Monday, 23 February 2009

Cochin International Airport: a model for Kerala and India

Back in the 1980s, when I was in my early teenage years, I would go on holidays to Kerala, India, with my parents. We would invariably fly to Bombay in western India, and then take a domestic flight south to Cochin. I remember the small airport in Cochin well. After a flight adjacent to the Indian coastline, the aircraft would swoop down and upon landing, the pilot would immediately apply full reverse thrust and generous braking to slow the aircraft down, as the runway was short. The airport terminal was small; at best, it was capable of handling a couple of flights at any one time. When aircraft arrived or departed from the terminal, the building would reverberate with the sound of the jet engines, making conversation difficult. The airport was actually a naval airbase on Wellington Island that was converted for civilian use.

Everything changed at the end of the 1990s when a new, bigger airport was opened in Nedumbassery, 30km from Cochin city centre. The new airport, which replaced the old naval airport, was the result of a public-private partnership (PPP), with the government only having a minority stake. The government of Kerala, unable to provide funding for the entire project, sought private funding, and the response from Non Resident Indians (NRIs), who had long desired an international airport in Cochin to avoid having to take a detour via Bombay, was overwhelmingly positive. Nearly 10,000 NRIs from 30 countries contributed to the project. The total project cost Rs3.15 billion (about US$68.4 million), which was low cost compared to many other airports. This was the first time an international airport in India was built with only a minority (13%) central government stake.

Today, Cochin Airport is the fourth busiest airport in India in terms of international traffic, with passenger traffic continuing to grow. It handles more than 400 services in the domestic sector and more than 300 services in the international sector per week. It has a 3,400m long runway, which is the second longest in India, and besides Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, it is capable of handling all types of commercial aircraft including the Airbus A380. The duty free shops, which currently contribute a substantial amount of the airport revenues, have also earned the reputation of being amongst the lowest priced in the Asia-Middle East region. Recently the airport has opened one of the largest cargo centres in India, providing a major boost to the movement of perishable cargo from Kerala.

There are plans afoot by Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), the public company that owns the airport, to build an aerotropolis (airport city) around the airport. To fund this ambitious plan, CIAL will tie up with two international airport developers, and float 26% of its equity between April and December 2009. The aerotropolis project will develop 450 acres of land with a view to increasing non-aeronautical revenue. The aerotropolis will include, among other things, the following:

  • Aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility
  • Aviation Academy
  • Star/budget hotels
  • 18-hole world class golf course
  • Convention/exhibition centre
  • Amusement parks
  • Shopping malls
  • Food Court
  • Super Speciality Hospital
  • IT park

The aim is to increase non-aeronautical revenue to such a level that the airport will be able to operate profitably without depending so much on aeronautical revenue, so that by 2015 the airport will be able to scrap aircraft landing charges to airlines.

For a state that has always been very sceptical about free markets, the success of Cochin Airport demonstrates what can be achieved through collaboration between government and private enterprise. One of the main reasons for the airport’s success is that the government has not interfered in its management, leaving all decisions to be made by the board of directors. The present Chief Minister of Kerala, V S Achuthanandan, is also the chairman of the board. Having a chief minister as the head of the board helps to get clearances quickly and certain benefits from the government; and in turn the airport, aware of its social responsibility, provides employment and opportunities to many people, promotes tourism, and acts as an essential gateway for Kerala to the outside world.

Kerala is notorious for the large number of strikes, due to powerful trade unions and political parties, which bring the state to a grinding halt on a frequent basis and cause massive losses to the state exchequer. Many companies either avoided setting up office in Kerala or moved out from the state for this particular reason. While other southern states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu experience rapid economic growth, Kerala is a laggard in comparison. It has become dependent on remittances from NRIs abroad, which contribute a substantial part of the economy. This is an indefensible position. The success of the new airport at Cochin, which has been a model for other new airports in the region, shows what can be achieved through benevolent capitalism. When government maintains a hands-off approach, private enterprise can deliver the goods to the benefit of all, providing that it also maintains a sense of social responsibility.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Black Swan

Before the discovery of Australia, Europeans were convinced that all swans were white, based on empirical evidence. The discovery of the first black swan in Australia, therefore, was a major surprise because it contradicted the general theory. The occurrence of unexpected, random events that underlie our lives (or “Black Swans”) is the theme of the international best-selling book “The Black Swan” by Nissim Nicholas Taleb. I am currently reading this book, and I’m only up to chapter 3 but I’m riveted.

Taleb uses events such as 9/11, the market crash of 1987, the Asian tsunami of December 2004, the demise of the Soviet Union, etc to demonstrate the occurrence of Black Swans in our everyday life. He says:

“A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our personal lives.”

Since the industrial revolution, the occurrence of Black Swans has been increasing. He believes the more progress we make, the more Black Swans we are likely to encounter and the more unpredictable life will be.

Taleb is from a Greek Orthodox Levantine family in what is now known as Lebanon. He recalls how for centuries, different ethnic and religious communities in the Levant had managed to co-exist quite peacefully. Whatever occasional conflict there was was usually within Muslim and Christian communities, but rarely between Muslims and Christians. The Lebanese “paradise” suddenly evaporated in the mid-seventies when a bitter, bloody civil war between the Maronite Christians and the Muslim communities broke out and lasted a decade and a half. Hardly anyone saw the war coming or imagined it would last as long as it did. Taleb was just a teenager when the war broke out, but it is clear the war had a major impact on his mind and his subsequent interest in the highly improbable.

Taleb is convinced that it is virtually impossible for anyone, however learned they may be, to predict with any certainty the course of events due to the possibility of Black Swans. We have a tendency to “focus on those pure, well-defined, and easily discernible objects like triangles, or more social notions like friendship or love, at the cost of ignoring those objects of seemingly messier and less tractable structures”, a trait which Taleb describes as “Platonicity”. We adjust to the highly improbable only after it occurs, while the “experts” among us, believing they are experts in their fields, are as baffled like the rest of us, except that they are able to narrate what happened better than the general population. The irony is that these experts are usually more highly paid than the rest us.

The current financial crisis that is affecting us, commonly known as “the credit crunch”, is an example of a Black Swan. In its wake, we have seen the collapse of large seemingly solid financial institutions, companies going bust, redundancies increasing, and social tensions rising. People are comparing it to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Yet one person, an economist called Dean Baker, did forewarn of an impending crisis in August 2002, basing his analysis on the US-government house-price-data from 1953 to 1995. He correctly pointed out that the US housing market was over-inflated but, despite his repeated attempts, he was unable to convince the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve for the need for action. The sub-prime lending crisis, which was initially blamed for causing the crisis, was only part of a bigger problem affecting the $20 trillion US housing market.

If a security analyst had warned on 10 September 2001 of the need for all cockpits to have bulletproof in planes, 9/11 could have been averted, but it is likely that the analyst would have suffered the same fate as Dean Baker. The airlines and authorities, because of the huge costs and inconvenience involved in undertaking such a scheme, would have ignored his warnings.

Almost every day, as I listen to the radio, I hear news presenters asking experts how long and how deep the current recession will last. Some say one year, some two years. Even the Governor of the Bank of England cannot give a definitive answer. Initially, many experts predicted UK would suffer a shallow recession; now they talk of a deep recession. What is indisputable is that very few people never expected the current crisis to affect us in such a dramatic way. It is probably wise, therefore, to avoid making predictions on when we will come out of this recession and let events take their course which, unfortunately, will entail more pain for many households. We are remarkably poor at making predictions in a complex world because we consistently fail to factor in the possibility of Black Swans. I may as well avoid listening to those experts on the radio and use my time more wisely instead.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The life of Saint Alphonsa: how adversity can strengthen faith

In the south west of India, next to the Arabian Sea, lies the state of Kerala - a beautiful tropical land that is abundant with coconut trees, paddy fields, picturesque beaches, and a network of canals, lakes and estuaries. It was to this part of India that Christianity first took roots, soon after its birth in the first century. Today Kerala is a popular tourist destination, but it has always attracted visitors to its shores long before the modern age. St Thomas, the apostle of Jesus who famously doubted the resurrection of Jesus, is believed to have come to Kerala in 52AD by boat. He landed at the great spice port of Kodungallur, and from there he proceeded to establish seven churches among the natives and the Jewish diaspora in Kerala. Today, Christians comprise 19% of Kerala’s population of 31.8 million people, the remainder being a mix of Hindus and Muslims.

The year 2008 was a troubling time for India’s Christian minority due to anti-Christian violence. The situation remains tense in some areas, particularly in states like Orissa and Karanataka which are currently ruled by Hindu nationalist state governments. With the backdrop of such violence, on 12 October 2008, Pope Benedict XVI announced the canonisation of Sr Alphonsa to a large congregation at a ceremony in St Peter’s Square saying, “As the Christian faithful of India give thanks to God for their first native daughter to be presented for public veneration, I wish to assure them of my prayers during this difficult time.” Alphonsa thus became the first Indian woman saint in the Catholic Church, much to the joy of many Indian Christians, providing them some cheer at a difficult time in the history of the church in India.

Born on 10 August 1910 in the small village of Kudumalur, Kerala, Alphonsa was christened Anna. She was called Annakutty (literally “Anna child” in Malayalam) by friends and family. She lost her mother when she was barely a month old, and her early years were spent rotating between the homes of her father, her paternal grandmother and her maternal aunt. Under the influence of her pious and benovelent grandmother, Annakutty developed the practice of praying and a deep compassion for the poor. Her early years were relatively happy times, but things took a very different turn when she moved to the home of her maternal aunt, who was so strict, even to the extent of forbidding her foster child to speak to fellow schoolchildren, that she often inflicted psychological turmoil on Annakutty.

Annakutty believed, even from the early age of seven, that Christ was calling her to spend a life devoted to Him, and after reading the biography of St Thérèse of Lisieux she felt the urge to emulate her. In those days in Kerala, it was not uncommon for girls to be married off early, but Annakutty resisted repeated attempts by her aunt to marry her off, eventually reaching the point of causing self-harm. She put her foot in a heap of burning embers, causing it severe burns, in an attempt to disfigure her body so that no one would want to marry her. This was a great shock to her family and a clear sign of her sincerity about her religious vocation, and they decided to allow her to follow her religious vocation and become a nun.

Annakutty joined the Congregation of Franciscan Clarists in Bharananganam, Kerala, beginning her postulancy on 2 August 1928, taking the name of Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception in honour of St Alphonsus Liguori. She continued her studies, staying in the boarding school attached to the Franciscan convent. She experienced a few more hurdles in trying to achieve her ambition of becoming a nun, such as when she went to Changanacherry, Kerala, for her higher studies, the sister in charge of the postulants thought she was too prone to sickness that she tried to talk Alphonsa out of becoming a nun. She prayed hard, resisted new attempts by her aunt to marry her off, and with the support of some priests she came in contact, she was able to continue with her postulancy. The day she finally became a nun, on 12 August 1936, was one of immense joy for Alphonsa.

Alphonsa taught at the boarding school attached to the convent, but she was plagued by frequent illness. Some of her more cynical compatriots in the convent thought she may have been feigning illness, and that her humility in accepting suffering was nothing other than a charade to win the hearts of the superiors. Eventually, after suffering from an agonising tumour, she died at the age of thirty six on 28 July 1946.

People who knew Sr Alphonsa described her as a very devout, loving, and forgiving individual who, despite her constant ill health, maintained a charming disposition. She believed that her sufferings were meant to bring her closer to Christ; this is evident in a letter she wrote to her spiritual director: “Dear Father, as my good Lord Jesus loves me so very much, I sincerely desire to remain on this sick bed and suffer not only this, but anything else besides, even to the end of the world. I feel now that God has intended my life to be an oblation, a sacrifice of suffering.” Nuns also attest that Sr Alphonsa possessed the gift of prophecy, being able to predict accurately when different people would die.

After Sr Alphonsa’s death, her school children, with whom she had formed a close bond, began visiting her tomb and offering prayers. Many of them discovered their prayers were answered. Soon stories of people being healed of illnesses, after praying to Sr Alphonsa began to spread, leading to her tomb quickly becoming a pilgrimage site. With pressure from people, who had witnessed the favours that were performed through the intercession of Sr Alphonsa, the local diocese appointed a committee to look into the cause of recommending her for sainthood. Sainthood in the Catholic Church is a long and laborious process, divided into different stages, that requires formal inquiries into the sanctity of the candidate’s life and miracles attributed to that person's intercession. After conducting an extensive study of Sr Alphonsa’s life, the local diocese took up the case for her sainthood with the Vatican.

On 9 July 1985, Pope John Paul II formally approved a miracle attributed to Sr Alphonsa’s intercession, which was the healing of a boy called Thomas who was born club-footed. The boy’s feet were badly deformed and twisted inwards, which forced him to walk with a limp. His parents had tried various medical treatments, but all to no avail. Eventually in January 1947, they went to Sr Alphonsa’s tomb and prayed ardently, seeking her intercession. Two days later, Thomas began to walk normally. Medical examination could offer no explanation for the cure.

In 1999 another young boy - called Jinil - who was born club-footed, was miraculously cured of his deformity after the boy’s parents took him to Sr Alphonsa’s tomb and prayed for his healing. Again there was no medical explanation for the cure. In the process of canonisation, one miracle must be verified to have happened after the beatification and in Sr Alphonsa’s case the curing of Jinil proved to be it. There are many other favours that people have received after praying to Sr Alphonsa; these include people in India, from abroad, and members of non-Christian faiths.

It may be surprising to some, given that Christianity has been present on the Kerala soil for nearly two millennia, that Saint Alphonsa is only the second Indian saint to be canonised by the Vatican. However, the Eastern Christians of Kerala – the largest and earliest group of Christians in India - did not come under the purview of Rome until after the arrival of the Portuguese conquistadors in the fifteenth century. The Portuguese, who considered these early Christians of Kerala as heretics, forcefully brought many of them under the Pope of Rome by Latinizing their Syrian liturgy and by purging them of their “heretic” beliefs and traditions. Over the years, the St Thomas Christians of Kerala have developed a distinct indigenous culture, which is Hebrew-Syriac in tradition and includes several Jewish elements along with some Hindu customs.

Saint Alphonsa was very much influenced by the late nineteenth century French saint, St Thérèse of Lisieux, keeping her autobiography on her window sill and reading it often. There are some interesting similarities between the lives of the two: both were pious from an early age; both overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to join the religious life; both suffered much physical and emotional turmoil; and both were relatively unknown until after their deaths. The Christians of Kerala are fond of emphasising these cross-cultural similarities between the two saints, so much so that Bharananganam has become popularly known as “Lisieux of India”. However, Saint Alphonsa had her own nuanced ideas of sanctity and therefore scripted her own path.

The life of St Alphonsa reminds Christians that suffering and obstacles are very much part of life. As followers of Christ, they should be willing and prepared to suffer if necessary to follow God:

“Since Christ suffered and underwent pain, you must have the same attitude he did; you must be ready to suffer, too. For remember, when your body suffers, sin loses its power, and you won’t be spending the rest of your life chasing after evil desires.” (1 Peter 4: 1, 2)

When our bodies are in pain, we are reminded of our physical frailty and sinful pleasures seem less important. The life of Saint Alphonsa is an example of how adversity can strengthen faith.