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Friday, June 27

The lesson not learned...

Its an all too familiar situation if you are in Kerala at the moment. Yeah, there is a typhoon swirling across the state, a political one as always, and the storm originating in the teacup(again, as usual).

The calmest part of a storm is said to be the eye, and the adjective is easily adorned to the center of the present controversy: Page 24 in the History textbook, Class VII, Kerala Syllabus.

Ok, so before I go on about what I feel in this case, here are some excerpts from some of the social bloggers I take seriously...I've long back ceded relying on print & visual media to catch a glimpse of the true state of affairs, and blogosphere is the last arena where you can see some honest and open opinions.

Just as I was fretting over the vacuum in the versatile Kerala blogspace about this affair, Talkies guru Brahmaprakash Narayanan detailed out the matter, for the first time for me to understand what the turmoil was all about.

Insights into the matter were given by Kerala Tips, in a revealing mirror image twin posts. Make sure you read the corrected second post before the original opinion. Ajay Prasad, who seldom writes anything without "Trivandrum" in it, has his say here, and is surprised himself by the response he received for an off-topic. I've gone through the posts of Kenny Jacob and a few other related ones and found them all supporting the chapter.

Now here is the eye of the tempest, anglicized.

The setting is the principals office, where the kid, Jeevan appears with his parents.

Principal: “What is your name?”

Principal: “Good name...father’s name?”
“Anwar Rasheed''

Principal: "Mother’s name?”
“Lakshmi Devi”

The Principal raises his chin & looks at the parents

Principal: “What should I fill in for the kid’s religion?”
Parents : “Keep it blank…or else add No Religion”

Principal: “What about Caste?”
Parents : “not needed”

The Principal leans back on his chair and asks seriously.

Principal: “What if he wants a religion when he grows up?”
Parents : “If he feels he needs a religion, he is free to choose the one he likes then”

I'm damn sure about my feelings in this case.. This lesson needs to be taught... Taught in such a way that the kids never lose the lesson in it.

Now back to the outburst itself. This seemingly innocuous prose managed to kick up such vehement hostility among a large section of the public. All the religious organisations and political parties joined hands against the Govt accusing this as a definite attempt to instill Communism and atheism in juvenile thoughts.

The Education Ministry, though boldly rubbishing the allegations, stands in deep waters. The interests of all the players in this drama are temporarily aligned. It turned out that there was a well-disguised backup to this chapter in a series of sessions & workouts in the textbook, which brings the intentions of the Govt under scrutiny. Check out the following excerpts from the same text book:

This time the setting is an agitation against a typo landlord, who has a car and a big bungalow. There is a group shown as agitating against him. A motorist is watching the scene.

The group: Stop letting the fields remain without harvest.

Landlaord: I'll do whatever I like in my paddyfield...may fill it...leave it barren or will construct a building. I'm a free citizen of India.

The Motorist:(at the agitators) don't these people have any other job?

The textbook asks the students: How will you respond to social situations like these?

Here is a very evident attempt to promote the commie ideas of ''vettinirathal'' and ''anti-feudalism protests''. But for Gods sake where does feudal landlords exist in Kerala now? And it is a dangerous attempt to create more futile citizens like we have in DYFI and the likes now. Please allow at least the next generation of Keralites to come out of the hole???

There is another instance in the textbook when a guy apparently hails India's present day economic development, but immediately it is compared to India's progress under the British regime...

Guy 1: Whatever, British rule was a class in itself. Everything had a proper arrangement.

Guy 2: What are you telling? Even if it was for 2 days, didn't Mukesh Ambani become the wealthiest man in the world?

Now how vicious is that appearing to be?? This essentially provides opportunity for interpretations as a deliberate way to turn young minds against big-gun Industrialists..

Throughout the textbook there are passages about ''social equality'' and ''freedom''. We know where this water flows to...I'm not arguing that there shouldn't be social equality and freedom, but Communism is the last thing you'd need to create that.

Nowhere in the 4.6 billion years of Mother Earth's history has a Communist setting provided the above social qualities.. As a contrary check out the major red-zones of the world; you will clearly see what is meant by anarchism. Just look at China, North Korea and co...

The textbook also hails Gowri Amma's historic speech in the Assembly(oops...Gowri Amma, of all people!), Channar & Kayyur rebellions(have a clue what it is?) , land reforms, liquor and land mafia and other touchwood communist ideologies. Compare to the Gandhiji & Nehru speeches, Freedom struggles and other historic rebellions we were taught as kids. Now perhaps we could teach them Geography of Cuba and Chinese language in schools, eh?

And at the end of it all the lesson in page 24 appears. Innoxious, as it is in itself, but read it with the whole will find a well-written story unfolding.

No wonder the Congress is on strike. They are the only guys who are desperate to get this textbook out of the schools, and they got strong and effective allies: their traditional strongholds, the Church & the Muslim League. Sadly, the 2 latter groups doesn't know what they are fighting for, because the chapter in itself doesn't proclaim atheism or communism.

In other words, the chapter must be taught! No confusions about that. Let the children learn what is the true meaning of ''secularism''. Let them understand that India is a secular state, meaning a no-religion state; and not a state where all religions are considered equally. Many of the most secular nations of the world provide a 'No Religion' option for their citizens, and its high time that we adopt such forward ideologies. C'mon, we don't need a brand to trust in God, do we? And did someone tell that social rot occurs if one doesn't have religion? mmmm... Santhosh Madhavan, Osama Bin Laden & George Bush did so much on behalf of their own religions. Are they doing the world a whole lot of good?

Allow the individual to have a say about his religion, let it be one of his personal rights. But in a country where parents & society decide what the child studies, whom to become, how, when and whom to marry and when to reproduce, this thought will take some time to go in...

So what about the landlord, Ambani, Gowri Amma and Kayyur saga in that book? Well, press that 'delete' button please...quick!


Saturday, June 14

Sunrise at Vizhinjam

Now before I start writing up some crap about Vizhinjam, I've an honest confession: I have as good knowledge about seaports, harbours and their technicalities as a fisherman would have about software..

But that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm to find out more about why this place 'Vizhinjam' , 16km southwest of Trivandrum would rewrite the horoscope of Kerala Capital, and who knows , the whole nation as a fact.

The concept layout

You would've nudged into very few optimistic souls even in Trivandrum if you spoke about 'Vizhinjam', a few years back...At a time when Vizhinjam featured only on election manifestos once every 5 years and appeared as single column news somewhere inside regional newspapers.

But how things have changed, and quick!!

Vizhinjam International Container Transshipment Terminal(VICTT) or simply the Vizhinjam Seaport (as we will call here) has grown up from a regional patriotic's dream to a megaproject enticing the attention of the nation. The project worth 8000crore INR is all set to become a reality with the Hyderabad based Lanco Infrastructures awarded the contract to own the pie.

The Project

Ok, its simple...Vizhinjam is envisaged as a Transshipment Terminal, meaning a port where you transfer the containers to land. It was a surprise to me to learn that majority of containers to India were actually transshipped from Colombo and Singapore as
Vizhinjam port plan
Indian ports didn't have enough draft to sustain big vessel loads. So Vizhinjam would be sharing its job with JNPT, Mumbai(the other major container terminal in India) and Vallarpadam, Cochin, but will be possessing some serious advantages over both in terms of handling capacity, depth of water both in the channel and at berth and low Operational & Maintenance costs r/t dredging.

The plan is to reclaim nearly 600 acres from the sea to build the breakwater and the necessary port facilities. So that erases the need for population displacement, a thorn in many project plans.

Connectivity isn't going to be a big headache as well. The NH 47 Bypass passes just 2km from the project site, and a flyover is planned from Mukkola Jn, Kovalam to Vizhinjam site. A rail link to Balaramapuram, 8 km away on the Trivandrum-Kanyakumari broadguage line is also envisaged.

Vizhinjam Port site (Pic courtesy Ajay Prasad)

The capacity of the port is deemed at 6.5 million TEU/ year. A TEU or 20 foot equivalent unit is the size of a standard container(20ft X 8ft), so 6.5 million is a handsome figure when you find out that the whole of India handles only 4.6 million TEU an year! Compare with Shanghai, where the number is 5.5 m TEU or Singapore, the numero uno with a staggering 23.2m TEU!! Jeez...

So numbers aside, if Vizhinjam possessed all these potential then why the heck did it take 60 odd years to draw attention to itself??

The History

Vizhinjam dream dates back to pre-democracy era. The erstwhile Travancore Royals nourished plans to build a 6 km channel (something like Seuz channel perhaps) connecting the Arabian Sea to Vellayani lake, thereby turning their kingdom into a port city. Unfortunately, the advent of democracy and the resulting shift of loyalty sealed the fate of this vision. For over 50 years the port project remained in paper, thanks to the lack of interest of regional politicians and active lobbying of adjacent ports in & outside the state.

To be honest, in a democratic set up 'lobbying' is not an obscene word, the alignment of interests are often in conjecture with the party on the seat of power. But often such regional lobbying ends up with the State as a casualty. The potential of this jewel of a harbour evaded the blind (or closed) eyes of the decision makers for a
variety of reasons. The powerful business houses of Central Kerala, which relies on the growth of Cochin Harbour feared a plunge if Vizhinjam materialized. The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu sprung up plans to develop a harbour on the same lines just a few nautical miles south of Vizhinjam, at Kolachel. With a mangle-like grip at the Centre, and with the Ministry of Shipping in its pocket, the Tamil Ealam ministers projected a constant threat for the project. Worse was the local resistance against it, with the Port project apparently threatening to shake the foundations of the thriving tourism and fishing industries in Kovalam. And to crown it all, the lackluster attitude of the leaders, media and public towards the project made it a non-starter.

But not for the will and determination of some live wires, Vizhinjam would almost certainly have remained as such. When this port becomes a reality, one person needs a
special hug, for fighting a lone battle against all odds to keep this project alive. An old Communist arrogant from Kannur, Mr. M.V. Raghavan. It was heartening to see MVR toiling for Vizhinjam with his mearge resources, when other Trivandrum born politicians were sleeping on top of it. His works were followed up by Mr. M. Vijayakumar, who presently hold the Ports & Harbour portfolio. The toughest job, however, was done by a group of enthusiasts named Trivandrum Development Front(TDF) , Janapaksham and co. They did the groundbreaking job of optimizing public knowledge about Vizhinjam, and gathering local support, absolutely essential for any project of such magnitude and character in Kerala.

The media, at last got involved in the project, and guess what; in a positive way!!(Whew...) Accolades to Kerala Kaumudi in particular and Asianet, who created an aura around the project. Vizhinjam has featured on National and Int'l media and now its upto the GoK to make sure the sleeping giant remains awake...and goes to work.

A banner by TDF

The Govt has been careful in evaluating the bids submitted by the International Consortium as it would be unpardonable to allow history to repeat itself. In the 90s the tender was awarded purposely to a clueless and unlisted Kumar Group just to sabotage the project. Last time when everything came through, the Chinese partners of the successful Zoom Builders happened to be the hoodoo.

The ???s

A few reservations raised about the project would be the agonizingly poor industrial background of Trivandrum. SEZ's and manufacturing based industries need to flourish in and around Trivandrum. Even in Cochin, 90% 0f the goods handled are petroleum products to and from the refinery. The cost of transferring empty containers back to the base port will be same as that of shipping them here, and so competition would become tough for Vizhinjam in spite of all the God-given blessings.

What Vizhinjam must take into its head is that there is a big difference between a Harbour and a Port...Some of the finest harbours in the world seldom see a ship, whereas the busiest Ports are the ones associated with great industrial cities..So Vizhinjam will have some homework and backing up to do!

Rotterdam Harbour

Again as a fair point, Tirunelveli SEZ is just at the backyard of our Ghats and Trivandrum has always been a sister city for them. And the proposed shipbuilding yard on the West Coast of India, if commissioned in Poovar, would be a shot in the arm as well.

It remains to be seen as to how the beach & backwater tourism would react to a shouldering Commercial harbour. Kovalam is well known globally, so lets hope the charm prevails.. There has been a few concerns for the resorts as their sea-view would be eclipsed by the port. Oil spillage and pollution associated with hulk-vessels may rob Kovalam of its blue pristine waters.

But the picture below has signs of an impending upside to these worries... The cruise ship
Cruise ship at Vizhinjam (pic courtesy Ajay Prasad)
seen decked here in the existing fishing harbour could turn the bane to boon for the hospitality industry! The tourism circles of Trivandrum could take a headleap if Kovalam can promote itself as a Cruise destination, courtesy Vizhinjam...

Still I would like to see Vizhinjam develop as how it is planned to be, and there would be a chill of disappointment if these shores are compared to Seychelles instead of Singapore...

The Status

Vizhinjam bids have been awarded to Hyderabad-based Lanco Infratech Limited's consortium with Pembinan Radzai Sdn Bhd (PRSB), Malaysia. Nearly 2400 crores will be pumped in for the first phase which would be ready for action by 2013. The remaining 3 phases would be completed in a phased manner, rocketing the investment to over 8000 crores, making it the single largest infrastructure project in Kerala.

The Lanco consortia would operate the terminal for 33 years, and then it would become the jewel in Kerala Govt's assets...And of course by that time, hopefully, Trivandrum would feature in the port-of-call lists of the colossal Emma Maersk, TI Oceania or the elegant Queen Mary II...

Look, my dreams have started to take wings as well!

Wednesday, June 4

MG Road: Gearing up for the boom

I still remember the first time I visited the main shopping street of Trivandrum, the MG Road.

I liked the avenue for many many reasons...For me, a 5 year old boyyie at that time, going to MG Road and East Fort meant going to 'Trivandrum' ; because the glitz and glamour associated with the city in my mind, the Secretariat, toy and sweet shops, the big bus stand, East Fort, theatres and hotels...all existed on this street.

Also this was the route the double-decker bus took. I was so fascinated by the jumbo-bus that my dad used to take me in it from East Fort to Pattom(the double decker serviced the Medical College route in the 80s) and then retrace back to our home at YMR, Nanthencode.

Not to mention the glitzy lighting of the buildings, the crowd and the shopping fest during Onam!

So it was the MG Road which conditioned my mind to love city life...and Trivandrum.

And as years went by I learned that all major cities had their main shopping avenue named after the Father of the nation. So MG Road essentially was the showcase of any big city.

Unfortunately in Trivandrum, the advantages have turned detrimental when it came to the development of MG Road. The location of the seat of power, the Secretariat, meant that this road would be chronically infested with all kinds of agitations and gimmicks against the Govt. There is seldom a day without strikes, marches, rallies and dharnas, clogging up the street. This would also turn into a battlefield on a wrong day, and the business establishments along the avenue would pay the price.

MG Road was also a testimonial to the cruel treatment meted out to the capital city by various Governments. Almost 50 years after the formation of the state, this arterial avenue of the State HQ contended with 2 lane carriageway for most of its length(except for the Overbridge- EastFort stretch). The picture becomes clearer when you learn that it didn't even have a decent footpath for the shoppers. And about the parking space, the less said the better.

So thanks to our inspiring leaders, the growth of the MG Road stagnated, and businesses started to desert the avenue for greener pastures. Pattom- Kesavadasapuram Road(seen here) became
a hot spot and many business establishments focused on this avenue to enhance their potentials. All major electronics and retail shops have opted for the Pattom road, and the Jewellery showrooms are following suit.

All the same, it is good for Trivandrum as a growing city, but doesn't the arterial road in the name of Mahatma Gandhi deserve better treatment?

Well, that's exactly what is happening now.

Better late than never, the MG Road is now undergoing a radical cosmetic surgery 'threatening' to make it one of the premium stretches of land in the state. Shopping will be turned into a pleasure pretty soon in Trivandrum after the redevelopment works are over along this arterial road.

The 3.5 km long MG Road from LMS to Attakulangara is revamped completely with all the amenities of a modern commercial street. It will have a 6-lane carriageway, 2m wide footpaths on either side, bus bays, central median with streetlamps, cable ducts and drains and intelligent traffic management technologies.

Start of MG Road: LMS Jn

Traffic on MG Road would be streamlined by automatic signal systems on 13 junctions. The signal system would encompass the VATMS technology (Vehicle Activated Traffic Management System), meaning that you will not be stuck at consecutive junctions. Signal lamps would be erected at the following intersections:

Martyr's Jn
VJT Hall
Spencer's Jn
Secretariat North Gate
Statue Road Jn
Secretariate South Gate

GPO Jn(Pulimoodu)
Ayurveda College Jn
East Fort(Gandhi Park)

The underpass at Martyr's Column Jn and a flyover at Powerhouse Road Jn are constituents of the inner ring road, which will intersect MG Road at the two ends. Moreover this 4 lane road would make up a parallel for the MG Road, enhancing the traffic entry and exit.

Old dilapidated crumbling structures are pulled down to make way for modern commercial structures. The 7 storied Kerala Lotteries Building (Pothen's building) and the Kesari Building are history now. 2 malls by Nikunjam and Trinity are going Nikunjam Mall u/c on MG Road
to take shopping experience to the next level. Homegrown establishments like Naaz, Premier and Kulatunkal are in the process of shifting to their swanky new buildings. Muthoot Group is demolishing their cinema halls just off the MG Road(Kripa & Dhanya/Ramya) for Multiplexes. Developers who have shied away from MG Road are now vying for a chunk of land. New hotels and commercial complexes will soon be propping up all along the stretch.

The aesthetics of the avenue would also be augmented once the redevelopment is completed. Gandhi Park is already a green dot on MG Road, a hideaway in the heart of the city. TRIDA has plans to develop a public plaza inside the Saphalyam Complex and Putharikandam will soon metamorphose into a gorgeous landscaped park with all public amenities. The bus stand at East Fort will soon disappear and the vintage beauty of the Fort will be a charming backdrop. A paved or landscaped footpath and road divider would add to the charm of the avenue...

So 2-3 years from now, Trivandrum would own a business avenue it would would be proud of!

But not without a few bits & pieces that require immediate attention. The chaotic political exhibitions in front of the Secretariat continues to be a pain in the a**. Common man and businesses will continue to suffer if this menace isn't chained promptly. These gimmicks make a laugh out of the numerous court orders and restrictions against demonstrations on MG Road.

Parking certainly has the potential to be a teething problem along this avenue. At present only 4 lane traffic is possible on the 6-laned Overbridge-East Fort stretch because one lane on either side is gobbled up for parking. New commercial complexes should not be permitted without ample parking space. Parking plazas could be built making use of the Govt properties inside Saphalyam, Ayurveda College and Attakulangara, instead of encroaching into prime commercial land. The feeder roads to MG Road like Press Road, Dhanya-Ramya Theater Road, Thakarapparambu Road et al should be expanded to accommodate parking space. Moreover the authorities have shown the sense to incorporate parking lots in the redesigned Gandhi Park and Putharikkandam Ground.

redesigned Putharikkandam

The relocation of KSRTC Bus Depot in East Fort to the proposed Integrated City Bus Terminal in Attakulangara Bypass Road would free up more prime space for utilization.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to extend the MG Road to Manacaud, for another 1 km. To be honest it was a mystery to me why they decided to terminate the 6 lane at Attakulangara, for Manacaud Road is a virtual continuation of the MG Road. The Attakulangara Sub-Jail stands as another parasitic form of matter, locking up property worth crores to house goons.

Trivandrum is growing, faster...bigger... and taller...A showcase commercial street is a must for the aspiring business town and MG road must be well adapted to meet the challenges. For now things appear bright, and we the citizens of Trivandrum wish to see nothing less than a fascinating boulevard!