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Why not diplomacy through business?

Legendary cricketer Imran Khan led his party Tehreek-e-Insaf to victory in the recent elections in Pakistan. Despite ups and downs, he worked tirelessly to expand his political base and emerged victorious. His relationship with the army was cordial. His familiarity with India and popularity as a cricketer should be leveraged to push back decades of hostility and build friendly relations.

A succession of Indian leaders in recent decades had endeavoured to improve relations. Special mention should be made to the efforts of Atal Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh in trying to push back the bitterness. However, things had not improved much.

Over three decades ago IE suggested approaching the issue through trade. We reasoned that man is primarily an economic animal and thus the idea of working on shared economic interests had greater prospects for success. We pointed to the centuries of hostilities among major European nations transformed with such an effort after the Second World War. Until that war, no two countries of Europe so fiercely opposed each other as did Britain and France or Germany and Britain. There were centuries of a bitter feud in conquering new territories and expanding their hegemony.

Post-1945 one witnessed a dramatic transformation. The boom aided by the US was built on cooperative economic engagement. Today there are free borders along most European nations. The Schengen visa provides for travel among 26 countries with a single visa. The EU has emerged a reliable counter to the dominance of the US and Japan and now China. Several European nations have opted for a common currency, agreeing for economic policies involving a substantial surrender of national sovereignty. The benefits were indeed immense in preparing Europe face competition from other industrial giants. Airbus Industrie is the most shining example of taking on the might of the US aerospace industry, successfully shooing out Lockheed and McDonald Douglas and posing a tough challenge to Boeing.

IE suggested such a cooperative approach between India and Pakistan taking along the other SAARC countries. The focus on economics and development would eliminate the traditional hostilities. Imran Khan can add a new dimension of sports diplomacy as well. In less than a decade entire south Asia can emerge a strong economic power. We have failed in tackling diplomacy through politics and politicians. Why don’t we try this through economics and business?

The city walks…

The periphery of a city expands. With the sea on the east, expansion of Chennai Metro happens in every other direction. In the early years, economic activity and concentration of population were confined to a few central business areas – George Town, Mount Road, Triplicane, Mylapore, Purasawalkam, Perambur and Saidapet… Development also took place along the railway corridors in the north, west and south. In the 1950s Adyar, Guindy, Mambalam, Vadapalani, Villivakkam were suburbs. Industries concentrated in the peripheries – Thiruvotiyur, Padi-Ambattur, Guindy and Pallavaram.
In 1991, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and the Times Research Foundation made a study on Madras 2011 looking ahead at the metro over the 20 year span with suggestions for planning over the medium term. As a resource person, my suggestions included:

  • Expanding the metro to a radius of 50 km,
  • Shifting industrial activities concentrated in the central parts of the metro like Mount Road, to the periphery like Maraimalai Nagar,
  • Focus on mass rapid railway systems – 100 km of surface/elevated and 100 km of underground railway.

Such plans were suggested for housing, roads and other infrastructure. With the change of the DMK government in 1991, these reports were shelved.
Political parties with their sights limited to their five-year tenures, did not focus on long-term planning. There was also often the conflict between the Central and the state schemes. These contributed to haphazard planning and reached saturation in very short time. I cite a few instances of the havoc caused and costs incurred:

  • Chennai started with the first of the elevated rail tracks, the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) in the 1980s. More than three decades later it is still bogged down with the land acquisition of a short stretch linking Velachery with St Thomas Mount. The immense convenience to the commuters of the Chennai metro by providing this link did not receive attention. Meanwhile, costs zoomed.
  • The cost and time overruns in the course corrections involved the construction of the Chennai metro rail. eg In designing the Kathipara flyover, the authorities did not initially factor the metro rail’s course from Ékkaduthangal to Alandur. Later, the height had to be increased making a mess of the aesthetic part of the area.
  • The elevated road project linking the Chennai and Ennore ports along the Cooum was caught in the crossfire of regional and national politics. Nearly a decade after commencement it is still in its initial stages.
  • Changes at CMBT and Koyambedu market.

A unified urban transport authority planned for years is yet to be set up. Happily one sees a lot of dynamism at the Chennai metro rail coming out with novel solutions to provide last mile connectivity from the railway stations to the habitats.

Decongesting CMBT, Koyambedu

With two brilliant officers – S Krishnan and Rajesh Lakhoni – involved in administrating CMDA, there are welcome new initiatives. A few weeks ago a proposal was made for expanding the metropolitan area. In this proposal, the Greater Chennai metro area will be expanded to 426 sq.km from the existing 176 sq.km. In this, large chunks of the city will be taken over from the adjoining districts of Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram. This will bring in a higher degree of cooperation in planning and executing large projects relating to infrastructure.

Revenues of Chennai Corporation need to expand manifold to improve the quality and quantum of services rendered. There are large-scale leakages and under-recoveries. The proposal to increase property tax is a measure in the right direction. Presently, a bulk of the expenditure goes for salaries, pensions, etc., There is the imperative to outsource several of the functions and also to take recourse to IT to economise on administrative costs.

The recent proposal to downsize The Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus (CMBT) and rationalise the operations of the Koyambedu market are welcome measures. It took several years to construct the CMBT and Koyambedu market. But with rapid urbanisation, the Koyambedu area is now at the centre of the metro!

With hundreds of buses plying from CMBT to the south, west and north, the metro suffers heavy congestion. With a further increase in population, the situation is bound to go out of control pretty soon. The CMDA’s plan to create three new bus terminals appears necessary and welcome.

• In this plan, buses proceeding north to AP and Telangana would operate from a new mofussil terminus at Madhavaram in the north on the grand northern trunk road on NH-16.
• Buses from southern districts will operate from Kilambakkam on the grand southern trunk road on NH-45.
• Efforts are being made to identify the required large parcels near Poonamallee for handling buses bound to west in the direction of Bengaluru aligned along with NH-4.

An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 passengers use the CMBT every day and around 2500 mofussil buses operate through the CMBT daily. The ample space vacated would come ideal for re-organising the metro bus transport system.

Simultaneously, the wholesale market at Koyambedu contributing to heavy truck traffic for bringing fruits, vegetables and flowers. There are around 3000 shops with half of these selling fruits and flowers. The market is poorly maintained with garbage clearance an issue. It is proposed to shift the wholesale trade from Koyambedu. This step will de-congest Koyambedu by keeping away hundreds of trucks.

Remember, the Central business district suffering a substantial movement of buses and trucks until 2002 when the CMBT and the Koyambedu complex became operational? But within two decades vehicle movement and concentration of passengers have created huge traffic problems. The CMDA’s plan, thus, is welcome and needs to be implemented with speed.

Such exciting things are also happening at the airport. The old airport sandwiched between the new domestic and international terminals inaugurated in 2013 is being reconstructed. When completed three years hence, the Chennai airport will be prepared for handling 25 million passengers per annum.

I have suggested the state looking at the possibilities of getting the army relinquish vast areas occupied by it in Meenambakkam-St Thomas Mount-Pallavaram to facilitate the expansion of the airport. The vast open space east of the airport can be an ideal space for parking, hotels… Nirmala Sitharaman as Defence Minister can appreciate better the need for this. Large new parcels of land could be allotted elsewhere. Of course, the metro needs a new airport for taking care of future needs.

It is Sri’s (Goddess Lakshmi’s) City indeed

Sri City recently celebrated the first decade of its operations. Under the lead of Ravindra Sannareddy, Sri City has made spectacular growth in such a short period.

Decades ago Tamil Nadu offered special incentives for setting up industrial units at Hosur on the border of Karnataka. Riding on the urban amenities of Bengaluru, Hosur recorded quick and massive growth. Sri City has a similar record: situated in Andhra Pradesh across the northern border of Tamil Nadu, it offers excellent developed infrastructure. Thousands of acres were acquired by Sri City and in quick time Reddy and his team provided developed land on a long-term lease on attractive terms. Over 175 companies from 27 countries including multinationals like Kellogg’s, Isuzu, Mondelez, Pepsi, Alstom, Kobelco, Foxconn and Danieli are located at Sri City. Imaginative marketing and rich support by the AP government right from the chief minister have made Sri City among the fastest growing industrial centres.

The location right on the grand northern trunk road enjoys proximity to the Chennai metro, capital of Tamil Nadu and Amaravati, the new capital of AP, fast taking shape. With the dynamism of AP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, the area is receiving massive attention. The government had announced multi-lane high-speed highway connectivity between Amaravathi and Anantapur, which is bound to attract many component manufacturers to feed the Korean Kia Motors.

Sri City has more attractions: the proximity to three large ports in the south – Chennai Port, Ennore Port and Adani’s (L&T) container port at Kattupalli; and the other large port at Krishnapatnam in the private sector in the northeast. Export units are bound to receive competitive terms from these ports. Sri City has an enviable mix of multinational and large national industrial units, engineering, management and other higher educational institutions and medical facilities. Copious supplies of water and power are other attractions.

More than all these is the thrust and dynamism of Ravindra Sannareddy who opted to return to India after enjoying a lucrative career in the US.

A loss for the government, but a gain for society

He was the nodal officer for Tamil Nadu’s Global Investors’ Meet 2015. Months ahead he set up a countdown clock at the office of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu. On the forenoon of every Monday he used to conduct meetings of dozens of officials/institutions involved in the conduct of GIM; with clock-like precision, he used to handle these with PERT and CPM charts.

In close coordination with his boss, Additional Chief Secretary, CV Sankar, Dr Vijay Pingale made a significant contribution to the success of the first GIM.
Pingale belonged to the TN cadre of IAS. In his earlier tenure as deputy commissioner (works) of the Corporation of Chennai, he boldly tried to tackle the corruption and shady work of civil contractors. With the use of technology, he closely monitored the quality of civil works and took penal action on the corrupt contractors. Of course, the contractor-lobby succeeded in getting him shifted from the Corporation. The institutionalised system of corruption is so deep-rooted that it defies attempts at reforms.

In a meeting IE organised to felicitate the GIM team, I expressed the wish for Pingale getting shifted to Delhi. This happened! Pingale worked as the private secretary to the then Minister of Railways, Suresh Prabhu. With Prabhu, he moved to Udyog Bhawan when the Minister’s portfolio changed to commerce and industry. In my visit to Delhi, I admired the long hours of efficient work put by Pingale in meeting the exacting demands of his office. The load increased further with Prabhu entrusted with the additional portfolio of civil aviation.

This qualified MBBS doctor is quitting the IAS to join a NGO. His wife is a practising doctor. Pingale’s rich experience is bound to be of even higher value to society as an efficient, conscientious leader.

She carried the mantle of music maestro SR…

The centenary of music maestro Sangita Kalanidhi S Ramanathan (SR) was celebrated last year. Geetha Bennett and other siblings led by SR’s son-in-law HMV Raghunathan presented a brilliant audio-visual on SR. This was followed by a scintillating veena concert by Geetha.

SR, the great teacher, did extensive research in Carnatic music particularly pann isai. Proficient both in vocal music and veena, he groomed Geetha both in veena and in literary pursuits. She accompanied her father when he taught at the Wesleyan University, USA; married to Frank Bennett and settled down in Los Angeles.

I recall a long evening spent at the Bennetts’ at LA along with my wife Padma (who was SR’s student along with Geetha) listening to the soulful poems of Subramania Bharathi popularised by his illustrious father like ¸¡Ä¡!¯ý¨É ¸¡Ä¡ø ¯¨¾ì¸¢§Èý Å¡¼¡! â§Ä¡¸ÌÁ¡¡¢ «Á¢÷¾ á½¢…. Trichur Narendran provided percussion support with Frank and son young Anand pitching in. Geetha was a prolific writer and developed a large following for her contributions to popular Tamil weeklies. After a valiant fight for 25 years, she succumbed to cancer. One will miss her concerts and wholesome laughter in the December seasons.

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