Building a strong base

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Kerala is making up for lost time by going all out to beef up the infrastructure in order to enable itself to exploit its unique human resource base and chart a road to the future.

INTERESTINGLY, it was a brainstorming meeting organised by a private media agency, the Malayala Manorama group, in late 2001 that first raised the cautionary amber signal about where the State was headed. "Keralam Naale" (Kerala Tomorrow) was the theme and it brought together key members of the government and an international brains trust of those concerned and competent enough to comment on Kerala's development parameters. Almost two years later, in January 2003, the Kerala government organised the first ever Global Investors Meet (GIM), to give a concrete shape to many plans, including some that were first incubated at the Manorama event.

It was no coincidence that both meetings were held at the same venue - the International Convention Centre in Kochi, set up by the Gulfar group of Indo-Gulf investors and now operated by the five-star Le Meridien hotel next door. Besides the fact that this was Kerala's largest, most modern conference complex, the venue also happened to be in the greater Kochi region, the commercial belly of the State. The GIM helped underline the importance of infrastructure in the larger scheme of the State's development.

As a result, the succeeding months have seen a new thrust in reviving some of the State's traditional strengths. Vizhinjam near the State capital of Thiruvananthapuram is today a minor fishing port. Yet, just one kilometre out in the sea, it boasts of a 24-metre draught - something many of India's major ports would envy (Kochi, the State's biggest port, maintains a depth of 12 m by continuous dredging). Developing Vizhinjam makes sense in other ways too - it is strategically located close to international shipping lanes going to South-East Asian destinations. Other ports like Beypore near Kozhikode and Alappuzha on the edge of the Vembanad lake have the potential to generate healthy coastal shipping traffic, but the basic infrastructure needs to be beefed up. The blueprints are ready and are waiting for investors.

In the case of Vallarpadam in the Ernakulam harbour mouth, things have gone beyond the drawing board: the Central government has cleared the Kochi Port Trust's container transhipment terminal and its early completion is within sight. However the viability of this project is closely tied to the realisation of a number of connected schemes: the timely completion of the bridges that are to link Ernakulam with Vypeen, leapfrogging two islands en route.

A terminal at Vallarpadam will create a traffic nightmare - unless the immediate hinterland is linked by fast roads that will bypass the busy city centre. To relieve some of the commuter pressure from Ernakulam's arterial roads, the Konkan Railway Corporation has joined hands with the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) to propose a daring Kochi Sky Bus Metro - a suspended railway system that can take between 40,000 to one lakh passengers and, more crucially, 720 containers every hour. The 16-km line from Ernakulam railway station to the Kalamassery industrial belt will be near enough to Vallarpadam to offer a viable channel to transport the container traffic from that terminal. Sadly, the project has attracted unseemly controversy because the former Konkan Railway chief, E. Sreedharan, rubbished the Rs.1,500-crore proposal. It remains to be seen if the Sky Bus Metro project is able to gather momentum now and create an innovative model that will solve other urban transportation problems.

The Kochi International Airport at Nedumbassery, arguably the finest airport in India today, was the result of people's participation. When there seemed to be no way to persuade the Centre to create a world-class airport in Kerala, the people of Kerala and the State government braced up to meet the challenge. The Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL) was formed with just Rs.90 crores as capital, almost half of it contributed by individual Keralites, and the rest by government institutions and corporations. Five years on, in May 1999, the airport opened, with the second longest runway in India and a host of other state-of-the-art facilities. Yet the majority shareholder, the State government, has until recently hindered rather than helped the airport's growth: it kept acting as a brake on professional management practices. Thankfully, this mindset is changing - and the airport may soon become India's best such facility.

Getting from the airport to the seaport in Kochi is still a 45-minute ride - something that will change when the 30-km-long four-lane expressway, being steered by the Roads and Bridges Development Corporation of Kerala (RBDCK) with help from the Union Transport Ministry and Commerce Ministry, is completed. The first stretch of 13 km, built at a cost of Rs.28 crores, is almost ready.

The World Bank is assisting in the widening of one of Kerala's most historic roads - the Main Central Road, or MC Road, conceived and created by Diwan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar as the main north-south artery of the former Travancore state. Running from Kottarakkara to Kalady, the road slices through the productive heartland of the State and provides a much-needed alternative to the coastal national highway.

The development of the State's inland water transport arteries has become a now-on-now-off affair, and even two decades after the stretch from Kollam to Kotapuram was declared a National Waterway, there is little traffic except in a few navigable stretches. Nor is there much scope to develop an inland sea route, linking the coastal towns with a swift boat or hovercraft service.

IN some respects though, Kerala's traditional strengths and skills are providing the much-needed development muscle - albeit not in strictly quantifiable terms. Kerala-based banks typically offer three services: retail, corporate and non-resident Indian (NRI). The last is an important component: it forms 35 per cent of the deposits with the Catholic Syrian Bank, which has cannily positioned itself to answer NRI needs for buying real estate and houses back home. Lord Krishna Bank, another well-known name in Kerala, with a tradition of more than 60 years, has tied up with Western Union to help NRIs arrange quick remittances to their loved ones back home. In addition, it has arrangements with leading exchange houses in West Asia for the less well-heeled NRI. "I have to make the retail customer the centre of all my development plans - I have no option in the matter," says Lord Krishna Bank's Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer R.M. Nayak. In recent weeks the bank has started a customer friendly gold loan scheme where the entire paperwork is reduced to one sheet of paper. The Federal Bank became the first of the traditional Indian banks to go the Internet way by launching Net-based retail banking services almost three years ago.

And in things that are dear to the Malayalee heart, like the coconut and its myriad products, lay another opportunity for generating a more modern techno-commercial muscle. Today, the Coconut Development Board can boast of having steered public taste towards dried coconut milk powder and bottled coconut milk and coconut water, and having helped dozens of private players to put such products on the shelves of supermarkets worldwide. It is a fact not widely known that while coconuts are grown in 18 States and three Union Territories, Kerala's acreage and produce (over 900,000 hectares and over six billion nuts annually) account for half the nation's cultivation and yield.

Kerala's rich resource in spices is one reason why the Spices Board is headquartered in the State, in Kochi. The Board has brought professionalism to the business of marketing Indian spices abroad by harnessing the Internet for the purpose, bringing out attractive CD-based reference material and generally putting Indian spice products on the shelves of gourmet shops and the godowns of bulk importers.

The Kottayam-based Rubber Board too has had a salutary effect on an industry that has a unique characteristic: while India is the world's Number 3 producer of rubber, the overwhelming majority of growers are small or marginal players. To them the difference between Rs.40 and Rs.25 a kg of rubber is the difference between survival and starvation. Although the Rubber Research Centre has come up with a composition where bitumen used for road surfacing can be improved with just 2 to 4 per cent of latex rubber and has even worked with Kochi Refineries Ltd to create a product based on the mix, there has been no large-scale acceptance of the technology. In the 15 years since the first kilometre stretch of road between Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram was rubberised, hardly 50 km was treated. Even now, rubberisation of roads is not popular in the State.

The presence of institutions such as the Rubber Board, the Coconut Development Board, the Spices Board, the Cashew Export Promotion Council, the Coir Board, the Marine Products Export Development Authority, all within a three-kilometre radius, has made Kochi the commodity and plantation capital of the country. Add to this the string of government research organisations dealing with all aspects of marine research, and you have the makings of a convention capital - hardly a week passes without at least one national or international conference on some esoteric subject.

The hospitality industry has been quick to cash in on this knowledge boom. For long the International Hotel just off Kochi's Mahatma Gandhi Road, was the favoured address with facilities to host a conference of 300 delegates or more. Its banquet hall continues to get perennial bookings - but now there are others as well. Three years ago the Avenue Regent Hotel started a dedicated Avenue Centre and its general manager, Joseph Peter, says conferences and receptions are a year round activity at the centre.

Towering over this `hospitable' scene is the giant crane of the Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), possibly the best-equipped Indian ship-building facility. The decline in the global market for super tankers at a time when CSL's facilities were peaking proved disastrous. But in the decade or more since then, the yard has nimbly reinvented itself as a premier repair and refitting facility, to stay afloat. Recently, it joined hands with KSIDC in a Rs.65-crore project to build a technology park in Kochi.

A land of fabled beauty, Kerala had, however, lost out in the development race, thanks to its complacency. A laid-back lifestyle and a predilection to get lyrical about achievements mean poor equipment when the race is among a dozen Indian States, and the prize is national and international investment in key sectors of development.

But recent months have seen a new firmness of purpose in Kerala-based institutions, which directly or indirectly contribute to the State's economic development.

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