Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Island!

No, this is not a movie review, I would rather mostly leave those to my amigo BVN. I mean the island off the coast of Trivandrum, which has found itself at the center of a storm. You must be wondering if I still have all my marbles because of course there is no island off the coast of Trivandrum, unless you head a few hundred or thousand kilometers out to sea. Well, the island in question is not exactly there yet, but it may soon be.

I refer to the now-controversial plan of KINFRA to reclaim 5000 hectares from the sea off the coast of Veli to provide space for the expansion for the rapidly growing city. (The RFP document is available here.) As one would expect for such a massive and ambitious project, the opposition to it cropped up faster than any firm could even think of replying to the RFP itself.

An Informed Debate

A few facts need to be set right before we can even contemplate the pros and cons of this proposal. First and foremost, this is just a preliminary study that is being launched. It is only after this study that we can know whether this project is at all feasible on economic, technical and socio-environmental terms. Unless this study is done, we will not know if there are serious environmental implications. It is presumptous to conclude that the reclamation will be detrimental without any proper study. This is just like someone deciding not to have children just because they dreamed that their child would have a birth defect. It is ill informed at best and misguided at worst. In all the TV debates around this issue and other discussions of the same ilk, I have not seen even one marine engineer or biologist being called in despite one of India's foremost institutes in the field - the Center of Earth Science Studies - being located in Trivandrum. Instead these debates have been between politicians, including a few claiming to represent the fisherfolk. A project of this type and magnitude has not been attempted in India thus far, and when even scientists would be hard pressed to give quick answers, I fail to understand why we depend on the words of people who have no clue what they are talking about.

The main questions about the project are two-fold - if at all it goes ahead, will the project adversely impact the environment and the life of fisher-folk and is it needed in the first place? Let's look at them in that order.

Parasurama's Axe

To start off, we need to understand what is being proposed here. As I mentioned before, the details are sketchy because the project is in its pre-feasibility stage. But the basic details are that about 5000 hectares (or 50 Sq. Km) will be reclaimed from the sea off the coast of Trivandrum. It may sound like an impossible engineering exercise but it has been done and is being done right now, the Palm Islands off Dubai being the best example. Others include the incredible Kansai International Airport in the middle of Osaka Bay and Hong Kong's new International Airport. Or what will soon be the world's biggest container transshipment terminal at Yanshan near Shanghai, built 30 Km out to sea. Kerala was supposed to have been reclaimed from the sea by Parasurama, so the we should be the least incredulous about the idea. The first Palm Island, Jumeriah, is about half the size of the proposed island off Trivandrum while the second one is about the same size and third one is even bigger.


Reclamation of this magnitude or rather the construction of
artificial islands is done in one of two ways. The first is by land filling, by dumping earth into the sea to fill it up. This method was used for both Kansai and Hong Kong airports, with a few convenient mountains being demolished and poured into the sea. The other option is to dredge material from the sea-bed and to dump it within a embankment to form an island. This is how the Palm Islands are being built, using the most capable dredgers in the world. Indeed, the same principle was used to create what is now South Mumbai and, closer to home, the Willingdon Island in Cochin harbour. Thus, there is little doubt that the proposal is technically feasible, the only point of doubt being the depth and structure of the sea-bed off Trivandrum. Companies like Dutch dredging giant, Van Oord, have the technology and the resources to make it happen. The cost is of course, a more difficult question to answer and that will determine the financial viability of the scheme. Eventhough the costs vary radically according to parameters like area, sea depth, sea bed type and so on, I made a back-of-the-envelope estimate of between Rs 1.5 to 5 Lakhs per cent of reclaimed land, which is well below prevailing land prices in any area within the suburbs of Trivandrum.
The trickiest angle is to identify the socio-environmental impact. The jury is still out on how the pros and cons of island building stack up. The common complaints are about the destruction of marine habitats and the alteration of the natural ocean currents, often resulting in beach erosion. However, the developers of artificial islands claim that they provide increased habitats for marine life by providing greater shallow water/beach areas and that all care is taken in the design of the islands to minimize impact on marine life and currents. Indeed, reclamation has been practised for hundreds of years now and many of the massive projects of the recent past have not created major adverse effects. However, only a detailed study of the project area itself, with its marine ecosystem and tidal systems can reveal how this project could impact its environment. The key social impact that many fear is that the fishermen in the beach stretches off which the new island could be built may lose access to the sea. This is not true as the island would be 500 m to 1 km or more out to sea. Indeed, they may see better catches due to the artificial ecosystems being created although they may have to sit out the construction period itself when the area would be overrun by dredgers and pile barges and the rest of the construction fleet. Additionally, some of the tens of thousands of jobs could ensure that the children of the fisherfolk can look forward to a better life. Ocean City And what will be the benefit of a massive project of this nature? In short, a New Trivandrum, which I would call Ocean City because it is a true child of the sea. 50 Sq.Km of virgin real estate, a blank slate where a world-class city, with impeccable planning can be built. Built according to a Master-Plan, Ocean City would include every aspect of city life - residential, commercial, retail, hospitality, health and educational facilities as well as sprawling green areas. Although a bit far from home, the King Abdullah Economic City being developed by Emaar near Jeddah would be an excellent model. While KAEC is 3 times bigger than Ocean City, the overall layout can be the same with a city built around a services-oriented Central Business District and including a world-class seaport and airport. Indeed, KINFRA plans an extension of the Trivandrum International Airport on the proposed island.



Ocean City could have a population of more than 1 million people and employ as many as 250,000 people. Its sea-port could have all the advantages of Vizhinjam without any of its restrictions and could potentially become the top port in India. 70% of Ocean City could be reserved for green spaces, bettering the standards maintained by Trivandrum while high-rise construction could be used to make the best use of the remaining space without compromising on commercial returns. Ocean City could be the first island SEZ with a multi-product zone focusing on IT/ITES, biotechnology, electronics, aerospace, tourism, health-care and other clean industries. Over and above the economic benefits afforded by the project, it would put Trivandrum on the world map, just as the Palm Islands have done for Dubai and Kansai has for Kobe. In one shot, we can go from a tier-II city in India to a global metropolis. The kind of jump that makes one dizzy.
Is there an Alternative?

Dizziness is one signal which makes me wonder if what I am doing right then is right. We get dizzy when we go too fast or too high, or something along those lines. Do we need to reclaim 5000 hectares from the sea to continue the rapid development of Trivandrum? Of course, we could get by with 2000 hectares too but that is not the point. What we should be asking ourselves is that whether we are so short of land that we have no recourse but to emulate Parasuram?

The answer is No. Even though some of our own administrators would have us believe otherwise. The District Collector of Trivandrum had once replied to ISRO that no land was available in his district to set up the Indian Institute of Space Technology. He was famously proven wrong but this same answer is invariable rolled out when one enquires about major projects proposed in Trivandrum, which die on paper. Are we so short of usable land, that the Government has had to fight a running battle for three years to acquire 500 acres for Technopark and Technocity, six years to acquire 100 acres for the International Airport and been forced into a humiliating withdrawal from its land acquisition plans for Vizhinjam?

Trivandrum has a lot of untapped land for development in its suburbs or within 30 minutes of the city center. For example, nearly 2000 acres (800 hectares) of land are available in Government control near Thonnakkal and Pothencode. These are in the form of run-down rubber plantations, just 2 to 3 Km as the crow flies from the site of Technocity, where stiff resistance to land acquisition has stalled a US$ 2 Billion mega-project for nearly 18 months now.


View Larger Map

Some of the dis-used plantations near Thonnakkal are visible on this satellite image

More such parcels are available close to the NH-47 and M.C. Road within a 30 Km radius of the city. Run-down plantations, defunct government facilities and even large parcels of plantation land with private individuals. TDF has highlighted some of these to the Chief Minister's office and the same were included in the initial proposal to establish an Information Technology Investment Region (ITIR). Currently, many of these parcels are not connected by main roads. However, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has proposed a stand-alone Outer Ring Road (ORR) for Trivandrum under Phase VII of the National Highway Development Programme, for which NHAI has already called for consultants to create the project report. This ring road can be aligned from Attingal to Neyyatinkara, passing along all these areas where major land parcels are available. This will allow direct 6-lane access to these massive land parcels. Potentially, this ORR could open as much land as proposed by the reclamation project. Indeed, the major parcels along could amount to a total of over 5000 acres (2000 hectares). The current proposed IT Corridor, from the International Airport to Thonnakkal could be extended to this ORR to create a corridor of growth along the lines of the ORR in Hyderabad.

Indicative Route of the Trivandrum Growth Corridor (Source: TDF Report)

So there may be a easier, less controversial alternative to the Ocean City concept. At first glance at least. Because the Growth Corridor/ORR will be a herculean task as well, especially to ensure that the resources to develop all the associated projects is available. And that all the approvals fall in place in time. In fact, the ORR need not be an alternative to Ocean City at all, it can be the prelude. Despite all the enthusiasm shown by KINFRA and dreamers like yours truely, Kerala is no Dubai - for better or for worse - and I would guess that the island concept will take at least a decade to reach even the detailed planning stage. In that time, the ORR can soak up the development of the city. Perhaps, in the future our children will dare to dream big and then Ocean City may seem more like the next logical step than a day dream. Hope we are all around long enough to see it!

4 comments:

  1. WOW! What a detailed post Ajay! Great one!!

    I hope these skeptics look at what is going on in other parts of the world before they jump in with teeth n claws to attack the proposal. Dubai is a great example of how new ecosystems were created off the Palm islands. New coral and marine species thrive off the new man-made islands and this came as a surprise to everyone. Now Dubai is looking at promoting this unexpected catch and has plans to encourage this coral-reef attraction. I heard they were planning to sink a London double-decker bus into those waters.. :)

    These fisherman folks and environment lovers may better check out the facts before going to the press to get their names printed on paper. All around the world they're practicing reclamation, UK is the latest entrant and they're planning a huge Aerotropolis on Thames Estuary to relocate the Heathrow. If all the world can, then why cant we???

    Im fed up with these NIMBYs..

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  2. Ajay!!!!!! tat was indeed a detailed one, very good concept to built upon.

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  3. I hope these skeptics look at what is going on in other parts of the world before they jump in with teeth n claws to attack the proposal. Dubai is a great example of how new ecosystems were created off the Palm islands.
    http://www.mygulfcar.com

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Thanks for your comment, I will take a look at it and put it up at the earliest.