Saturday, February 07, 2009

Those turbulent years


Stints in a government company and as collector of Allapuzha were valuable lessons for V.J. Kurian. It enabled him to overcome the formidable odds in setting up the Cochin international airport

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1987, IAS officer V.J. Kurian was appointed as the managing director of the loss-making government concern, Oushadhi -- the Pharmaceutical Corporation of Kerala. The firm produced Ayurvedic medicine and had a workforce of 300. In his first week Kurian noticed that the workers used lignite to heat oil and medicinal plants.

However, during the noon break the workers would put out the fire, go for lunch, return after an hour, and restart it.

“I immediately realised it was such a waste of energy,” he says. Following discussions with the workers, Kurian set up a shift system, which prevented the fire from being put out. “Immediately, the productivity increased by 30 per cent,” he says. “Good management is all about common sense.”

Within a year the company started making a profit and has continued to do well ever since.

His next appointment was as the collector of Allapuzha. Near the Collector’s residence there was a large piece of land, on which lived several illegal occupants.

“I wondered whether we could construct a park for children in this area,” he says. He managed to get the encroachers rehabilitated on another plot and, with private partnership set up the Vijay Beach Park.

“These two stints were turning points in my life,” he says. “When you learn to deal with labour, managers and people, you become practical. And you are able to get off the high horse of being an IAS officer.”

In 1991, Kurian became the collector of Ernakulam. In December that year the chief secretary Padmakumar told him to go to Delhi, on his behalf, to attend a meeting called by the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

During the meeting, presided over by the late Minister Madhav Rao Scindia, it became evident that the sum of Rs 80 crore that was needed to increase the length of the runway of the Navy airport was an unviable proposition.

Scindia said, “Who is representing the government of Kerala?” Kurian identified himself. The minister said, “Let the collector find some land for building a new airport.”

After a few hiccups, Kurian identified the location at Nedumbassery and the airport authority gave its approval. Padmakumar then told Kurian to find a way to raise funds to build the airport.

One day in 1992, Kurian was passing through Allapuzha. “I saw the Vijay Park and suddenly thought to myself, ‘We should use the same concept of public-private partnership on a large scale to build the airport,’” he says.

That was when he got the idea of getting the Non-Resident Keralites to participate. “There are 20 lakh NRKs in various countries,” he says. “If only 4 lakh of them gave Rs 5000 each, that would amount to Rs 200 crore.”

He suggested the idea to then Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, who, though skeptical, said, “Go ahead, you are a young man!”

The Chief Minister’s support was a big boost for Kurian. However, even though he was appointed as a special officer for the airport by the state government, he faced obstacles everywhere. Instead of collecting Rs 200 crore from the NRKs, he only got Rs 5 crore. “My career was at stake,” he says. “At that time, except for the press, who supported me nearly 100 per cent of the time, the landowners, other stakeholders, politicians and the bureaucrats were all against me.”

He gives an example: When the idea emerged to float a co-operative society, Kurian wanted to call it the Cochin International Airport Society (CIAS). But the then Secretary, Transport, insisted it be called Kochi International Airport Society (KIAS).

Later, he told Kurian, “Do you know why I was keen on naming it KIAS? Because the project is doomed to fail. It will be a testimony to your foolishness and stupidity. If you expand KIAS, it is Kurian, IAS.”

The animosity hurt the young officer. At that time he had no money or staff and needed to acquire 1300 acres by shifting 835 families. He was about to throw in the towel, when C.V. Jacob, the managing director of Synthite Industries Ltd., said, “The easiest thing for you to do now is to run away.” Says Kurian: “That had a great impact on me.”

Thereafter, on March 30, 1994, a public limited company, Cochin International Airport Limited, was set up, with Kurian as the managing director and Karunakaran as the chairman.

The next pivotal moment for Kurian came when he was summoned to the Chief Minister’s house at Thiruvananthapuram one day, because the work at the airport was moving at a snail’s pace. “The chief minister shouted at me, ‘You are hopeless! You cannot do anything right.’”

He continued to yell. Kurian was about to walk away when the then Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president, Vayalar Ravi, who was also present, gave a reassuring tap to the shoulder of the bureaucrat and said, “All these setbacks are temporary, Kurian. There will come a time when everybody will praise you to the sky!”

A pacified Kurian stayed on to complete the project in 1999, a mere six years from start to finish, and Ravi’s prophecy came true.

Asked to analyse the psyche of Malayalis, Kurian, who is the chairman of the Spices Board, says, “The attitude of the people is always negative. This is more so when you want to start anything new. That is why it is so difficult to set up projects in Kerala.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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