Sumitra Iyengar, Managing Director, Karanji Valley Heights Integrated Tourism Townships Pvt Ltd
She is proof that a woman can do - and have - it all. With a career spanning over 25 years, Sumitra Iyengar, Managing Director, Karanji Valley Heights Integrated Tourism Townships Pvt Ltd, has made her mark in the areas of infrastructure, construction, transportation and real-estate development. A Bengaluru-based commerce graduate who completed her MBA in international business from the University of Wales and lived in Australia for 18 years, she has held a variety of prestigious positions, including past president, International Monorail Association; member of the managing committee, Bangalore Chamber of Industries and Commerce; member and chairperson of the skill development committee of the Federation of Karnataka Chamber of Commerce and Industries; and member of the committee of the Confederation of Real Estate Associates-India. As part of her entrepreneurial initiatives, she is the executive director of Dwarakanath Anantharam Enterprise Pvt Ltd and was, till 2012, director of infrastructure and new business development for Geodesic Techniques Pvt Ltd.
An entrepreneur cum homemaker, this mother of two combines a passion for cricket - which she has played at the state level - with a love for reading and a keen interest in social issues, such as safety of women. In an exclusive interview with SHRIYAL SETHUMADHAVAN, she shares more about her involvement with the fields of construction and infrastructure.
How were you introduced to the construction industry?
It had to do with my family background. My father was a real-estate developer who set up the firm Dwarakanath Anantharam Enterprise Pvt Ltd. He pioneered the apartment concept in Bengaluru, and thereafter started KOPA (Karnataka Owners Promoters Association), which today is CREDAI in Bengaluru. We were involved in the construction industry doing various projects like hospitals, temples, apartments, factories, business houses and commercial spaces. Hence, when I returned to India from Australia, my first inclination was to go with my dad but I got involved in many other things before my foray into development planning happened.
Tell us about your contribution towards India's infrastructure development?
I joined as a consultant for Geodesic Techniques. This was a company looking at entry into the infrastructure space. I was given the mandate to handle the whole show. We were looking to examine if there was a way of building alternate transportation. In India, we had already have buses and people were talking about BRT and metro. But just these are not enough; there is space for other smaller systems that could act as feeders and dispersal to the metro. So the concept of monorail was initiated by our company and it was totally handled by me as an alternate system. We went across different countries, studied the options, LRTs, tramways, other elevated options, and more. We concluded that in a country like India, the monorail would do very well because of the population density, narrow roads and manoeuvrability required. Today, this concept is already being implemented in Mumbai. We have presented an alternate proposal to the Karnataka Government and various other states for approval.
Which cities require a monorail today?
At present, most metros require the monorail. The idea is to decongest the inner city traffic and develop those areas. Delhi and Mumbai definitely need it. According to our study, this is a system that can be implemented very comfortably in Jaipur and Bengaluru; Hyderabad too, definitely, as its topography is very hilly. This is a system that takes gradients up to 12 per cent, even more depending on what is done. Also, the monorail is a great alternative in India because cars are not the answer to the transport problem, there are too many two-wheelers clogging up the road and road widening is not an apt solution. If you want something that involves minimal road widening and can be implemented in the footprint of existing infrastructure, the monorail is the answer. In some cases, the public is not disciplined enough for trams; there could be accidents as well. As a company, Geodesic has also researched areas where one cannot afford a monorail. As an alternate, one could consider elevated buses. We have shared a proposal for the same with Gujarat; more specifically, a city like Rajkot.
How will the monorail benefit cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru specifically?
In Bengaluru, the key aspect is connectivity to essential services like schools, colleges, hospital, offices, recreation space, malls and shopping destinations. The monorail has been designed to connect about 500 m on either side of the alignment. Hence, one can easily reach 150-200 major colleges and 150-200 schools and big hospitals. If we get 1,000 m inside, the smaller hospitals, schools, etc, can be reached easily. However, we have planned for a connectivity of up to 500 m. We are also connecting some 400-500 government offices, three major railway stations and what is termed a transit centre for the buses. Here, people can park their cars, take a monorail, finish their work and then get back. This design spans across 60-65 km.
Mumbai's monorail should run for several kilometres as small stretches will not suffice for the city. Such a network also proves to be beneficial in the long run. However, considering what the city experiences during the monsoons, not many people will commute via this elevator system. But this applies to most kind of transport systems. In Mumbai, the demographic and connectivity have been worked out differently.
In terms of cost, how affordable are monorail projects for the country?
It is not the cost of the system itself. Lack or delay in approvals leads to time and cost overruns and a rise in the cost of material. In fact, in 2008-2009 the cost of monorail for Mumbai was around Rs 140 crore per km; today it would probably be about Rs 175-185 crore. We also have to look at constraints such as the foundation because it takes in different kinds of soil and underground utilities that increase the cost. There are additional costs, whether it is a metro city or anywhere else. Also, if there is land acquisition, it adds to the cost. Then we have to consider the mode of execution, EPC, PPP or Swiss Challenge.
How, according to you, can monorails complement Bengaluru's MRTS?
We consider monorail as feeder dispersal. When the metro comes up in different phases, 50 km will be met at 12 points by the monorail. Also, these will be connected at the last mile with buses at key major junctions. Realistically, we believe that cars and two wheelers need not come into the city.
How much has your firm invested in alternative transport research till date?
We invest in crores. We bring experts from overseas because, in some areas, we do not have the required expertise. India has learnt very quickly that cars and two-wheelers are not the answer for transportation. Within 20 years, it has been understood that there is a need for viable public transport. You could call me an evangelist of alternate public transport. The government should spend fixed amounts in terms of support to such projects.
Shifting from transportation to real estate, you are the Managing Director of Karanji Valley Heights....
Karanji is modelled on Lavasa. It is a first-of-its-kind tourism integrated development, located in Bidar district of North Karnataka. Karanji Valley Heights has signed an MoU with the government for this. When my dad retired in 2006, he said, "Here is the company and you can do what you want." I decided not to do just an apartment. I studied townships like Manipal, Jamshedpur and Vijaynagar to understand how they have been developed. To ensure they are economically viable for industries to come in and for the local population, I conducted research in Australia and Singapore and developed a model for an integrated township. A well-conceived township includes education, health, tourism activities like healthcare and wellness, a theme park and so on. I tried to put all this into the 1,000-acre Karanji project. I have got all the approvals from the Karnataka Government and identified the master planner, who is from Australia. The government has allotted us some 250 acre for the project. What gives me immense satisfaction is that whether it is the monorail or a township approval, it has been achieved without paying one rupee and on time.
As managing director of Karanji, what does your role involve?
At present, I am focusing on the land acquisition process and identifying the key consultants.
Have you ever witnessed gender bias?
Talking from my 10 years experience in government corridors, to come out with a clean image is very tough. Men and women's behaviours are constantly judged. When the man does something it is prompt; when the woman does the same thing, it is seen as aggressive. However, fortunately I have never personally experienced such biases.
Any advice to women in the construction industry...
It takes a lot of time and patience to convince men that women are as good and capable of being a part of this industry. People often complain that women in position of power are harsh. My advice to them would be retain the femininity and be gentle; if you are good at managing a home, you will also be good at managing the industry.
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