Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Musings in the Newspaper

The Hindu has been kind enough to publish a brief article with a few of my thoughts on the development of Trivandrum. Do let me know your thoughts on what I have shared and stay tuned for more! 

As always, thanks for all the support that's an important part of the inspiration to keep thinking and slogging....I mean, blogging!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Victory! Vizhinjam gets the Green Nod!

Formal environmental clearance given to the Vizhinjam deep water port and container transshipment terminal!

Enough said. 
For now. 
Stay tuned!

(In case you can't believe it, here are the formal Minutes of the Meeting!)

Image courtesy: Tekgnostics blog

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Vizhinjam Signature Campaign hits 5,000

Two months after the online signature campaign got going, we have 5,000 people expressing their support for the $2 Billion, Vizhinjam deep-water port and container transshipment terminal project. Copies of the petition were delivered in hard copy to the MoEF Environmental Clearance committee in New Delhi. It's very likely that the strong show of public support evident from the petition as well as public statements by commerce organizations and NGOs like Janapaksham and VMAC will have influenced the committee's decision in a positive manner and helped to negate the claims made by the small but determined group of vested interests that the general public opposes the project.

The third meeting of the MoEF committee is understood to have ended favorably and we can be cautiously optimistic that a formal clearance will be announced by the Ministry in the next couple of weeks. The fact that the resorts have been caught red-handed as gross violators of environmental regulations over decades, not just years, will help to demolish the credibility of their claims, most of which bordered on the ridiculous. 

At the risk of being premature, let me thank all 5,003 of you who took the time to sign and promote the petition on behalf of all the people of Trivandrum, Kerala and India, for this project is of true national importance. At the same time, sincere thanks to everyone involved in the preparation of the application for environmental clearance, the like-minded organizations who have been striving hard for the project and Dr. Tharoor, who's been the only elected representative working to make the project a success, in so many different ways.

The battle for the port's green clearance may be far from over. Even if the environmental clearance comes through quickly, it is very likely that the opposition will approach the Green Tribunal or other higher Courts to try to mount legal challenges to create further delay. However, the extremely rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment carried out for the project (over nearly 2 years) and the the long hearing process will help to make it difficult for any challenge to be even accepted. Hopefully, any challenge mounted by these shameless environmental violators will be dismissed immediately allowing for work to go on. Your support will continue to be needed till we see this through to the end, or rather the beginning of the construction of this landmark project, expected to start sometime in the first half of 2014.

Before I sign off on this post, let me also express how rudely surprised and highly disappointed I was that so relatively few people out there took the few seconds needed to sign the petition (our original signature target was 10,000!). Taking a bead at the hundreds of thousands of potential supporters out there on social media, especially Facebook, may I ask whether this project doesn't matter even the least bit to all of you who didn't bother to sign? There are starlets out there who have hundreds of thousands or gazillions of "Likes" and who get thousands of Likes and Shares for every photo and comment posted. There are tens of thousands of folks out there who endlessly complain that "nothing ever happens in Kerala", how about you stop complaining and take a few seconds off to do something about it? I even got a protest from one gentleman who derided me for "promoting development" because it would disturb his peace and quiet as a Government employee who just wants to have a small town life. Who cares about economic development and employment generation anyways?

Please do care and make it a point to channel your frustration with the maddeningly slow pace that successive Governments in Kerala (this one being an especially maddening example, at least for any project in and around Trivandrum!) into something positive. The Vizhinjam project will change our city for the better not just for us but for our children as well!

There, I have had my rant! Do keep the signatures coming!

Stay tuned for more news about the Vizhinjam project here and at the Vizhinjam International Seaport FB Page.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Vox Populi for Vizhinjam

You would be forgiven for assuming that a combination of a comprehensive, hell no, a meticulous, three-year long environmental study, broad-based public and bipartisan political support and an undeniable economic argument (the best located, most naturally endowed port to save hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign exchange currently being sucked up by foreign ports) would be enough to fast track the Vizhinjam project's environmental clearance.

Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Because it seems that an unfortunate mix of Governmental intransigence and the deliberate actions of a small but dedicated and well-funded group of vested interests is threatening to trip up the project at its last hurdle. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a call to action!

So who are these "vested interests"?  The short answer is that they are a small bunch of resort owners whose small and medium-sized resorts are located in the Vizhinjam project area. They obviously fear that they will have to move their operations out of the area as soon as construction on the Rs 10,000 Crore mega-project begins. Whether these resort owners are acting in isolation is another question altogether. It has been painfully evident that various entities have been consistently trying to sabotage the project, as has been evident from the constant interference with past bid processes to select the project's developer/operator. In two cases, the bids were made to fail by a rather shady shell company which was obviously acting on behalf of someone. 

Rather than only raise their grievances, the resort owners have been playing a very smart game over the last few months and years, by putting together a diverse set of grouses ranging from the loss of livelihood of fishermen and resort employees in the area, to environmental damage to questioning the very economic viability of the project. To do this, they have engaged the services of a number of paid "experts", almost all of whom are retired Government servants, from fields such as fisheries science, geology and hydrography. They have also recruited religious and community leaders to create tensions among the people residing in the project area.

Tall Claims

The resorts claim that thousands of jobs will be lost and tens of thousands of Crores of revenue will be lost if the 31 resorts in the project area are closed down. It is quite evident that this is a ludicrous exaggeration. The resorts claim that the total number of rooms in the affected properties is about 800, in reality this is likely to be far lower since only a handful of the resorts are medium-sized. The rest have 10-20 rooms apiece. Even if there are 800 rooms in all, the usual ratio of personnel to key is about 1:1, so that means less than a 1,000 jobs at risk, not tens of thousands as these rabble-rousers would have us believe. The resorts are all three-star or below, so even accounting for a uniform 3-star cost/key of about Rs 30 Lakhs (and that's replacement cost, while many of the resorts are ten years or older!), the total investment at risk is about Rs 250 Crores, miniscule compared to the Rs 6,000 Crore investment in Phase I of the port. A back-of-the-envelope calculation - Rs 3000/night X 365 days X 60% annual occupancy X 800 rooms - yields a total revenue of about Rs 50 Crores/year, which is far, far below what the resorts claim would be lost because of the project. Even the documents submitted by the resorts are riddled with flights of fancy, one resort owner even claims a value of Rs 90 Crores for six acres of land and over Rs 50 Crores for a small, 26 room property! If they are to be believed, the 2-star resort costs more per room than a ultra-luxury Four Seasons hotel would!

In short, thousands of Crores of assets are not being demolished, thousands of jobs are not being lost and tens of thousands of Crores of tourist revenue is not being sacrificed. This is all nothing but a deliberate ploy to play up the impact for pure, theatrical effect and for the consumption of the community in the project area and the Environmental Clearance committee. In fact, the tourism industry would benefit immensely from the cruise terminal planned as part of the project because it would bring tens of thousands of high-paying cruise tourists to the area. Folks whose jobs may be threatened by the closure of the small resorts will find even better employment as the tourist industry expands capacity to cater to the influx of cruise tourists. Vizhinjam can be an ideal turn-around and base ports for cruise ships operating in the Indian Ocean region and tourists who embark or disembark at Vizhinjam will drive room demand as well as air traffic. A tourist who undertakes a day excursion (while staying on board the ship) spends about $150 on average while one who spends a night before/after their cruise spends upwards of $250/night. Vizhinjam could receive 60-100,000 cruise tourists/year to start with (Ernakulam already received about 60,000/year and that port is further from the international shipping lanes, is shallower and only has a make-shift cruise facility). This alone means an incremental spend of between Rs 50 - 150 Crores/year, more than making up for any loss of revenue from the resorts that will make way for the port. Finally, the resorts themselves can re-located elsewhere along the Vizhinjam-Poovar tourism zone so the loss of revenue and employment may at most be temporary.


The next argument raised by the resort owners and their crony consultants is that the project will cause irreparable damage to the environment during its construction and operation. Notwithstanding the fact that the comprehensive, three-season Environmental Impact Assessment (all 4000 pages and 8 kilos of it!) has identified, analyzed and recommended mitigation measures for any adverse impacts the project, the project is being made to seem far worse than Fukushima and Chernobyl rolled together. Those who allege such dire consequences blithely ignore key facts such the minimal capital dredging (why don't they complain about the several million cubic meters of material dumped each year off the coast due to the incessant maintenance dredging at Ernakulam port?), clean cargo types (containers, cruise and, possibly, LNG) and the lack of sediment drift in the area.

Another key weapon wielded by the resorts is that the port would result in the destruction of fish stocks, apparently most of which would be because the big, bad container ships would trample a rich fishing area called the Wadge Bank. Till it turned out that this area was on the far side of the international shipping lane along which hundreds of ships move each day. Indeed most of these ships pass over the Bank and it's been doing fine. So the 2-3 ships each day that call at Vizhinjam will hardly dent it. Oopsie!

One should also recall that pretty much each and many of the resorts who have suddenly turned into environmental evangelists are located within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) designed to protect the coast and its environment. This means they have been violating environmental laws since the day they were built. A classic case of the hooker preaching morality a.k.a. being holier-than-thou!

Now that they have spilled the skeletons out of their cupboards, one hopes that the resorts will be prosecuted with extreme prejudice with respect to their gross negligence for environmental laws.

The Puthur Effect

Among the motley crew of "experts" cobbled together by the resorts is a retired Indian Navy hydrographer by the name of Commander John Puthur who has put forward an array of alleged issues with the port that range from the nonsensical to the ludicrous. The good Commander starts off by claiming that "sediments running off the land into the sea" would fill up the port basin in no time and would necessitate expensive maintenance dredging. It doesn't take a degree in hydrography from Wood's Hole to realize that there's no river in the project area to transport sediment and that the quantity of material run off into the sea is negligible (for the volumes of run off alleged by Puthur, the resorts that employ him would have been swept out to sea years and years ago!). Similarly, his claim that sediment drift along the coast will fill in the shipping channel also fall flat once we actually take a look at the comprehensive studies conducted on sediment movement, which clearly show that sediment movement is minor and will be prevented by the South breakwater.Puthur has no data to back him up, yet he does not stop short of making serious allegation. Perhaps he thought he was supposed to be talking about the port at Ernakulam, which is on the verge of going bust because of dredging costs.

Next he claims that the use of barges to transport the millions of tons of rock needed for the main breakwaters will themselves necessitate capital dredging at the loading point. Firstly, dear Commander, movement of rock by barge is but one of several options considered by VISL. Secondly, the barges in question have drafts of 3 to 5 meters, not exactly supertankers. Of course, if you're talking about the Ernakulam or Azhikkal ports, even that depth may be a struggle!

Next, he shifts gears and makes a couple of rather lame points. First, that being exposed to the sea wind will corrode the containers and the cranes that handle them. Of course, these same containers are never exposed to sea air while they spend the bulk of their lives on the decks of ships crisscrossing the seas and all ports other than Vizhinjam do not suffer from sea winds. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, ONLY Vizhinjam has this peculiar thing called a sea wind. 

Second, our good Commander feels that monsoon winds will make operations impossible, despite the fact that the fastest sustained wind speeds recorded at Vizhinjam is only between one-third and half of the wind speeds at which container can safely be carried out. For most of the year, Vizhinjam sees relatively sedate winds and ports like Hong Kong and Shanghai do quite well in the faster winds (not to mention raging typhoons) of the Pacific Ocean, Vizhinjam is very safe indeed.

A final straw that the resorts clutch at is the claim that the project is not viable. They apparently base this on the fact that from the Government's perspective, the project returns a negative Net Present Value based on its investment of the 75% of the project cost needed to fund its share (the breakwaters, dredging and reclamation, berths and road-rail connectivity) as the port's Landlord. This will always be the case because most the revenue that flows back to the Government comes from indirect sources such as taxes and duties, that arise out of the increased economic development that the port will spur. This amounts to tens of thousands of Crores during the lifetime of the project. For example, if the South Indian Industrial Corridor can be extended southwards to use Vizhinjam as one of its hub port, this will spark massive industrial development in southern Kerala and Tamil Nadu. All of this is blithely ignored by the project's detractors.

The sad thing is that paid consultants like Puthur receive a very detailed hearing in the media, possibly because of the old adage that money talks. More than being carted around to speak at various meeting organized by the resort owners and their proxy organizations, that go by such names as "Coastal Watch" and "Exnora", he was also sent off to Delhi to gate-crash the Environmental Clearance committee meeting (and I do literally mean gate-crash), where he apparently handed out copies of his own book (possibly the only copies every disseminated of that seminal work!). 

The fact that the resorts have clout is beyond dispute. After all, a close relative of one of the owners once occupied the senior-most bureaucratic position in Kerala. That said, we cannot rule out the possibility that they are aligned with other vested interests who have a lot more to lose when Vizhinjam becomes operational, ranging from nearby ports, such as Ernakulam and Tuticorin, which stand to lose most, if not all of the container traffic because of Vizhinjam's cost advantages as a hinterland port, to regional transshipment hubs like Colombo and Dubai which will lose traffic to Vizhinjam. With the Chinese now effectively controlling the new container terminal at Colombo and the addition of Indian Navy and Coast Guard facilities, intended in part to counter Chinese expansionary initiatives in the Indian Ocean region, to the Vizhinjam project, one cannot rule out a threat to national security from the actions of this small band of people.

In short, a small set of selfish people, who are themselves guilty of environmental transgressions, and who may be in cahoots with anti-national interests are trying to sabotage the Vizhinjam project. But WE can fight back, by making sure that the opinion of the people supporting the project is heard loud and clear by the MoEF committee. In fact, properly applied vox populi will easily drown out the machinations of the resorts. 

An online petition has been started to collect signatures in favor of granting expedited approval to the project. 3,000 signatures have already been collected and the first copy of the petition, with 2,059 signatures has already been dispatched in hard copy form to the committee. The signature collection will continue till the 29th, when the committee is expected to consider the project, and the consolidated list of signatures will be submitted once again.

This is the time to act, the time to make a difference to Trivandrum, Kerala and India without having to spend much time or any resources on it. Cynics often wonder whether the signatures will make a difference. While they may not necessarily compel an immediate green flag for the project (I hope it does!), the fact of the matter is that public opinion is definitely a parameter consider for granting environmental clearance. The resorts have drummed up limited public support, either through spending big bucks or through misrepresentation, or both. VISL nor the Government can match that, so it's left to NGOs and folks like us to make a difference. Vizhinjam has already benefited from crowd-sourcing, albeit on a much more focused way, this time it will need a far bigger effort.

So please sign the petition and then please get everyone you know to sign as well.

Let's get it this done!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

TCS Giant Trivandrum Campus Revealed

Back in September 2010, I had put up a post announcing the fact that India's largest IT company, TCS, was planning a massive learning campus at Technocity. I had even put up this image of Infosys' learning campus in Mysore as a representative visual of what the TCS campus might look like.

Recently details of what TCS' even larger version will look like have emerged.

Capable of training 16,000 employees, from across the world, in each batch, the TCS Technocity campus will be India's single largest IT campus with between 6-8 Million SF of space. That is more than all of Technopark Phase I, II and III have right now, or twice as big as Infopark, Ernakulam, just on its own.

Involving an investment of over Rs 3000 Crores ($500 Million), the campus is a small city (all other XYZ cities please excuse!) on its own and has been designed by storied US architects, Richard Meier and Partners.

It's also the single biggest ever private investment in Kerala and will only be second is sheer scale to the massive Vizhinjam deep-water port project in terms of projects being developed across the State. Located right on the NH-66 on the Northern periphery of the Capital City, it will provide an incredible gateway visual to anyone approaching Trivandrum from the North, which will be followed up in short order by Technopark Phases I - III.

Here are a few sneak peeks. 


Master Plan

Overall Perspective (Looking from the NH-66 side)

View from the Highway

Main Academic Block

More images and details are available at the  informative blog, Thiruvananthapuram Updates

Monday, August 26, 2013

Who's Against the Vizhinjam Project?

Check out a very interesting and comprehensive video about the Vizhinjam deep-water port project, focusing on the challenges faced by the megaproject, including a chronically procrastinating State Government and various vested interests, ranging from a small number of local resort owners to port operators, near and far. 

It also includes interviews of some of the project's most vocal proponents including prominent political journalist, Elias John, and of local people who voice their strong support for the project. Hats off to these simple folk who can see the truth that the high-and-might cannot, or choose not to.

Please take a look and share it as much as possible!

(The video is in Malayalam and in two parts).

Video Courtesy: Media One

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Don't Play with Fire!

The post discusses serious shortfalls in the fire & rescue services in Trivandrum where inadequate equipment and facilities put our city at risk. The bright side is that these can be addressed quickly to build a world-class rescue service via internally generated funds, if the right decisions are taken today.

A string of calamities, be it the devastating floods in Central Kerala or the explosion that sank the INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai, has grabbed media attention in recent weeks. This is usually the only time when most of us give any thought about what could go terribly wrong around us. The next thought of course is how prepared are we to meet such eventualities. So perhaps this is an opportune juncture for us to deviate a little from the usual development discussions and take a look around Trivandrum and cast a critical eye on our disaster preparedness.

As a city of over 2 Million people, that's home to a whole host of strategic facilities that include India's most important space facility and the country's biggest business park, and which will soon add India's most advanced port to that repertoire, Trivandrum needs to pay a lot of attention to its preparedness to meet disasters, big and small. The list of potential emergencies is scarily long but let's examine one of the most common. 

Prometheus' gift to Man is a good start as any.

Trivandrum already has well over a hundred high-rise buildings, mostly residential, which are home to tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of new buildings are either under construction and will be built over the next few years as the demand for residential units keeps on growing, driven by the rapidly expanding economy of the State Capital. The city hosts massive commercial/industrial facilities including ISRO's sprawling facilities across the city, Technopark, dozens of R&D and educational institutions, industrial parks and multiple transportation hubs. It also has multiple military and paramilitary bases, not to mention the more common fire hazards like fuel storage facilities and filling stations. You'd imagine that the consequent dire need for fire-fighting and rescue infrastructure would be a top priority for the Government.

You'd be completely wrong! The Kerala Fire & Rescue Services (KFRS) is woefully under-manned and under-equipped. For example, there are probably less than 25 operation fire engines to cater to the Trivandrum metro region and a shortage of nearly 200 personnel  in the Trivandrum and Kollam districts alone. The city has just a single rescue tender which carries rescue equipment such as chain-saws and metal-cutters, which proves dangerously inadequate when the KFRS is called out as many 68 times on a rainy day! Most of the fire engines in the State are old and nearing the end of their operational life time, if not already beyond their scrap-by dates. By comparison, Cambridge, Massachusetts has 14 state-of-the-art fire appliances (the technical term for fire engines) and 8 fire stations for a population just over 100,000 people. To achieve a similar level of service, Trivandrum would need over 200 fire appliances!! Well, that might be a slight ask, but let's be pragmatic...

Reaching for the Sky

Among Cambridge's fire & rescue fleet are 4 giant ladder trucks, which are equipped with telescopic ladders that reach heights of over 100 feet (10 floors) to rescue trapped people and to spray water and foam on fires from above.

Ladder Truck 1
Photo Courtesy: Cambridge Fire Department

Trivandrum very likely has more high-rise buildings (10 floors or over) than the entire Boston metro area, which has mostly low and mid-rise buildings, except for in the Central Business District in the heart of the city itself. How many ladder trucks do we have? At the last count, zilch! In the past, the city's fire units had two ladder/aerial platform trucks, but both have been dysfunctional for quite a while now and plans to buy a new one seem to have made no headway.

The type of appliance that Trivandrum desperately needs is a hydraulic platform truck. Various models can reach heights of  32 - 112 meters, or 10 to 30 floors.

Hydraulic Platform Truck
Image Courtesy: London Fire Brigade

Currently, the manual ladders available with the KFRS can reach only up to the third floor or so. Tens of thousands of people live and work beyond the reach of these ladders. For example, most of Technopark's 7 Million SF of operating office space has 8-12 floors on average. Now one would think that such sophisticated gear can be seen only in the ranks of fire departments in the developed world. The truth is that sophisticated fire trucks of this type are in service across most major Indian cities outside Kerala. Even Tier 2 cities such as Madurai have these vital pieces of equipment in operation.

 Hydraulic Platform trucks in Bangalore
Image Courtesy: SSC
One of these costs on the order of Rs 5 - 10 Crores, depending on its reach. Cities like Mumbai and Chennai have over half a dozen of these, even Pune has four already. Trivandrum will need at least two, if not three. One needs to be stationed at the Central Fire Station, to respond to emergencies in the dozens of high-rises in and around the core city. The second unit needs to be deployed at the new fire station at Technopark, where in addition to the 10 Million SF of office space in the park, there are dozens of high rise apartment projects, most of them over 15 floors tall, sprouting up in a 5 Kilometer radius of the fire station. It make sense to have a long reach unit (which can reach up to 20 floors) such as a Bronto Skylift F 61 RPX deployed at this station. (Of course, the even bigger HLA series would be real eye-candy!) The same unit can also respond to emergenices at the ISRO complex and even at the International Airport.

Mumbai Fire Brigade's Bronto Skylift F 61
Image Courtesy: Team BHP.com
 The world record holder - the giant 112 m reach F 112
Image Courtesy: AutoWP.ru
The big Skylift trucks have often come under criticism in India because observers have been skeptical of their ability to navigate the narrow, crowded streets of many large Indian cities like Mumbai where skyscrapers are often accessed by side-roads. However, Trivandrum has wider and better roads than most Tier 2 cities and at least a couple of "metros" I know of. Indeed these trucks easily negotiate the winding streets of many historic European and American cities. 
Paying for these monsters will not be hard to digest for our State Government, but there are several pragmatic sources of funding that can be tapped. Every year, at least 2 Million SF (0.2 Crore SF) of high-rise residential buildings are built in Trivandrum. Mandating a one-time cess of Rs 10/SF on all buildings of at least 10 floors will yield Rs 2 Crores per year, a Rs 50/SF cess will yield Rs 10 Crores/year! Even this would be negligible in comparison to the average Rs 3500/SF price of high-rise apartments in the market. To make sure that the cost of the life-saving equipment is not borne only by the residents of new buildings, an equivalent charge can be retrospectively applied over, say, a 10 year period, to older buildings via the annual building tax. Technopark alone adds about 1-2 Million SF of office space each year, a similar one-time charge can fund the acquisition of a F 61 RPX in just the first year or two. Funds raised through these levies can be used thereafter to buy additional fire trucks (the ladder trucks are usually supported by one or two pump/water trucks) as well as to pay for the operating costs of the units. While this mode of funding is not the most ideal from the principle of distributive justice, it's the most pragmatic by matching the cost of providing an essential service to the most immediate beneficiaries of that service. It is also rather straightforward to collect and will make sure that the funds are not lost in the maddening tangle of budgetary red tape (which is doubly applicable to anything associated with the State Capital!).
Special Units 
KFRS has one rescue tender in Trivandrum which, as far as I can recall, also has some limited capability to deal with Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) emergencies. But one unit is far too inadequate to deal with emergencies which range from road accidents, fallen trees, collapsed buildings, oil and chemical spills, gas leaks and so on. A second unit should be available at the Technopark fire station. Rescue tenders carry all sorts of equipment including chain saws, hydraulic and gas cutters, lift bags, boats, breathing equipment and so. Trucks that are equipped with their own hydraulic cranes will prove extra useful in scenarios such as road accidents where vehicles have turned turtle or fallen down off the road. We have become used to scenes of rental cranes being called in when school vans or buses fall into canals. This often takes a lot of time, when mere minutes could make the difference between rescue and a watery grave.

Heavy rescue vehicle with an 8-ton crane
Image Courtesy: Chicagofire.com

A separate Hazmat response unit also needs to be stationed at Technopark or the Chackai Fire Station to deal with possible emergencies at the ISRO complex, the industrial complexes in Veli, Kazhakkoottam and Thonnakkal and the International Airport. 

 Hazmat Response Unit
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia.com 
A third location that will need both a rescue tender and a Hazmat unit will be the Vizhinjam deep-water port, when it becomes operational in 2017 or so and starts handling hundreds of thousands of containers that may contain any sort of cargo and also hosts Navy and Coast Guard facilities. The port's fire station will also need its own hydraulic platform truck and several standard fire tenders, not to mention one or more tugs with fire-fighting capability. While the port will pick up most of the cost of the facility, KFRS can bear the rest in exchange for making the units available to respond to emergencies in the vicinity, including densely populated areas like Balaramapuram and Neyyatinkara.

The KFRS also needs to have at least two modern wreckers - heavy duty tow trucks, which can also double as cranes. These are mostly used to respond to vehicular accidents. I believe a venerable tow truck is still in service with the KFRS in Trivandrum but new, more capable vehicles are needed.

Heavy-duty Tow Truck
Image Courtesy: Tow411.com

Since we are typing out a wish list of Santa, here's one more line item. Not many of us know that the prevailing building codes in Kerala, and indeed most of India, call for buildings over a certain height (approximately 23 floors) to have mandatory helipads on their roofs, apparently for fire rescue helicopters to land in the eventuality of a major blaze. The catch is of course that there are no fire rescue helicopters anywhere in India! Air Force and Navy helicopters can be called in wherever they are available, mostly in cities where a military air base is nearby. While a chopper is a very expensive toy, it does make a lot of sense to have one which can be shared by the police and the fire & rescue service. It's very likely that the craft would be overwhelmingly used by the former, mostly for surveillance purposes but would still be available to respond in minutes should a high-rise inferno break out.

On the subject of things that fly, is the Trivandrum International Airport fairing any better in terms of its fire and rescue capability. On a bright note, the answer is yes. The State Capital's airport was one of the first in the country to deploy the state-of-the-art Rosenbauer Panther Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) vehicle, six of which are on duty to respond at lightning speed to any emergency in the busy airport.

 Rosenbauer Panther 6 X 6 ARFF
Image Courtesy: SixAppealWheel.com

More Fire Stations 

While on the subject of new fire stations, it may make a lot of sense to rethink the current strategy of having a few fire stations, some with a large number of tenders (4 or more in the case of the Central and Chackai locations), each serving large areas. Trivandrum only has 6 or so fire stations - including Central, Chackai, VSSC, Technopark, Vizhinjam, Nedumangad, Neyyatinkara and Attingal. This means that the average response time to reach an incident is often 10-15 minutes or more, especially during rush hour. In contrast, the strategy in the US is to have a large number of fire houses, each with 1 to 3 fire appliances, distributed across the urban area. Again, using Cambridge as an example, there are 8 fire houses within an 18.5 Sq. km area which is miniscule when compared to the 400 Sq. km area of the Trivandrum metropolitan area. Ideally, there should be one fire house, with 1 to 3 fire engines located at distances of 4 - 6 Km from each other, enabling response times of 5 - 10 minutes to any emergency. Serious situations requiring the response by a hydraulic platform truck or a heavy rescue tender can be handled from a main fire station. Eventually, a hydraulic platform truck should be stationed in every fire house in a high-rise neighborhood. Of course, finding the land for the new fire stations will not be easy but by intelligently existing Government-owned premises such as offices, hospitals, police stations and schools, this can be achieved without the need for major land acquisition. This has to be accompanied by the roll-out of automatic fire alarm systems and the establishment of fire hydrants across the water network.

The total outlay for modernizing the fire & rescue force in the city will work out to about Rs 50 Crores over the next 2 to 3 years, including the acquisition of the new equipment and the construction of new facilities. Daunting as this figure sounds, it pales in comparison with some of the ongoing and planned infrastructure investments in the State (no, I am not going to refer to that Rs 1,50,000 Crore bullet train yet again....wait, I just did! Oh well..) and it can be mostly funded from direct sources as described previously. The cost of not making these judicious decisions will be measured in lives, and that's not something that can be conveniently fitted into a cost-benefit analysis on an Excel sheet.

Well, the idea for this post came out of my fixation with big, red fire engines barreling down the road with their flashing lights and wailing sirens (I used to tag them on my bike and Towering Inferno and Backdraft are two of my favorite movies!). However, this is a very real issue that a growing city needs to deal with sooner rather than too late and some smart decisions made today could avert a tragedy which is usually only a question of when, not if.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Coming to Facebook!

As many of you know, I have been using Zuckerberg's all encompassing, ever-maddening creation to share posts on this blog for quite some time now. The importance of the social media universe has become hard to ignore when pretty much everyone I know and their dog are on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Trivandrum's projects have always suffered from a paucity, if not a complete lack, of promotion. Even the citizens of Kerala's capital have known very little about massive developments like Technopark, Technocity and the Vizhinjam deep-water port, even as they are making sweeping changes to our city and to the State, generating tens of thousands of jobs and thousands of Crores of economic activity.

Most of what is heard about these projects and others like the NH-66 expansion project and the MRTS is in the "popular" press, most of which is either negative in nature or of such abysmal reporting standards that it's best to pass up on.

However, now private citizens are taking the initiative to create Facebook pages for some of these key projects so that people can visit them to seek more information and to understand more about what they should be fighting for.

Here are a few to visit and Like!

Please go ahead and.....



Sunday, July 07, 2013

Stadium Spectacular!!

Here's a newly released video of the stunning Trivandrum International Stadium, being built at Karyavattom, just about 1 Km from Technopark Phase I. India's most advanced stadium is capable of hosting international cricket and football matches, confirming to both ICC and FIFA requirements.

Beyond the 50,000-seater stadium itself, the complex also includes convention facilities, a world-class indoor sports center and club and a unique shopping mall built within the structure of the stadium.

Kerala's first purpose-built international-standard cricket stadium is also India's first stadium built on a fully Public Private Partnership model.

I am especially proud of this wonderful addition to our city as I had the opportunity to play a small role in the conceptualization of this project together with a small group of friends, back in 2011.

Sit back and enjoy the world-class stadium and its amenities that include restaurants with stunning match views and plush corporate boxes.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Trivandrum Master Plan - Final version of Inputs

Over 400 of you went through the draft set of inputs uploaded a few weeks ago and many of you sent me additional points either via comments or via email, thank you very much for taking the time off to think about the subject and to revert with your own inputs. I'd also like to thank my band of co-contributors who drew on their experience from fields as diverse as landscape engineering, software architecture and marine engineering to come up with highly detailed inputs.

All your inputs were compiled and have been sent across to the powers-that-be for their consideration. Apologies for the delay in uploading the final version, as I was on a two-week long business trip that spanned six countries including India. That's a separate story altogether, but I am hoping that some good news for Trivandrum may come out of it in the next few weeks and months.

Stay tuned!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Suggestions Anyone? - Trivandrum's New Master Plan

As many of you may already be aware of, the new draft Master Plan for Trivandrum is ready - after a gap of over a quarter of a century, the one in force today dates back from 1984 or so! The plan has been published on the website of the Trivandrum Corporation, for the general public - you and me - to review and submit our suggestions. A word of caution, the hefty 24 MB document has nearly 400 pages, so it may take some time to go through it!

The Corporation and the Town Planning Department, which authored the draft, recently also conducted a seminar to provide a venue for suggestions to be aired.

Together with a number of like-minded friends, I have compiled a list of inputs to improve the draft and make it into a true vision-setting and operational document that can help set Trivandrum on the course to be a world-class city rivaling Singapore - the best benchmark for us - within a decade. 

The document is below, for your review.

Here are some of the salient points in the document for a quick review.

  • The current draft confines its recommendations and plans to the Trivandrum Corporation area in most part. Even after its recent expansion, the Corporation forms but one part of the larger Trivandrum Metropolitan Region which encompasses a significant portion of the Trivandrum District
  • Key developments such as Technocity – which will see the development of over 2 Crore sq.ft. of commercial space, employee over 100,000 IT professionals, involve an investment in excess of Rs 10,000 Crores and make very significant contributions to the economy of the district and State – is located outside the current geographical scope of the master plan as are areas such as Nedumangad which host strategic institutions such as the IISER and IIST as well as the Balaramapuram-Neyyatinkara axis which is a nearly continuous, high density stretch of urbanization which extends South from the Corporation area till the border with Tamil Nadu
  • Therefore, it is recommended that the scope of the master plan be extended till Attingal in the North, Nedumangad and the foothills of the Western Ghats in the East and till Neyyatinkara/Parassala in the South, and encompassing all the areas, already urbanized or otherwise, between the border of the Corporation and these peripheral urban centers
  • As mentioned above, a formal Trivandrum Metropolitan Area (TMA) has to be established by due process by the State Government. The master plan must act as both define this area and set the direction for development within it.
  • ·  In terms of providing increased density – over and above KMBR, it is best that this be focused in relation to transportation availability and economic activity.

  •   Increasing density in a purely concentric fashion will ignore the practical issues, such as the paucity of wide roads even within many parts of the core urban area that are necessary to support high density or the fact that focusing density around economic hub encourages the Work-Live-Play lifestyle paradigm which helps to minimize commuting (and the consequent vehicular use and pollution) by co-locating all the aspects of life

  • ·   It is recommended that density incentives be provided to areas located along primary transportation axes such as the NH-66 (Attingal to Vizhinjam), old NH-66 (between Kazhakkoottam and Kaliyikkavila), M.C. Road and other 4/6 lane roads within the metro regions, as well as along the proposed route of the mass transit system (not just the current alignment but along the entire network as proposed in Section 3). The latter promotes Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and will help improve the viability and effectiveness of the MRTS network. These density incentives may be up to 1.5-2 times the FAR prescribed in KMBR for each use but must be accompanied by stringent parking requirements.

  • ·  The following new ring roads need to be laid out:

First Outer Ring Road: Kaniyapuram-Vembayam-Karakulam-Vilappilsala-Balaramapuram-Vizhinjam
Second Outer Ring Road: Attingal – Nedumangad-Malyinkeezhu-Neyyatinkara

  •  A single mass transit route will not suffice for a metro area the size of Trivandrum with well over 700,000 daily trips.
  • The master plan must incorporate a comprehensive mass transit network that serves the entire metro area.
  • This will be based around a multi-route mass transit system (viz the monorail) but also incorporate other modes of transport such as commuter rail, water transport and buses.
  • The monorail system must be quickly expanded with at least the following two additional routes:
    • Route 2: Kazhakkoottam – Aakulam – Airport (Chackai) – Pettah – Palayam – Vellayambalam – Peroorkada – Nedumangad (It could terminate at Peroorkada in Phase I).
    • Route 3: Vizhinjam – Kovalam – Eanchakkal – Airport – Kochuveli – Veli – Aakulam – KIMS - Medical College – Pattom – Kowdiar – Peroorkada – Civil Station– Manathala – Vembayam.

  • An integrated water supply system to cover the entire metro area has to be established. This needs to be immediately rolled out to cover the newly added areas of the corporation but also to the outlying areas of the metro areas, with new systems in areas currently not covered and by linking together existing stand-alone systems. The current 300 MLD capacity of the city’s water system has to be progressively increased to 500-600 MLD within the next 5 years. This will involve setting up additional processing capacity and also tapping new water sources such as the Neyyar and Peppara dams.
  • Considering even a water return volume of 50%, the city will need at least 250 MLD of sewage processing capacity in a few years, with the current STP at Muttathara having a capacity of only 107 MLD. A second STP of 150 MLD capacity (two phases of 100 and 50 MLD) is therefore proposed within the Veli-Kazhakkottam Industrial Estate.
  • In the next 10-15 years, power consumption in the metro area is likely to reach the 2500 Kwh/person/year level seen as a global average (and already in emerging markets such as China). This will necessitate about 1000 MW of generation capacity to meet the needs of the metro area and very likely much more if we take the increasing scale of commercial and industrial activities into account. A gas turbine power plant, fueled by natural gas from an LNG import terminal built at Vizhinjam will be the ideal choice to meet this need. The power plant can be developed in two phases of 1000 MW each and the excess power exported to the rest of Kerala/India.
  • Vizhinjam is the best-suited port in India for LNG import because of its proximity to gas sources such as Australia, Indonesia, East Africa, the US and Russia, as well as its deep draft. An LNG terminal at Vizhinjam can be leveraged for a metro area wide gas distribution network as well as conversion of vehicles to cleaner CNG, starting with government and public transport vehicles.
  • The availability of gas will also promote the development of micro-grids which are localized, interconnected loads such as buildings within a campus that share power generation and chilling capacity. This arrangement is very cost-effective, efficient and resilient (in case of grid failure).
  • Economic development - salient projects recommended include an international convention and trade center (under the landlord model of development), world-class logistics facility for Vizhinjam, Aerospace manufacturing cluster, Knowledge City and a strategic land bank for major economic development projects.
  • A key requirement to  implement the plan is a new agency, the Trivandrum Metropolitan Development Authority (TMDA) which should have the following powers over the entire metro area which must be formalized:
    • Issue all building permits and statutory clearances using a unified code for the entire metro area as per the guidelines of the master plan, KMBR, National Building Code etc
    •  Plan, finance and develop all public infrastructure under the master plan that does not fall into the mandate of existing agencies such as VISL, AAI, KWA, Indian Railways etc
    • Plan, finance and develop economic development projects, where not already under a specific agency. Even if under a specific agency, like the department of tourism (in the case of the convention center), TMDA can still be the financing and executing agency
    • Act as the landlord/project sponsor for PPP development projects and own the land and/or facilities and to collect revenues
    • Raise funds for development projects by the issue of bonds, raising debt from development finance institutions (World Bank, ADB, JICA et c) and from commercial lenders and by levying fees/taxes.
    • Periodically update the master plan (minor revisions once every two years, major updates every five years). and act as it custodian.
  • The TMDA must have a specialized economic development wing, modeled along the lines of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) that creates strategic visions and plans, formulates project proposals, raises funding, oversee project execution and, promotes and facilitates private investment.
  • With the massive volume of transportation infrastructure development planned in the next 10 years and the ever-growing transportation volumes in the metro area, a dedicated agency is called for to integrate the development and operation of all modes of transportation. This will be the Trivandrum Metropolitan Transportation Authority (TMTA)

As I mentioned in the beginning, these are but a select few of the points in the document. The Town Planning department is accepting suggestions till June 6, and I will make sure that the cumulative set of inputs makes it to the right decision makers and is given due consideration, if all of you could chip in with your points by June 4 via email or the comments facility here.

Remember, each of us has a different perspective on our beloved city and a different set of experiences and backgrounds, so we may each have at least one more point to add. More the merrier, so don't hesitate, the next time a chance like this comes along may be in 2038 (let's hope it comes a lot sooner than that!).

Thanks in advance, folks!