Tuesday, January 11, 2011

14 Major Developers submit RFQs for Vizhinjam

You will not read this bit of news in any of the major newspapers (except for, as usual, The Hindu) or see it on the regional channels, since they have decided that the common and garden variety of sundry news is far more important than an important milestone achieved by the largest infrastructure project ever initiated in the history of the State. If you are still wondering why this sort of lunacy continues in the media world, please don't waste any time on it, that's the way it is.

Meanwhile, 14 major companies/consortia submitted responses to the Request for Qualification(RFQ) issued by VISL for the Port Operator part of the Rs 6000 Crore ($1.5 Billion) BOT project. This part envisages a private entity which comes in to operate the port, especially the container transshipment terminal, and also brings in the superstructure - the cargo handling equipment - for the port. As per the current structure of the project, this entity could also opt to develop the basic infrastructure of the port including the breakwater and the quays.

Some of the giants in the fray include Reliance Infrastructure, the Adani Group (Mundra Port), GMR, GVK, Gammon Infrastructure, Leighton, Shipping Corporation of India - SKIL - HCC consortium, Condor-Brookfield consortium, Limak consortium, JP Associates and Sterlite Industries (Vedanta Group).

These bids will now go for analysis to ensure that the firms meet all the qualification criteria. That should not be a difficult proposition for some of the biggest business groups in India and across the World.  Together these companies represent hundreds of billions of dollars of investments aall over the globe. Next, they may also be sent to the Central Government for security clearance and finally, the qualified companies will be issued the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the bids themselves. Hopefully, we can expect this by early March 2011.

Vizhinjam's progress has sent shivers down a few spines it seems. Apparently, at the recently concluded Maritime Conclave held by the CII in Trivandrum, the head of a nearby Port Trust made an eloquent appeal against two container transshipment terminals being set up in close proximity to each other and claimed that the funds being deployed for Vizhinjam should instead be given to one of his pet projects which has been sucking down State and Central funds for the last few years without any evident results. Trivandrum's known for its gracious hospitality, else his reception may have run out with such comments.

Anyways, when our rivals run scared before we even break ground, it's obvious that we are doing something right! More on this soon, stay tuned!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wrapping up 2010

Another year has rolled over, a fact vividly driven in by the fact that my recently concluded birthday had the ominous tone of fast approaching mid-life! Nobody was sorry to see 2009 go and I am sure that 2010 won't have too many fans either. We all wish that it could have been better but it could have been a lot worse too! That's how I want to look back at the year that I took perhaps the biggest leap of my life so far, on which the jury is still very much out. More on that later, now on to our annual tradition.

Vizhinjam: I had predicted in my forecast for 2010 that Vizhinjam would make certain headway after the disastrous outcome of 2009 when a successful bid was torpedoed by a malicious campaign, spearheaded by a shady company and certain politicians at the behest of powerful vested interests who are scared stiff of Vizhinjam's potential. And the project has definitely made a lot of headway, thanks to strong political leadership and support from the CM, Minister Vijayakumar and their Cabinet colleagues. Actual land acquisition and work on the first phase of the port's road connectivity are already in progress as are the development of the project's power and water supply. Work on its rail connectivity is also in the planning stages in conjunction with the Indian Railways. Some of the Who's Who from the global and Indian infrastructure and ports business have working very closely with VISL on the project and it looks like atleast a dozen top firms will submit RFQ proposals today before 6 PM. Moreover, a consortium of banks headed by Trivandrum-based PSU giant, SBT, have agreed to lend the Rs 2500 Crores which may be needed if the State directly develops the basic port infrastructure.

The outlook for Vizhinjam is better than before. Despite the strength of opposition, from near and far, I am quietly confident that the project will be successfully tendered in the first half of 2011 and will enter construction towards the end of the year.

Technopark: Kerala's IT hub is abuzz with construction activity, even as it heads to the next level in terms of IT exports, likely to be close to $1 Billion in 2010-11. Over 5 Million SF of space is under various stages of development across Phases I, II and III. Infosys SDB II is nearing completion while a mammoth SDB III will soon enter construction. Work on the UST Global campus and Technopark Phase III, with nearly 2 Million SF just between them, is fast progressing and the latter is expected to be commissioned in August 2011. The NEST and CDAC campuses are undergoing finishing work and will be commissioned in the first half of 2011.

Technocity: The State's largest IT infrastructure project has finally sen the light of day with its land acquisition getting completed. And no sooner than that got over, India's largest technology firm, TCS, has scooped up 82 acres of prime land in the project to set up a Rs 1500 Crore Global Training Center, which is all set to top the one Infosys has at Mysore and will be able to train 15,000 techies at one go. If TCS's iconic Siruseri campus is anything to go by, the Technocity complex will be a stunner. The Asian School of Business has just opened its campus at Technocity, becoming its first tenant. With some of the world's leading technology firms having sent top level teams to scout Trivandrum in 2010 for setting up shop, Technocity will certainly see a lot of action in 2011.

Highway Development: This has been the greatest disappointment for Trivandrum and most of Kerala, in 2010. An all-party bout of insanity about the width of the new roads derailed every contract which was set to be awarded for the development of highways in Kerala. Eventhough State and Center later kissed and made up, the opportunity to achieve progress was squandered and it remains to be seen if the projects can be brought back on track even in 2011. The only hope is that the Kazhakkoottam - Vizhinjam stretch of the NH-47  - along which over Rs 20,000 Crores of projects are currently in development - can be taken up on its own, as has been done for the bypasses at Kollam and Alleppey. All eyes are on our honorable MP in this regard as his counterparts (and Congress colleagues) have been responsible for the turn of events in the case of the two bypasses. Fingers crossed on this one project for 2011, and sadly not much else.

National Games Stadiums: The 35th National Games have been pushed to late-2012, at the earliest. Which means that we can have the brand-new stadiums ready by then. The bids for the three new stadiums (including a 50,000 seat international standard cricket and football stadium) will be received on January 17th and we can expect work to start and progress significantly by the end of 2011.

Urban Infrastructure: Kerala continues to perform abysmally in the case of the JNNURM project. The Trivandrum Corporation kept up its pathetic record in terms of bagging projects and executing awarded projects. The much-awaited Sewage Treatment Plant at Muttathara finally got off the ground and continues to lag in terms of progress. No further project has been bagged by the Corporation with a nil score in the vital area of urban transport infrastructure, despite very ambitious plans. The silver lining is that the 150 new buses alloted under the JNNURM scheme  have started to trickle on to the roads. Despite the KSRTC's initial posturing that the services in Trivandrum were not profitable as an excuse to divert the buses elsewhere, they have been forced to admit other wise and start deploying more buses in the Capital city. TDF asked some very tough questions to the KSRTC via an RTI and this may have helped to drive home the point that the public was watching very earnestly how the new buses were deployed and managed. KSRTC continues to be ad hoc at best with the buses and has no scientific structure or capability to manage a world-class bus fleet but it seems the pent up demand of Kerala's biggest city and only million-plus urban center will keep them afloat any how.

TCRIP: The Trivandrum City Road Improvement Project (TCRIP) erased one constant complaint by throwing open the Bakery Junction flyover according to the revised schedule. Substantial progress has been achieved in all the remaining road corridors including the M.G. Road, Vellayambala - Sasthamangalam, Kowdiar - Peroorkada and so on, although nagging land acquisition disputes, contractor issues and the incessant rains have meant that the work continues to lag. All said and done, the remaining stretches should be polished off in 2011 except for the M.G. Road which continues to be deadlocked due to the non-availability of land. 2010 also saw substantial completion of the Thampanoor Bus Terminal and progress with the bus terminals at Eanchakkal and Medical College. (Yeah, they would be called "mobility hubs" if they were in a lil' place a wee bit north of us, but let's keep things simple and truthful, shall we?!)

Railway Development: Nix, that about sums up 2010 in this field. 2011 doesn't look much more promising and all we should hope for are a few new trains/extensions/stoppages and at best some money for improvements at Trivandrum Central and Kochuveli. My best wish is two more platforms at Kochuveli and the rail connectivity for Vizhinjam. Fingers crossed on that! Toes too.....

Trivandrum International Airport: The good news in 2010 is that the new terminal complex, T3, is ready. The bad news is that six months after getting ready it still awaits inauguration. Period! 2010 was a dull year in aviation but 2011 promises much more better tidings (if assorted bearded terrorist and pagan volcano gods permit!). Indigo has doubled domestic connectivity on many sectors from TIA and Spicejet is expected to do the same. TIA will experience no shortage of demand but a sure paucity of facilities in 2011 even after T3 becomes operational. I hope the State can find enough time in the midst of acquiring 2000 acres for the Kannur Airport, to acquire at least 50 acres for the construction of the next phase of the city-side terminal complex in 2011.

Institutions: The IISST is well and truely in business from its new campus while the IISER still bides its time to move to its own mega-campus at Vithura. Trivandrum's all set to receive a world-class Institute for Molecular Sciences soon as well. The Trivandrum Medical College, Kerala's premier medical institute, completed its expansion plans with joint Central-State funding ahead of any of the others across India and also started training and examinations for the prestigious MRCP course. The area of intellectual capital development has been one where the State Capital has been consistently doing well over the recent past and 2010 was no exception. After all, one needs smarts and good people to pull that off, and it seems that hawala currency and yellow journalism still hasn't proven good enough to emulate this sort of success.

Real Estate: This is one of the sectors that has taken the worst beating  in the Recession across the world, probably financial services was the only one worse off (Although one my doubt that after you take one look at the bonuses being paid on Wall Street!!) Trivandrum's been fortunate in not seeing the erosion of sale price/rental levels nor in the contraction of actual demand unlike most other places in Kerala where the latter dried up as soon the pockets of the NRI clans took a drastic cut. (The ominous lack of loud advertisements from real estate firms for non-Trivandrum projects which used to dominate the airways and print pages is a clear enough sign) While the residential and office sector continued to be strong in 2010, retail remains the poor cousin in the city's market. Two mall quality projects were swallowed up by individual textile retailers, including perhaps the most iconic one in South India. This leaves just a couple of other under-construction projects to unveil Trivandrum's first mall experience in late-2011. However, 2011 promises to be a year of action with a plethora of launches, in all locations and sizes, across residential and commercial real estate. Stay tuned for more on this as the information becomes free to be revealed.

The only other notable event in 2010 from the perspective of this recap was the expansion of the Trivandrum Corporation to create the first and only "metropolitan" (defined as  "with a population > 1 Million) Corporation in Kerala with over a 100 wards. However, the Master Plan for this metro city and its surrounding urban agglomeration continues to remain in some dusty file (I hope someone still remembers where it is...!!) and neither the Trivandrum Corporation nor TRIDA have been expanded or modified to take on their weightier roles, so even this development is unlikely to yield benefits to the citizens anytime soon.

I guess a recap of 2010 is a lot of doom and gloom, punctuated by a few bits of good news.  Some of it's no one's fault and some of it it's everybody's at the same time.Not to mention the constant and decidedly unfriendly interference by various vested interests near and not-so near. At least, we have been spared the ignominy of seeing much-trumpeted projects and proposals being exposed for the fallacies that they always were or quite literally struggling to dig themselves out of the mud that they landed themselves in. Scant consolation, I guess but it's always best to stay honest and do the right things!

Thus exits 2010! Adios! And let me take this much-belated chance to wish all of you and everyone in Trivandrum a happy and prosperous 2011!