that the bid for the project, conceptualised in August 2005, should have been held at least by March 2008. All this while, the interest on the Rs 350 Crores borrowed by Technopark from commercial banks for the land acqusition has started to accrue.

But the crucial missing piece is the marketing effort to get 450 acres and a potential 15 million sq.ft. of space absorbed by the market, which is still experiencing gluts in the Tier 1 markets. To garner the nearly Rs 6000 Crores needed to develop Technocity fully. The Government is still very much caught up in its day-dream of starting "IT parks" in every district and panchayath. While there is a simple strategy that can be adopted for building on the strengths of Kerala's IT/ITES industry till it is competitive at least on a national level before branching out, the Government seems oblivious to it, even when that strategy has been elucidated and door delivered to them. Indeed, there has been a pretty public round of back-slapping and mutual appreciation over the inauguration of the first tiny bit of the IT park at Koratty (Thrissur). I hope those who have been bowled over the speed with which the space was lapped up will remember that the sum total of that space is about 1% of Technopark today. At this rate, we will take about 200 years to reach where Bangalore is today, with a total 20 times the space of Technopark.

What is needed is the clear realization that while it is a political necessity to have an IT park, or at least a foundation stone of an IT park, in each and every district and assembly constituency, there must be clear prioritization and focus of effort to get the anchor projects such as Technocity, Technopark Phase III and the expansion of Infopark in progress. Otherwise, we will end up with a lot of spokes while the hubs wither away in the meantime. The commencement of work on Phase III is a step in the right direction. However, the Government does need to understand that only major projects like Technocity and Phase III can bring in the major IT firms, that in turn can generate the sort of numbers of jobs that are expected from the IT sector. To put things in perspective, it would take 8-10 district level parks to stack up against a Technocity-sized project. And there too, it is unlikely that any of the smaller parks would attract a high-quality investor like an IBM or Accenture who would demand the facilities of a major park.

The curious part is that the sudden impetus to push Technocity forward may be partly due to the expected demise of a project that has been the darling of a section of the media and an albatross around the neck of the Government for quite some time. Yes, I am speaking of that "City" alright. In an absolute inversion of Manorama's pet theory of June 17,2009, it now is likely that the death throes of the agreement with Dubai-based promoters could spur the Government on to push ahead more quickly with Technocity and other major projects so that their development scorecard reads okay on the whole. Similarly, a couple of other "City"s also seem to have bitten the dust, one on environmental grounds, the other because the High Court forbade any non-industrial use on land received from a PSU. Of course there is the risk that any investor landing up at Technocity, as in fact a number of domestic and global firms have evinced interest over the past few weeks (I had the chance to meet with the CEO of a top global developer in Trivandrum two weeks ago), may be sent packing northwards to stand in for the vanishing sheikhs. But on the whole, such debacles may get the Government to focus more on projects that are on a true PPP basis where it has a much greater degree of control and where the level of transparency is much better.

Now that we have realised that Kerala's "mega" projects are in some sort of muddle or the other, perhaps it is time to take stock of what worked and what went disastrously wrong.  Technocity's troubles have been primarily because of a lack of Government focus and the failure to operationalise KSITIL, the Special Purpose Company floated in 2007 to develop the project. "Smart" City ran into trouble when the promoters started paying more attention on the 12% of freehold land intended for residential development than to the 88% of leased land meant for developing IT space. Sobha bust its bottom when it ran into stiff environmental resistance because somehow it bought land right in the middle of a mangrove forest. So what can we learn?

1. Independent due diligence to be done by the Government even on private projects, if they are asking for major exemptions. No exemptions to be granted to critical environmental issues which could have been avoided at another location. This will also prevent a real-estate project like the Elbit-Salarpuria township being re-packaged as a "Knowledge City" to attract incentives. (The project involves only a couple of office towers, not an SEZ, and making up less than 20% of overall area, most of which is devoted to premium apartments)

2. PPP projects to be operated as profit-centers with a certain degree of administrative and financial autonomy.

3. A uniform policy to be created for the land-use in mixed-use developments. Today, the IT Policy spells out that 70% of land area has to be used for Processing (IT) use. This should be uniformly followed. Freehold not to be allowed in any PPP project with a significant Govt. equity holding and receiving major benefits (?)

4. Separate incentive policy for mass housing/townships being developed next to major industrial facilities. Incentives could lesser than those for the commercial/processing components. For example: 100% stamp duty exemption for processing facilities and 50% for the associated residential components.

5. A well located land bank is an absolute necessity.

6. A time-bound, mutually agreed schedule for the project with exit clauses and arbitration provisions if there is a major discrepancy in meeting milestones. This will prevent a repeat of the log-jam with the "Smart" City project where three years have been wasted in haggling and time-wasting tactics by the promoters.

Kerala needs major projects like Vizhinjam, Technocity and the expansion of Technopark and Infopark but we have neither the space nor the resources to let a plethora of wanna-be mega-projects run amuck. The best course of action is to weed out the unworthy projects even before they reach the Single Window Clearance or PPP stage and to focus all available resources on projects whose feasibility and viability are beyond question and which are firmly in the PPP structure. Then perhaps, even if we don't see 200,000 jobs being created in the next two years, we may see the figure reached within the coming decade. That, in itself, will be a momentous achievement for Trivandrum and Kerala.

On a separate note, this blog has received honorable mention in an article in The Hindu about blogs on development. Thanks to all of you for your support and contributions which have helped make Trivandrum Rising noteworthy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Welcome to Zoom-in-Zoo

One of my best buddies, Arun, is leading an initiative to make the Trivandrum Zoo a more positive place both for its residents and its visitors. Rather than just being a place to see animals as static attractions, his idea is to project them as individuals with personalities so that they leave a more lasting and favorable impression on visitors, prompting better behaviour on their part as well as creating a more engaging learning experience.

A freelance photographer, Arun, is exhibiting a collection of photos he has taken of residents at the Trivandrum Zoo over the last couple of years with an emphasis to portray their personalities. He is also working with three young graphic artists to create animated characters based on zoo animals which will appeal more easily to children. 

The exhibition, Zoom-in-Zoo, will be the first in a series of initiatives planned by the bunch of young people to elevate the Trivandrum Zoo, the oldest public zoo in India, to world-class standards. Stay tuned for more!

Zoom-in-Zoo is on at the Zoo Auditorium from October 15th to 18th, 9 AM to 6 PM. See you there!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Tale of Lost Projects......

A rare report in the mainstream media about major projects diverted from Trivandrum to other parts of Kerala. Do watch it to understand how we have been consistently been short-changed by successive State and Central Governments over the years.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Second Kovalam Literary Festival is here.....

The first Kovalam Literary Festival is quite memorable for me as it happened when I was enjoying a brief holiday at the awesome Taj Green Cove luxury resort and it was my first meeting with Dr. Shashi Tharoor. I had the chance to attend some of the readings by famous authors and meet some of the greats. 

Here is a slice of what is planned (excerpt from The Hindu) - "Noted litterateur Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri is scheduled to inaugurate the three-day event at the Taj Kovalam on Wednesday evening. Actor Om Puri will be present to pre-release his forthcoming biography. Burmese dissident writer Ma Thida, who was jailed till 1999 for her pro-democracy writings, will read from her fiction. Amitav Ghosh, a big supporter of Burmese writing, will send a preface to modern Burmese writing which will be read out at the festival by Mukul Kesavan, author and commentator."

Ever a center of literature, arts and learning, Trivandrum is the perfect location to host a tasteful event like this and the Taj Green Cove provides a stunning venue for it.

Do take a look at the beautiful official website, which packs lots of information and photos of the current and past ensemble at the Lit Fest.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Finding a Twin!

No, I am not talking about one of those cliche movies where long lost twin brothers (Mr. Bachan has done a few of those) are united after 25 years when they matched up the broken halves of a convenient locket or something. I am referring to the ongoing initiative to set up a programme or agreement to develop a close relationship between Trivandrum and Barcelona, commonly referred to as "twinning".

The Director of International Affiairs of the Barcelona City Council, Mr. Josep Roca and Gerardo Fueyo-Bros, Cultural Councillor, Embassy of Spain in India, visited Trivandrum on September 30 and Oct 1 in an exploratory visit to better understand the context in Trivandrum as well as to identify potential avenues for cooperation.

TDF was actively involved in the two-day programme. We had an exclusive meeting with Mr Roca and Mr Fueyo-Bros where we made a presentation on Trivandrum to help them understand more about the city and its metropolitan area as well as about the City Corporation which would be the nodal agency from our end. I also had the privilege of accompanying them to Kerala's IT hub, Technopark yesterday. Detailed discussions were held with the Mayor of Trivandrum and his team over lunch before we had a dinner meeting hosted by the Trivandrum Chamber of Commerce where a fruitful exchange happened on possible areas of commercial relationships.

The team from Barcelona expressed keen interest in areas like the Knowledge Economy - especially IT/ITES, biotechnology and R&D, Urban Planning, Water Management, Sports Event and Facility Management, Ports & Logistics and Tourism.

Barcelona is a leader in Europe in the knowledge sector hosting major universities, research centers and business parks like 22@Barcelona where they find excellent synergies with projects like Technocity. It is also the biggest port in the Mediterranean region and a leader in the container and cruise segments which is one reason why the team was keenly interested in the Vizhinjam project. Having hosted the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona has extensive experience in managing major sports events as well as the sports facilities after the Games, which would be a boon to Trivandrum which is working double overtime to get the facilities ready for the 2011 National Games and to evolve a strategy to manage them sustainably after the Games.

Going forward, we will be working with the Corporation and other stakeholders to create a vision document to identify the possible avenues of cooperation between the two cities and the modalities to take the initiative forward in a time-bound manner. I look forward to hearing all your views and suggestions on the same. Thanks in advance, folks!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NASSCOM's take on the wheel

While Kerala has spinning the wheel, almost literally, and counting its collection of hubs and spokes, NASSCOM has given its verdict on the strategy in our sister State. No prizes for guessing which one, West Bengal. Blaming it only on the most evident common factor - communism - is incorrect but Kerala and West Bengal have followed curiously similar and similarly unsuccessful paths in developing the IT/ITES industry.

Kolkata is the third biggest city in India (after NCR and Mumbai) but it is just the seventh largest IT/ITES destination in India and by some margin indeed. Interestingly it is now trailed by Trivandrum which is about 50% of its business volume in terms of the IT industry despite being less than 10% of its size and population as a city. The WB Government has also been looking to develop its Tier II cities such as Siliguri and Haldia as IT/ITES hubs even as Kolkata gets left further behind by the leading cities such as Bangalore, Chennai, NCR and Pune.

Now NASSCOM has asked the Government to prioritize its development approach and focus on Kolkata, at a NASSCOM CEO meet.

NASSCOM President Som Mittal said, "First, we have to saturate Kolkata, then only we can think about other IT satellite townships in Durgapur and Siliguri. There is enough space in Kolkata, and large IT companies should get land there."

NASSCOM's past President Kiran Karnik first suggested the "hub-and-spoke" model in 2007 at Technopark, now his successor has clarified that the model needs to be developed only after the hub itself has become well established.

I wonder if anybody in the rungs of power are listening......?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Setting the Dance Floor on Fire!

DJ Aqeel at the Leela Kempinski, Kovalam on September 19, 8 PM. Be there or be square!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Is there a Strategy in the room?!

I had the occasion of attending the CII organised conference - IT in Kerala - Challenges and Opportunities - at the Taj Residency yesterday. It brought together eminent speakers like Mrs. Neela Gangadharan - Chief Secretary, Kerala, Mr. Shibulal - COO, Infosys, Dr. Ajay Kumar - IT Secretary, Kerala, Mr. R. Anand - Senior Partner, Ernst & Young, Mr. Vijayaraghavan - the first CEO of Technopark, K.N. Balagopal - Political Secretary to the CM and Mr. V.K. Mathews - Chairman and CEO of IBS.

As the name of the conference suggested, its purpose was to identify some of the reasons why Kerala is still relatively an IT laggard in South India and some of the focus areas through which we can catch up with the likes of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Its other purpose was to act as a curtain-raiser of the mega-event that the CII proposes to conduct in Trivandrum in December 2009 to promote investment in the IT/ITES sector in Trivandrum, along the lines of Connect, held annually in Chennai.

The Chief Secretary laid out the ambitious plans the Government has been articulating over the last two years, of attracting over Rs 10,000 Crores of investment in the IT sector through the PPP mode. About Rs 6000 Crores of this total is expected to come into Technocity along. Mrs Gangadharan also mentioned the current "hub-and-spoke" strategy which the Government is following, that has now gone to the level of trying to disperse the industry right down to the panchayath level with 200 "small IT parks"!!

At this rate, we will be tripping over IT parks all over the place. I guess the question of how all these parks are going to get used in a State which accounts for a little less than 1% of the IT/ITES industry in India even when Karnataka which accounts for nearly 50% has just embarked on developing its tier-II IT parks is a question which has escaped the policy makers. More on that later.

IT experts like Mr. Mathews, Mr. Shibulal and Mr. Anand agreed upon the fact that Kerala possesses a lot of strategic advantages in terms of its cost advantage, physical infrastructure and the volume of human resources available but is tied down by the investor perception, lack of a viable approval mechanism and by the relative lack of "finishing" of its graduates. Mr. Shibulal went on to focus on the need to improve the soft skills of our graduates while lauding the numbers of technically skilled graduates being churned out by our higher education system - an impressive 5% of the national total, from less than 3% of the national population. Mr. Anand focused on the need to demonstrate a successful case of developing infrastructure which will help promote word-of-mouth opinion among investors. The Infosys COO also believed that it would be critical to stop the exodus of skilled manpower from Kerala by providing them with a top-class portfolio of professional opportunities as well as social infrastructure comparable to the metros. Most of the speakers agreed on this aspect of infrastructure to turn Kerala from a net exporter of human resources to a net importer, such as Karnataka. Mr. Vijayaraghavan also called attention to the fact that almost 95% of the IT infrastructure in Kerala has been developed by the Government while it is the other way round in Bangalore or Chennai.

Overall, the main points which emerged as 'To-Do's were:

  • To improve the quality of the available human resource pool through a combination of finishing courses and upgradation in the school and college curricula.
  • To encourage PPP in developing IT infrastructure
  • To develop the concept of "Integrated Townships" such as Technocity, to provide world-class social infrastructure for IT professionals right next to the IT parks. Dr. Ajay Kumar, with whom I had a number of discussions on this topic, agreed to extend the concept beyond Technocity to the Cyber Park and the district IT parks (You can read more about the concept here.)
  • To build a strong brand for Kerala IT, mirroring the success of the tourism industry and the "God's Own Country" campaign
  • Mr. V.K. Mathews proposed the creation of a KASSCOM along the lines of NASSCOM and the Kerala Travel Mart society which has become the umbrella marketing organisation for the tourism industry in Kerala
Many of these points echo what TDF talked about in our suggestion for a new paradigm in Kerala's IT infrastructure strategy which was submitted to Sri Balagopal a couple of weeks ago. Especially elements like a strong umbrella brand, PPP in infrastructure development, creating a vibrant IT ecosystem and the development of IT-based integrated townships. Focusing on Technopark and at most on the other major parks - Infopark and the Cyber Park, where Binu Pazhoor has just taken over as CEO - rather than all over the place would be a wiser strategy. Real PPP projects like Technopark expansion, Technocity and the expansion of Infopark/Cyberpark should receive top priority rather than being bothered about any old thing that the media cares to trumpet about.

The official Government stance was still the much talked about "hubs and spokes" strategy. Mr. V.K. Mathews raised the point that Kerala could be jumping the gun by moving ahead with the spokes before a strong hub is built up which can attract major international players. The reply was that the spokes would be built-up, and if they cannot attract investors, then they would be allowed to go into hibernation till demand picks up. A good way of testing the market, but quite expensive considering a few hundred crores of public money would be needed for this "experiment"!

The other worrying part is that the official line about why Kerala has failed to attract investment in comparison to Karnataka or Tamilnadu is that investors were not willing to look outside the metros till date. Partly true, but that does not explain the success that other tier-II cities like Jaipur, Nagpur and Coimbatore have managed to attract major players like Ascendas, Mahindra, IBM and DLF even though their IT presence is much smaller than that of Trivandrum. Covering up for almost non-existent marketing and an inglorious track record of partnership with the private sector is not the best way forward at all.

All the speakers agreed that the next two to three years would be crucial if Kerala is to catch up with the rest of India's leading IT states or at least to stay at the top of the next bunch of IT destinations. No doubts about that. We hope that instead of the direction-less wandering of the last few years, the voices in the room are heard by the powers-that-be and a clear strategy is worked out and implemented.

Otherwise, there may be a lot more of these seminars and more post-mortem analyzes happening over the next few years!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Thiruonam meeting with ST

A Belated Onam Greetings to all of you. Lately, I have been quite late with a lot of stuff, guess I have no choice but to add this bit of bad timing to that pile!

I met with Dr. Tharoor, to discuss some aspects of the city twinning initiative that we hope to form with Barcelona. A very professional meeting spent reviewing a presentation on a laptop, not exactly what one would expect from the stereotypical political leader but as we know, things have a changed a lot in Trivandrum, just as Trivandrum has changed a lot.

Stay tuned for more, folks!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The TDF Presentation

And here is the presentation....