"This is Ahmedabad where my father lived," gushed Sunita Williams nee Pandya to her half-a-dozen crew members on board the space shuttle Atlantis, thousands of miles away from the face of the earth.
It would have been an emotional moment for the Indian-American astronaut (her father Deepak Pandya had migrated to the US way back in 1958, and had acquired American citizenship a few years later). Williams, who plans to visit the city in the near future, would have also been pleasantly surprised to see the Sabarmati, which has been a dry riverbed for years now, flowing bank to bank.
If the Sabarmati has begun to meander once again, that's because the water is coming from the Narmada canal, courtesy the ambitious river-linking project of Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat. If Williams visits Ahmedabad in 2009, she'd likely see more development on both the banks of the river-commercial complexes, parks, walkways, along with houses for the poor, along the 11.5 km stretch on the Sabarmati riverbanks.
To be sure, the Sabarmati in full flow is an apt metaphor for the miracle that Modi has pulled off in making Ahmedabad a model for urban development. Wide roads, minimum traffic congestion and ample green spaces along with the new temples of modern India-malls, multiplexes and coffee shops -have given 35 lakh Amdavadis plenty to smile about. This is at a time when most Indian metros are creaking under their own weight.
And Modi it would appear has only begun his act. He's got a whole host of projects lined up that promise to put Ahmedabad on the global map. "We will try to emulate Amsterdam and Singapore in port development. Our roads will be as good as the Autobahns of Germany: Our IT/biotech parks will be comparable to Silicon Valley," beams the Gujarat CEO.
Unlike a few of his counterparts, Modi isn't selling empty dreams (like the Shanghai one). Over the next couple of years, a clutch of projects will transform Ahmedabad into a first-class city with first-class infrastructure. Just one of these unique projects is a bus rapid transit system (BRTS) with a high-speed dedicated corridor for ac CNG buses that will ply a 55-km stretch. A longer-term project is the ambitious Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (gift), an international finance city.
The Infrastructure Thrust: Ahmedabad and Surat are getting a facelift.Ahmedabad
Sabarmati Riverfront Facelift: Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL) is developing a 11.5-km stretch on both banks of the river along the city, which will have commercial complexes, parks, walkways and also houses for the poor. The first phase of the project that was initiated in 1997 (though work started in 2004) is complete and the project is expected to be completed by December 2009.
BRTS: The Bus Rapid Transit System is a high-speed dedicated corridor for AC CNG buses to ply on a 65-km stretch. In the first phase of this Rs 600-crore project, the tenders for the 22.5-km has been floated. BRTS is likely to be completed in December 2009
Kankaria Lake Facelift: New concrete structures are coming up around the lake. There is a provision to run a toy train around the lake along with food plazas and other entertainment zones.
Multi-layer Fly Over Bridge: First of its kind with four flyovers crossing each other. The project, with an estimated cost of Rs 29 crore, will get completed in 18 months. The bridge is 2,505 metres long
Pylon Bridge: The cable-stayed twin pylon bridge (like Kolkata's Howrah Bridge) has been proposed near Tapti river joining Athwa and Adajan areas. The bridge is proposed to be 700 metres long. The bridge will have four lanes
Science Centre: Under construction, the total built-up area is about 17,000 sq metres. Will include a museum, an art gallery, a planetarium, an auditorium and an amphitheatre.
Some 230 km away, but still in Gujarat, another city is making waves. Surat, placed ideally in between the busy Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor and on the banks of the river Tapti, will soon have the first-of-its-kind multi-layer flyover bridge on Ring Road between Udhana Gate and Majura Gate.
The 2,505-metre multi-layer overbridge will have four flyovers crossing each other. The country's second longest flyover bridge-all of 2.7 km-is already operational at Varachha.
Today, Surat is one of the cleanest cities in India, thanks to initiatives like door-to-door garbarge collection and a bio-medical waste treatment plant-one of the very few in the country.
Says Pradipsinh Jhala, Deputy Municipal Commissioner, Surat Municipal Corporation: "We have emerged as the cleanest city because of such initiatives."
Clearly, it's not for nothing that these two Gujarat cities have been able to move up the rankings-from 8th to 7th and from 10th to 9th, respectively-in the BT-Synovate survey of the Best Cities for Business. That, in the bargain, they've been able to unseat two cities of Maharashtra-Pune and Nagpur-is noteworthy, and points to some visionary planning at the state and municipal levels.
Indeed the current year has seen special focus on infrastructure development, not just in Ahmedabad and Surat, but virtually in every nook and cranny of Gujarat.
"We are celebrating 2007 as "Nirman Gujarat" to improve the quality of life of the people by ensuring clean water, proper drainage facilities, cleanliness, and better roads," explains Modi. Reliable power (the concept of a generator is unheard of; even IIM-A doesn't bank on one), safe drinking water, and absence of potholes are just a few manifestations of commitment in the state.Gautam Adani, Chairman of the Ahmedabad-based Adani Group, has an interesting observation to make: "Unlike Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad, where infrastructure is collapsing because of population growth, the peripheral development of Ahmedabad is well planned to take the pressure of a growing population."
That's possible, say officials at the Municipal Corporation, because of township planning based on the ring road concept, with the outskirts linked with the cities like arteries.
"It is the rapidity of change in Ahmedabad that strikes anyone who visits the city," observes Bakul Dholakia, Director, IIM-A, who has been living in Ahmedabad for the last 32 years.
Dholakia, who is part of Gujarat Institute of Housing & Developers (GIHED) initiative to promote Gujarat 2020, says, one can cover a distance between the management institute at Vastrapur to the airport, a distance of 17-18 km, in just half an hour during the peak traffic.
"You can travel 400 km in Gujarat in half the time it would take in most other states. This speaks volumes of Gujarat's infrastructure," says Arvind Shah, a senior executive at an Ahmedabad-based firm.
"We are growing faster than some Asian economies"Fifty-seven-year-old Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, is an early riser (he wakes up at 5.30 am) and loves reading all the national dailies on the worldwide web. A tough taskmaster, Modi is known in the Gujarat bureaucracy as a man of action. His aim is to put Gujarat on the global map. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Associate Editor Anand Adhikari conducted at Modi's Gandhinagar office.
Gujarat is probably the only state witnessing a double-digit growth for a long time and also the only state growing higher than the country's 8-9 per cent growth. Which are the key growth drivers?
We are growing even faster than some of the Asian economies. The Planning Commission has given us the highest growth target of 11.2 per cent in the 11th Five Year Plan as compared to 10.2 per cent achieved during the 10th Plan. I would say labour harmony, infrastructure development, transparent policies and prudent State fiscal management have contributed to our growth. For instance, the man-days lost due to labour unrest in Gujarat is only 0.65 per cent as against 5 per cent in Maharashtra.
How would you say Gujarat compares with another fast-growing state, Maharashtra?
I do not wish to enter into any such comparison. My goal is to compare Gujarat's economic development with the growth rate of South East Asian tiger economies such as South Korea, Singapore and Thailand. Our goal is to even surpass the growth rate of China. In fact, Gujarat has the best example of balanced growth in the country.
Why is that agriculture growth lags behind, with services and industry dominating in their contribution to the state domestic product?
On the contrary, our agriculture growth is over 10 per cent which is well above the national average. Just a couple of years back, Gujarat's agricultural income was only Rs 9,000 crore; today it has gone up to Rs 34,000 crore. This income directly goes to farmers. We are also the first state in the country to start 'river grid' process. We have already linked close to two dozen rivers in Gujarat, while plans are under way to link some more rivers. You have to understand that Gujarat is a state that faces famine in seven out of 10 years. But with new initiatives like river-linking, water-harvesting, and a green revolution project, the state is making strides in the agricultural space. We have seen a 20 per cent increase in milk production in the last few years.
Is enough being done on the education front to complement the growing activity in services and industry?
In the last five years, the number of seats in professional courses has more than doubled. We have 14,161 degree and 17,670 diploma seats in engineering collages. IIT Powai is starting its branch in Gandhinagar.
You also have a vision to make Gujarat a global city. What are the benchmarks you have in mind?
We would try to emulate Amsterdam and Singapore in port development. Our roads will be as good as the Autobahns of Germany. Our chemical and petrochemical industry will be comparable to that of Japan; we are already in touch with the Japanese government for this. Our IT/BT (biotech) parks will be comparable to Silicon Valley.
Industry often complains about inadequate airport facilities. For instance, few international flights fly out of Gujarat.
Gujarat has the maximum number of airports. We have over a dozen airports. In fact, in the Kutch district alone we have as many five airports.
How do you look at Bharuch and Bhavnagar, cities that are increasingly attracting investments and employment?
Bharuch is emerging as an oil and gas, chemical and petrochemical hub in India. The industrial corridor project betwen Mumbai and Delhi will pass through Bharuch district.
Which are the cities that you expect to evolve into big cities of the future?
We have evolved a new concept of promoting 'twin cities' and radial development. For example: Surat-Navsari, Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar, Baroda-Halol, Rajkot-Jamnagar, Surendranagar-Vadhavan, and Valsad-Vapi. It's more like New York-New Jersey. We will create a new model of development. We expect nearly 50 per cent of the population of Gujarat to be living in cities in the next 10-15 years.
Do you think it makes sense to lift prohibition if Gujarat has to be promoted as a tourist destination?We will talk on this subject some other time.
Chicago of Gujarat: An international finance city is in the works, Call it Modi's GIFT to Gujarat:
Total cost: Rs 3,000 crore
Elements: An international financial city segment, a domestic finance segment, a technology park and an integrated township with ancillary support.
Developer: Gujarat Urban Development Company (GUDC) and Infrastructure Leasing & Finance Services (IL&FS)
Designer: East China Architectural Development Institute (Ecadi). Ecadi is famous for developing Shanghai, a well-known commercial city in China
Status: Modi laid the foundation stone in June this year
Project completion: Phase I of 25 million sq ft. by 2010
Interested corporates: Kotak Mahindra, Chescor Capital (investment banking firm from UK), Orix (integrated financial services group based in Tokyo), Sembawang Engineers and Constructors Pvt. Ltd. Singapore (subsidiary of Punj Lloyd) and Fairwood Associates (private sector project consultants)
If the cities of Gujarat appeal to the senses, it may have a lot to do with the futuristic nature of governance. For instance, at one time Ahmedabad used to be one of the most polluted cities in India. A switch to CNG as a fuel in the public transport system two years ago swiftly turned things around.
And projects like the BRTS have been blueprinted for Ahmedabad keeping in mind the future demands on the city. "In the next 20 years to come, Ahmedabad is not going to face the kind of traffic congestion one associates with big cities," declares Dholakia.
Meantime, the cities of Gujarat are also in sync with the rapid pace of change taking place in the entire country. Malls and multiplexes are mushrooming in the all the major cities.
Says Arvind Kumar, General Manager (projects) at Essar Hazira, which is 25 km away from Surat: "I visit Surat twice a week for shopping and watching movies. The city is clean, safe and looks good." The youth are finding attractive opportunities in fast-growing sectors like it and it-enabled services.
"The transformation of Ahmedabad started right from the collapse of textile mills; then came the emergence of the pharmaceutical sector; and now it and BPO are flourishing," believes Patel of Paras, who was born and brought up in Gujarat.
What many Gujaratis would be looking forward to is a relaxation of the prohibition decree. Amdavadis joke that their city may be dry outside, but it's wet at home.
"The lifting of prohibition could bring Rs 2,000-2,500 crore to the exchequer," says a government executive who didn't want to be identified. However, prohibition is one holy cow that few chief ministers would want to play around with, and even an aggressive reformist like Modi may think it foolhardy to attempt otherwise.