Sunday, January 13, 2013

2012 Round Up - A Forgettable Year

It's official, there is a 2013, the Mayan Calendar got it wrong or got it too soon. Quite a few souls must have breathed sighs of relief, well, except for those who spent thousands of dollars on life-boats, arks and other assorted devices to save themselves from the Apocalypse. For the people of Trivandrum, a collective sigh of relief at the end of an eminently forgettable year cannot come too soon, albeit the way ahead doesn't seem any better.

Eventhough all bets were off ever since the UDF came to power, with its mix of regional interests representing nearly every part of the State except for erstwhile Travancore, 2012 plumbed new depths in terms of development, or rather the evident lack of it. 

Every single one of the major development projects in and around Trivandrum, with the notable exception of Technopark, has become becalmed or has been sabotaged with extreme malice.

First and foremost, the Vizhinjam project has lost its way since the culmination of the operator bid process initiated by the LDF Government in 2010. After only a single bidder made it all the way to the end, following the disqualification of the second one on "national security" grounds, the Government deemed its bid inadequate to meet its exacting standards and dumped it in mid-2012. At the same time, they were busy handing out contracts for projects in other cities without even the pretense of a tender and dreaming of Rs 1,60,000 Crore bullet trains. Since then, the project has not made any tangible process other than the finalization of its master-plan, in which a small team of citizens, including yours truly, was able to play a small part, with the timely and able assistance of Dr Shashi Tharoor. The project was then hit by a determined attempt by a group of local resort owners to block its development using the ombudsman of its prime consultant, IFC. Not for the first time, popular opinion and reaction rose to the project's support but the jury is still out on the outcome of the sabotage attempt. In the meantime, the Government has dilly-dallied on the environmental clearance, the land acquisition and on the task of finding a new operator. In the wake of failures of bids for major container terminals at Mumbai and Chennai, the best way forward seems to be the MoU route to find and engage a capable operator on mutually beneficial terms, but not a single effort along these lines has been taken. Vizhinjam found scarcely any mention in the Government's much trumpeted, but apparently ultimately unsuccessful investment mega-drama, Emerging Kerala. Without forceful and quick action on finalizing the environmental clearance, identifying a capable operator and getting the construction tender underway, the project looks like it's going to be stuck in limbo for a long time yet, perhaps until the people of Travancore decide to reverse the mistake that was made on November 1, 1956. The only other relatively bright note in this half-a-century old saga is that VISL has achieved financial closure for the project.

Two more long-pending infrastructure projects ended the year as they had started it, going nowhere fast. The 4-laning of the NH-66 between Kazhakkoottam and the TN-Border, not to mention between Cherthala and Kazhakkoottam, that was stuck in the "how wide should roads in Kerala be" debate, has made scant progress. Towards the end of the year, Dr Shashi Tharoor seems to persuaded the powers that be to take a pragmatic step towards breaking the deadlock by getting the NHAI to agree to widen the stretch between Kazhakkoottam to Kottukal where land is already available and then following it up with the rest of the project as and when land is acquired. Hopefully, works should begin in mid-2013 towards widening at least the 28 Km stretch where land is available but 2012 was filled with nothing but traffic congestion and a string of tragic road accidents. This was even more horribly true of the Karamana-Kaliyikkavila, the 4-laning of which has made absolutely no progress since it was announced in the twilight of the last Government. Other than a string of promises to speed it up, precious little has happened on the ground despite intense public pressure and multiple accidents and thousands of man-hours lost every day. While hundreds of Crores are spent on land acquisition for projects in other districts and land acquisition officials meant for the project often diverted to other duties, the desperately needed project to widen one of Kerala's most congested roads gets more and more lost in the endless tangles of red tape.

Meanwhile, the Trivandrum City Road Improvement Project which yielded a major upgrade of the Capital City's arterial roads over the 2005-10 period has made little progress with its last few pending components such as the Thakaraparambu flyover, the Pettah rail overbridge, the widening of the bottleneck at the Pattoor or the widening of the Vanchiyoor-Court stretch. The Government's dilly-dallying with funding for the project and its lack of resolve in moving traders from the flyover site have resulted in nothing further than a few piles being driven in the last 12 months. A tussle over a few trees has dead-locked the widening in front of the Court complex at Vanchiyoor while the State Government seems to have made little headway in working with the Railways on the lone rail overbridge that has now been pending for 7 years. The only silver lining for the pioneering urban infrastructure project is that the Medical College-Kochulloor and the Overbridge-Thampanoor-Aristo stretches will soon be completed despite the best efforts of agencies like the Kerala Water Authority to prevent that ever happening! So even as the Government announced plans to emulate TCRIP at a half-a-dozen other cities, it has shown a very evident lack of resolve at completing the prototype itself.

Another area where Trivandrum was supposed to have shown the way for the rest of the State was in solid waste management. After a year where the waste processing plant at Vilapilssala was shut down after widespread protests over pollution caused by its irresponsible management by the Corporation, and an even more irresponsible response by the State Government, which came up with a series of hare-brained solutions to cover up its inability to solve the issue despite a strong directive from the High Court, Trivandrum teetered on the edge of a public health disaster. The Corporation and the State Government spent more time trading barbs and insults than they did on trying to come up with a pragmatic solution. The former is to blame for running the plant in a predictably unprofessional manner and not expanding its facilities to meet the needs of a growing city and to prevent air and water pollution. The latter showed utter disregard for the health and wellness of the people of Trivandrum, not to mention the cleanliness of the State Capital, and has not shown any genuine interest in solving the impasse which affects the lives of about 2 Million people. Their proposed solutions have included dumping waste in quarries, burning it in a truck and autoclaving it with steam - every single one of which has blown up in their faces (not literally, not yet anyways!) in very short order. Oh yes, the honorable Minister for Health (who happens to have been elected from Trivandrum, although he seems to have long forgotten that inconvenient fact) was on tour in the US at the time the epidemics were at their peak. The year ended as it began, in dead-lock and with the citizens concerned for their health and their lives.

One would think that this is sufficient ground for a Public Interest Litigation, but apparently not. The State Capital's tired public seems to have extended its apathy at half a century of neglect to this issue as well. All the more surprising when a so-called "concerned citizen" did find enough time and money to file a PIL against the first-ever demonstration drive by a Formula 1 car in Kerala, planned by Indian race driver Narain Karthikeyan, because it would violate "speed limits". Lo and behold, it seems that the demo drive, even on a cordoned off stretch of road, was deemed too risky as if everyone else, including assorted cars belonging to Ministers, KSRTC and private buses and every other private individual always drives below 40 Kmph on city roads! In the end, as with almost everything else related to our city, the State Government failed to take a strong decision in a timely fashion (the Tourism Minister was apparently touring Kashmir at the time to study how to promote tourism!) and the whole event, which could have attracted a lot of tourist interest, fell through. I am sure the intrepid litigant has a speed limiter installed on his car or maybe he still drives an old Premier Padmini that can do no better than the magical 40 Kmph. Talk about utter joblessness.

2012 began with much ado about the mass transit project proposed in Trivandrum, but it ended with little or no progress made, and a lot of confusion in between. The project began all topsy-turvy with the Government fixing the route and technology BEFORE the scientific study commissioned through NATPAC. The usual practice is to let the experts study the market and determine the best route network and the most appropriate technology for the particular area, rather than have politicians who have no clue whatsoever about the technical complexities of a mass transit project fix everything based on gawd-knows-what! In the middle of this, the Government also came up with a rather ridiculous "pod-car" proposal. For a while this threatened to further screw up the mass transit system by claiming to share the same route along M.G. Road. While this threat seemed to have abated later in the year, a new one showed up almost as soon as the NATPAC report came out. E. Sreedharan, the Kerala Government's go-to-man for any problem under the Sun, abruptly reversed his very public skepticism of monorails (the multi-hundred Crore fee streams must have been very interesting!) and pronounced himself the savior of the monorail projects in Trivandrum and Calicut. Since then procrastination has been the very definition of the project with a very sketchy detailed (or not-so-detailed) project report being submitted by Sreedharan & Co only a couple of weeks ago, a report which not only reduced the scope of the project nearly in half but also doubled its implementation period (supposedly due to concerns about "land acquisition", which are conveniently absent in the case of its other projects in Kerala). In the meantime, the Government was caught red-handed trying to divert money allotted for the Trivandrum MRTS project to its pet project in Calicut and Sreedharan tried to muddy the waters further by proposing first a heavy-rail metro and then a magnetic levitation monorail in Trivandrum. All in all, we are left with a curtailed project, a completely uncertain schedule, a totally disinterested Government that's only focusing on the projects in Ernakulam (for which they recently moved Heaven and Earth to rubber stamp DMRC as the project agency) and Calicut and nothing more than lip-service about raising funding for the project. In short, our MRTS project is going nowhere fast, especially not when it has been clubbed under one company with its cousin in Calicut. We can guess where the money will go to. My suspicion, something shared by a lot of other people as well, is that the project in Trivandrum was just proposed as a smoke-screen to justify the all but sure expenditure of State funds on a large scale in the project in Ernakulam where external funding still has not been tied up, despite Sreedharan's claims that he takes decisions for JICA and will unlock their coffers for them.

While on the subject of rails, the long pending railway development needs of Trivandrum have made very little headway, other than the commencement of two services announced a long time ago - the Trivandrum-Kollam commuter rail and the Trivandrum-Chennai Duronto - both of which were brought to fruition by the intervention of Dr Tharoor with the Railway Minister and the Chairman of the Railway Board. These services are still plagued by the chronic shortage of coaches that afflict the Trivandrum Division. The development of the Kochuveli and Nemom terminals, which would solve this among other problems such as the congestion of Trivandrum Central and the long list of pending services that are yet to start off due to lack of capacity, have made little or no progress respectively. Add to this, the constant hijacking of key railway offices allotted in the Divisional HQ at Trivandrum to Ernakulam by vested interests in the hierarchy of the Railways and this has been a mixed year at best and another bad one at worst. Since its expansion in 2011, the Trivandrum International Airport's growth plans have also been on ice with the Governent showing little interest in acquiring the 25 acres needed for the next phase of development even while it pushes ahead with acquiring hundreds of acres for the Kannur airport and rubber stamping the filling of hundreds of acres of paddy fields for the Aranmula Airport (yes, there's an international airport planned there!).

The list of woes continues but I will not try to paint an even gloomier picture than it already is. For example, a section of lawyers based in Ernakulam want to wind up the Kerala Administrative Tribunal (KAT) set up in Trivandrum, an initiative of former Law and Ports Minister, M. Vijayakumar. Not content with denying the restoration of the High Court Bench in Trivandrum, this lobby is probably very vexed that the majority of service-related cases that form the majority of the case load at the High Court in Ernakulam, will shift to the KAT and threaten their cushy existance even if it means saving Crores for the State in terms of not having to pay for the expenses of Government officials traveling 200 Km North to testify and participate in these cases. Here again, the only voices raised in protest were those of Mr Vijayakumar and Dr. Tharoor. The Government curiously has been keeping mum.

There have been rare instances of light shining through the firmament of dark clouds over the city. Most notably, Techopark has been making solid progress with completion of its mammoth 1 Million SF first building within its Phase III campus, as construction proceeds apace at the TCS, Infosys and UST Global campuses, adding nearly 3 Million SF of additional space and generating 30,000 more jobs. Infosys also took another 50 acres, this time at Technocity, for its second campus in Trivandrum, that's expected to add another 2 Million SF of space and 20,000 jobs to those in the first campus which is partly operational. The reason that this progress has been unaffected? Because, most of these are independent of the Government. The IT companies are of course paying for their own sprawling campuses and the last Government gave the go-ahead for the Phase III buildings. Despite the rapid consumption of the space available in the new building by companies including Oracle, Accenture, Cap Gemini and ITC Infotech, this Government has taken no step to commence construction of the next building in order to ensure a steady pipeline of space for incoming companies. Surprising, isn't it, especially considering that there has been no significant space absorption in any other IT park in Kerala and that this Government has made no headway with its own Frankstein creation, the so-called "Smart" City? Not so surprising, if the game plan is to put a "take deviation to Ernakulam/Calicut" sign once space sells out at Technopark, a strategy that has been put to use in the past many a time, starting with Wipro and CTS almost a decade ago. On a geographically contiguous note, the construction of the 50,000 seater world-class cricket and football stadium for the 35th National Games of Indian, just 1 Km from Technopark, is well underway. This will be Kerala's first International Cricket stadium and is expected to be open for business towards the beginning of 2014.

In summation, 2012 was not a year to look back on with fond memories. Period. It was a year that should make us wonder about the choices at least some of us made in the elections of recent years. There are at least a couple of people to vote for again (no, I am not trying to influence you.....!). The rest don't seem to care about us, at all. The bottom line also is that there's widespread apathy amongst us, and little urge to act upon this abject neglect for the State Capital. Till we start to react - be it little things like participating in an email campaign for Vizhinjam or correcting your cubicle mate when he/she bad-mouths the city - or perhaps, hoisting the Travancore colors on the 200 foot flagpole at Kanakakkunnu and declaring the end of the 56 year-old travesty that we have suffered. Tempting, isn't it?

How will 2013 be? Who knows, but stay tuned for my stab at predicting if this year will be any better than the last. 

1 comment:

  1. It is really frustrating to live under an useless government, which want to destroy Trivandrum. We should throw stones at Kunjoonju, Kunjaali and Kunjumaani, as they are trying to destroy our town even while staying here.


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