Infrastructure advantage

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Coimbatore boasts good roads, a high level of telecom connectivity and immense potential in IT, besides a district administration alive to its responsibilities in employment generation and agriculture.

INFRASTRUCTURE is the key to Coimbatore's industrial development. Good roads provide a major impetus to development. The length of surfaced roads per square kilometre is 0.44 km in Coimbatore district compared with 0.38 km for Tamil Nadu as a whole. Under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the district administration is trying to improve the rural road connectivity further. According to District Collector N. Muruganandam, 48 km of road was laid and improved in 2001 and 54 roads, totalling 148 km to link up 62 habitations, are to be laid or improved by 2004. Under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, all habitations with a population of between 500 and 1,000 are to be connected. Tribal areas are also to be linked.

A road length of 82 km of the Prime Minister's Golden Quadrilateral four-lane road project falls in Coimbatore district. According to Muruganandam, land has been acquired and the government has sanctioned staff for the project, which is to begin shortly.

Highly power-intensive, Coimbatore district draws 515 MW daily from the State grid. There are hydel units on the Sholayar and the Sarkarpathi in Pollachi and the Nellithurai in Mettupalayam. Consistent good quality power supply is available to the industrial units.

The per capita bank advance in Coimbatore district is double the State's average - an important reason for the birth and growth of small and tiny units. The recovery rate is also very high; for small units it is over 80 per cent, the highest in the State.

Telecommunication connectivity is of a high order in Coimbatore district, especially after the cellular phone revolution. There are four service providers. Over the last five years, the rate of cellular phone growth in Coimbatore has been double that of Chennai; monthly growth in the number of subscribers is about 40,000. According to Airtel general manager (sales and marketing) R.G. Vallath, cellular usage in Coimbatore has increased by over five times in the last five months. According to him, Coimbatore is poised for a telecommunication boom, and almost all cellular companies are now betting on the district. Bharti, Reliance and the Tatas provide basic services. According to Vallath, the savvy Coimbatorean expects much from cellular companies. Airtel recently introduced GPRS, or broadband connectivity, bringing to subscribers in Coimbatore the benefit of the Internet on leased lines. Airtel has a variety of packages for corporates and individuals.

BPL Mobile was the first such company to set up operations in Coimbatore and Tirupur, in 1997, and gradually awareness grew about the concept of cellular telephony. The high utility of cell phones was quickly grasped in the active region and sales picked up. But with operators such as Airtel and BSNL entering the fray, rates have fallen and customer service has become the buzzword.

According to R. Varadaraj, Principal General Manager, BSNL, though the penetration level - over 10 per 100 population - is double the national average, there is a possibility of even higher growth given that Coimbatore's industries are looking up and the city is fast emerging as a healthcare and educational hub of south India.

In spite of the presence of several players, Varadaraj is proud that BSNL's Cell One, the latest entrant into the market, has a customer base of 30,000 within a year of its launch. BSNL offers a number of facilities, including direct Internet access and leased circuit connections, to its Cell One users. He is confident that BSNL will grow by leaps and bounds as it has planned at least one telecom connection for every village at heavily subsidised rates and devised several special schemes. BSNL's advantages are the large area of operation, and profit is not the only driving factor. Among its future offerings are Internet Protocol-virtual Private Network, driven by the latest Multi-Protocol Label Switching Technology; answering machines; and SMS facility using fixed telephones.

Rated among the top four cities with a lot of potential for Information Technology by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Coimbatore is all set to take off on the IT front too. From software exports worth a mere Rs.2 crores in 1998, Coimbatore has now crossed Rs.100 crores - half of it from business process outsourcing (BPO) services. According to Muruganandam, the result of the feasibility study of making Coimbatore the IT destination has been encouraging; the study was done by the Government of Tamil Nadu along with the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Ministry of Information Technology. The State government has identified 15 acres to set up an IT park.

The IT effort got a boost from the PSG College of Technology - Science and Technology Entrepreneurial Park (PSG-STEP). Established in 1998 by the PSG College of Technology in association with the Department of Science and Technology and financial institutions, PSG-STEP aims to promote technology-based enterprises in the areas of software, electronic products, hi-tech mechanical products, eco-friendly textile products and biotechnology. According to executive director V. Raghavendra Prasad, PSG-STEP has established an IT incubator-cum-software park, the country's largest such venture attached to an educational institution. This facility has a VSNL international gateway (satellite earth station) for high-speed data communication with fibre links to Chennai and Kochi. Among PSG-STEP's activities are product development, calibration and testing facilities, consultancy services (technology studies, market research, techno-economic feasibility report, industry analysis and development of new technologies/products with focus on futuristic ideas), creating an information data bank and training in ISO 9000/TPM. Its other activities include prototype development, project funding, incubation facilities for start-up projects, and implementation from concept to commercial production.

V. Paramasivam graduated from PSG-STEP in 1999 to set up his own company, e-Brahma. Basically an offshore development company, e-Brahma has three dimensions: technology (embedded systems, networking, communication, Internet technology and so on); services (quality assurance and testing, consulting assignments, and remote monitoring and support); and domain (financial and manufacturing industries, telecom and healthcare services). The company employs over 65 people and is all set to ride high.

One of the largest BPO operations in Coimbatore is KG Information Systems Pvt. Ltd. (KGISL) from the KG group of companies, which meets the needs of 40 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies. According to KGISL managing director Ashok Bakthavatsalam, the company, with a built-up area of over 100,000 sq.ft., specialises in BPO. It contributed to over 35 per cent of all software exports from Coimbatore in the last three years, he said. Among its specialities are healthcare (medical transcription, coding and billing), engineering (high-end computer-aided design and simulation), postal automation (the only vendor in India), and media services (the largest in India).

Its software expertise includes e-governance solutions, work-flow management solutions, e-payment gateways and network management solutions. KGISL has a home STPI (first satellite earth station in Tamil Nadu) and an on-site residential complex. KGISL's speciality is that it trains and absorbs people from varied backgrounds (from school pass outs to post-graduates). It trains them in the English language, financial knowledge, typing, summarising and journalistic skills. The company is ISO 9001 certified for software services and ISO 9002 certified for engineering design services. It also has a Six Sigma rating in BPO. As a social responsibility, KGISL provides employment to the blind in medical transcription and has sponsored over 50,000 intra-ocular lens surgeries so far.

In this rainfall-deficient region, with groundwater depleted to alarming levels, wells of up to 300 ft (about 100 metres) and borewells up to 700 feet (about 235 m) are common. Aggravating the problem is the increasing use of water for non-agricultural purposes and pollution by a cement unit at Madukarai and dyeing units at Pallipalayam, Kumarapalayam and Tirupur. To mitigate this, rainwater harvesting is being implemented rigorously throughout the district. According to Muruganandam, for the past one and a half years the district administration has been into rainwater harvesting (in over nine lakh habitations, rooftop harvesting is done). It is cleaning up village ponds and digging new ones, besides desilting canals and check dams.

The district administration has chosen 10 villages under its 100 per cent sanitation coverage programme. Non-conventional energy sources (biomass gasifiers, aero-generators, nightsoil-based biogas plants, solar lights and so on) are to be used in these villages.

By merging all the poverty-alleviation schemes, the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana was implemented in the State. According to Muruganandam, this project aims to generate employment and add value to agriculture. The projects selected under the scheme are agro-based and range from coir making, pith making, dairying, sericulture and button mushroom cultivation to processing various farm produce. Hundreds of self-help groups for women have been set up and they are doing well, making inroads into courier service and direct marketing.

As many as 50 rural Internet kiosks are to be set up; 18 are running and another 16 are about to start operations.

Besides the physical infrastructure, Coimbatore's industrial units enjoy an almost unique support structure in the form of numerous industrial-commercial associations. The most important among these, with a wide reach and influence, is the Southern India Mills Association (SIMA), set up in 1933. Apart from training and educating member-mills on modern methods and conducting research on increasing cotton productivity, it supplies quality cotton seed developed in its own farm and ginned at its own facility. Providing further technical support to the textile industry is the South India Textile Research Association.

The Coimbatore District Small Scale Industries Association (CODISSIA) acts as a catalyst for small entrepreneurs, providing them national and international exposure by organising training programmes, seminars and fairs.

The South India Engineering Manufacturers Association (SIEMA) was set up in 1952 to represent and protect the interests of engineering industries. SIEMA's major achievement is that it created awareness about quality control among its members. The total number of BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) licensees in and around Coimbatore is over 300, the largest in a single region in the country.

The Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been safeguarding the interests of trade and industry in the region since 1929. It has over 1,500 members, including over 40 corporates and 100 associations, in the region.

Among the other major associations are the Coimbatore Management Association, the Coimbatore Small Foundrymen Association, the Small Industries Testing and Research Centre, the Foundry Owners Association and the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding.

A recent addition to the hospitality infrastructure is Hotel Alankar Grande, which offers the most modern facilities including laptop/PC connection in all its 62 rooms. It has five modern conference halls and a boardroom to woo IT companies and a lobby with an atrium that is four storeys high.

It is not all work for Coimbatoreans, who have the opportunity for their bit of play as well. In addition to a golf club, a water theme park and innumerable getaways to cater to Coimbatore's cosmopolitan population is the Kari Memorial Speedway (in memory of the pioneer of motor sports in India, S. Karivaradhan, who died in an air crash in 1995), promoted by LG Sports Pvt. Ltd. It is India's second "Grade 4 Formula Three" approved race track and a Grade A CIK spec with state-of-the-art facilities. The track is designed to hold multi-disciplinary motor sports events - from go-karting to circuit racing, auto cross, two-wheeler circuit racing and off-road racing. According to B. Vijayakumar, whose dream project this is, it is a 2.1-km race track which is spectator-friendly as almost all of the track can be seen from the viewing gallery. Says Vijayakumar: "LG has invested Rs.4.8 crores (including the cost of cars) and has got an excellent sports complex for the country."

There are also several fine arts clubs to cater to the musically inclined. For example, the Rajalakshmi Trust, set up to promote healthcare, education and fine arts, organises classical music and dance concerts regularly. It pioneered the concept of the "music season" (made famous by Chennai) in Coimbatore last year, where almost all top musicians of the country performed. The Trust recently started to record and release classical (Carnatic and Hindustani) music (vocal and instrumental) cassettes and CDs.

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