Dollar remittance will stop, Kerala should emulate Singapore: Galfar Mohamed Ali

Galfar Mohamed Ali. File Pic: Manorama

Is Kerala missing the best tourism, development models? What was the feeling while taking up the contract for constructing Al-Bayt Stadium? What are the possibilities for the seaport at Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram?

Galfar Mohamed Ali responds to these questions in the second part of the interview. He also answered a critical question: Galfar is 50. Is he feeling like hanging up the boots?

"Why don't you invest in Kerala," former chief minister EK Nayanar sir once asked. "I said I will invest in Kerala if he stands by and protects me," Mohamed Ali said.

"The plot where Le Méridien now stands was purchased for developing a housing complex. Its plan, too, was drawn. I decided to establish a Rs 100-crore five-star hotel and convention centre when I met Nayanar.

It was during the time in which labour unrest had led to the closure of Premier Cables and Madura Coats. Several establishments were then leaving Kerala. Nayanar sir laid the foundation stone for the project. It was the beginning of huge investments in Kochi bypass. I faced no problems, not even gawking charges.

Its work was not hampered even for a single day. The convention centre was named after Nayanar after seeking his permission. The convention hall at Le Méridien was not envisaged as a business alone. It was constructed since I felt Kerala required a huge investment for its growth," he replied when asked about naming the convention centre after Nayanar.

You once said that convention tourism is an ideal industry for Kerala.

There were no convention centres with international standards when Le Méridien was opened. Convention tourism should be initiated in a state like Kerala, which has four international airports. Kerala should have quality centres like those in Thailand and Malaysia. People from across the world will visit Kerala, a verdant state with rain, sea and hill stations, around the year. The government should take the initiative in this direction to enhance the state's revenue in dollars. Tourism shouldn't be made up of smaller projects.

The government should also shoulder the responsibility of protecting those willing to invest in convention tourism. Construction activities should not be stopped even for a day. Our optics on tourism is still about rolling out small projects. The state should have adequate amenities to attract investors. Most of our leaders have little experience with the world outside. They lack a broader perspective. We realised what we were lacking only after seeing Dubai. We have to think big on a larger scale.

A 2013 photo of Galfar Mohamed Ali. File Photo: Manorama

Do you mean Kerala is not utilising its possibilities?

We have a beach like Cherai. Still, we haven't utilised it properly. We prohibit construction work in coastal zones. Elsewhere in the world, major tourism projects were made possible by allowing constructions near water bodies. The possibilities of the technologies we now have in the construction sector are immense. Piling is now not done using rigs that hammer the ground. Construction works in coastal zones were carried out in Male, Thailand, Dubai, etc. Land reclamation, too, has been done in several places. They were all done after extensive studies. We should understand what is going on in other parts of the world.

We have a 600-kilometre coastline. Still, we do not have marine tourism. If we had marine tourism, it would have provided livelihoods to lakhs of people. The revenue earned from it could have been utilized for protecting the coastline. There is no point in doing nothing citing the existing laws. The laws should change in accordance with the times and technology. The sea should not be protected by banning construction on the coastal zones alone. Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji, etc., developed using the potential of marine and coastal tourism. Kerala has a bigger potential than these countries.

Does it mean we are missing the right development models?

Look at Singapore. It was nothing when it separated from Malaysia. They realised that the coastline is their wealth. They developed the world's best oil refinery. They constructed huge shipyards. They created anchorages for ships and earned huge revenues. They raised the standard of living. Kerala, too, has the same possibilities.

Did you mean Vizhinjam?

Yes. The possibilities of the seaport at Vizhinjam are huge. Investments running into crores of rupees will reach here. Vizhinjam and Kerala are closer to the most important international sea route. It is a geographical blessing. Once Vizhinjam is completely developed, it will bring in a huge change in Kerala's revenue. Even geographically, Vizhinjam's possibilities are huge. It can connect with the main stretch of the international sea route. But the project is always mired in controversies. No one is bothered to take the project ahead. Who would invest when there are always some controversies?

When the sea between the berth and shore at Vizhinjam port turned to land as a result of dredging.

Are you referring to the protests?

I am not against the protests. Who will tolerate it if they are made to live in godowns after being evicted from their homes? Those who lost their homes and properties should have provided better facilities before going ahead with the project. Now, people want the government to take over the lands for developing the national highway, because the compensation is huge. They can start afresh with the compensation received. The government, too, won't lose anything by paying such high amounts as compensation. It can appropriate the amount spent by collecting tolls. We need basic infrastructure to meet global standards. Without such facilities, we can attain international standards.

Those evicted in Vizhinjam have lost faith in the government. Even the promised basic facilities were not provided. Who would like to live in godowns after vacating their homes? They gave up their properties for the development of the state. It is the state's responsibility to rehabilitate in a convenient location and ensure their livelihoods. There is no point in developing infrastructure without rehabilitating them, by providing facilities better than what they had. Don't mistake my words for politics. My politics is the betterment of the state.

The protesters claim that they will lose their livelihood.

A fishing harbour should be developed along with the Vizhinjam seaport. Could we say that the fishermen should always go into the sea in boats made of wooden planks? Can we say a carpenter's son should follow the same profession? Haven't many people who were engaged in their traditional profession turned experts in several other fields? It should happen in the case of the fishermen too.

They should be provided with bigger, modern boats. They should be equipped for deep-sea fishing. Many countries around the world are changing traditional fishing methods. We should help fishers grow. We should utilise their knowledge of the sea and expertise in fishing.

In countries like Italy, those who shifted from the traditional methods have become millionaire industrialists in the fishing sector. The days of smaller boats are gone. Fish workers should have the facility to purchase bigger boats. Modern fishing harbours should be developed at several places along Kerala's coastline. It will usher in a drastic change in our fishing sector.

Big, modern boats should be procured with the participation of the fish workers. The government should provide the necessary mechanism to help them. We should not be adamant that a labourer should always be a labourer. We should be able to cash in on the strengths of the fishermen. We should realise the possibilities of our coast.

Are you advocating more harbours in Kerala?

The Cochin Shipyard that constructed the Navy's aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is in Kerala. The carrier was developed indigenously. This achievement belongs to our coast also. We should tell this to the world. We have proved that our coast could build huge ships. We should develop more shipyards against this backdrop, and win orders from across the world. Beypore has a tradition of building dhows. Kerala should utilise it.

Kerala should market itself as a state building ships, yachts and other vessels. We can build and sell at a lesser price. Singapore grew financially through such shipyards. We should realise our strengths and have visionary leadership that could advance them forward.

You have been reiterating that there should be a change in perception.

Haven't we stopped the smuggling of teak wood? We did so realising that teak wood is wealth. Now, our biggest wealth is human resources. We should be able to keep the human resources in the state itself, the same way we did to protect teak wood. We need to create such a situation that people would not leave the state. If there is a huge institution here offering jobs, who would leave the state? If we can't protect our human resources, this state will become nothing. The remittances in dollars will gradually stop.

Then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee presenting Galfar Mohamed Ali the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2004.

The remittances now are due to the older generations' attachment to the state. The times are changing. Several people are migrating along with their families. The crisis caused by this migration would not be small. If this crisis becomes big, the remittances will drastically reduce. India is one of the bigger countries which get money from its people abroad.

You made a similar statement regarding education also.

It has been estimated that 36,000 students leave Kerala to pursue medical and allied courses. They spent crores of rupees on their education, accommodation, etc. This money, raised through hard work, should be utilised here. Our perception of medical colleges should change. Kerala has 14 district hospitals. These hospitals should be converted into medical colleges having high standards. It should be done through a public-private partnership. The investor should be able to get the services of these hospitals. And with their support, these district hospitals should be developed as modern, super hospitals.

Students completing the course should be deployed in rural areas at least for some time. Kerala should be developed as a hub of quality medical education. We should be able to utilise our present status in the education sector for this purpose. We should not oppose the private sector. Our students are spending money in private institutions overseas. We should be able to recover that money for the development of the state.

Our perspective should be at the global level. We should provide the same educational facilities that students get abroad. Investment in the education sector will develop the state. The role of missionaries in creating a sound foundation for the growth of the education sector should not be forgotten. Weren't they in the private sector?

Galfar won the contract for constructing Al-Bayt Stadium which hosted the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. What was your feeling about being able to construct such a stadium?

The Qatar government printed the picture of the stadium on the currency note it issued as a souvenir. It reflected the love and respect that country gave us. I consider it lucky that we could work together. We cooperated with several agencies for constructing the stadium. More than it is an Rs 8,000 crore project, the stadium was Qatar's pride also. Thousands of people toiled to make the stadium a reality. They also deserve credit.

The Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar.

(Galfar has invested crores in several verticals, petroleum, civil engineering, basic infrastructure development, education, banking, energy, etc. There are several institutions under the group. Galfar collaborates with experts in whichever country it is working. Hence, Galfar's assets are not separately available. According to Arabian Business, a portal providing financial news, Mohamed Ali has assets to the tune of USD 95 crore. His son and Vice-Chairman of Galfar, Mohiuddin Mohamad Ali, provided a different picture of his father. "Whenever he reaches a site, he inspects the workers' accommodation and toilets. He shares their food. He also says that such amenities decide if the work is being carried out properly. It was a big lesson in business. He also reminds us that we should be with the ordinary worker").

MFAR of the Galfar Group invested Rs 1,000 crore in the resort construction sector in Maldives. Why made the firm invest such a huge amount in the tourism, and hospitality sectors?

I used to visit whenever I am disturbed. It is a peaceful place, which calms us down. I first went there in 1995. In 2012, we bought an island in North Male Atoll. The construction which started in 2016 was completed last year. The Rs 1,000 investment was made for the Kuda Villingili Resort. We are expecting to begin the construction soon. Business possibilities made us invest there.

You toiled for 50 years to make Galfar as it is now. Do you feel like hanging up the boots?

Wherever you are working, you become nothing the day you retire. Diseases and other issues will keep visiting you. Every person should work till he is spent. I started Galfar. I am sure the moment I die, a better Galfar will remain. I didn't build it alone, several people were involved. Even if I go, several of them will be there. New people will take Galfar ahead.

A work-in-progress image of one of the first projects undertaken by Galfar in 1972. Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Galfar Mohamed Ali

P Mohamed Ali is walking through the verandah of Le Meridien Hotel — the man who went to the Gulf with only a diploma from a polytechnic and grit and defeated several European and American firms. Galfar provides 15,000 jobs directly. An old car arrived. The man who had not forgotten the road he had taken those who had helped him, hasn't given away the old car.

Read Part-1 of the interview here.

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