Gujarat: GIFT City, ghost towns and grey geese
Despite policy changes, cancellation of construction contracts, court cases and lack of facilities, GIFT City is still harbouring hopes of competing with Mumbai’s financial hub in Bandra Kurla Complex
One of the largest diamond companies in India, Kiran Gems, the first and practically the only operator at the Surat Diamond Bourse (SDB) which opened with fanfare in November 2023, has shut shop and moved back to Mumbai with 15 truckloads of gems and jewels.
Director of Kiran Gems, the billionaire diamond trader Vallabhai Lakhani, had enthusiastically supported the Surat venture when it was first mooted in 2012. The shift last year was hailed as ‘historic’; while the fact that he moved many of his workers into a 1,200-apartment housing complex near SDB, built at his own expense, signalled he meant to stay. His entire workforce, however, refused to leave Mumbai, and it seems recruiting locals was not easy.
Other biggies had stayed put in Mumbai, opting to wait and watch, but smaller players found Lakhani’s enthusiasm infectious and bought commercial space in SDB. With Lakhani turning his back on Surat, it’s unlikely they will consider relocating.
Reports suggest that Lakhani’s turnover plummeted to 20 per cent of what it was in Mumbai. Despite the razzle-dazzle of ‘Digital India’ and the ‘Gujarat Model’, poor international digital connectivity was apparently a major factor.
Surat’s international airport was inaugurated in a hurry but has been of little use, with airlines preferring to fly to neighbouring Ahmedabad. Meanwhile, Mumbai ports continue to handle cargo better and faster than Surat, for all its modern facilities. Clearly, a glittering building complex alone cannot build confidence.
Industry analysts are not surprised at the turn of events. It took a good 15 years for diamond merchants to shift to Mumbai’s Bharat Diamond Bourse, as traders were reluctant to leave Opera House, historically considered both lucky and convenient. Give SDB time, they say.
Soon after Kiran Gems packed up and moved out of Surat, Nagjibhai Sakariya, president of the managing committee of SDB, put in his resignation. As they say, it never rains but it pours.
Can one night of song-and-dance revive a dead city?
Sixteen years after it first began to take shape, the Gujarat International Finance-Tec (GIFT) City, is not quite there yet. A diplomat from Singapore, intrigued by boasts that GIFT city would soon beat Singapore as Asia’s leading financial centre, quietly visited GIFT City and on his return quipped that it was “not quite alive by day and absolutely dead by night”.
The “dead by night” comment stung enough for Gujarat authorities to permit the sale of alcohol to ring in the New Year, quite failing to understand that the vibrancy of nightlife in cities like Mumbai or Singapore is the result of many factors other than alcohol.
Spread over 900 acres with 62 million square feet of built-up area, and the promise of five lakh direct jobs, GIFT City has just about 20,000 workers, employed by banks and other financial institutions.
Envisaged as a self-contained city, buildings are still under construction or unoccupied, and plots allotted to malls, petrol pumps and residential complexes are still vacant with just one housing society fully functional. Expectations that it would attract a lot of foreign residents have also been dashed.
Despite policy changes, cancellation of construction contracts, court cases and lack of facilities, GIFT City is still harbouring hopes of competing with Mumbai’s financial hub in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). Perhaps that’s the nub of it—BKC does not aspire to be more than a hub. And yet it does far more business and attracts many more international companies than GIFT City, which has been projected as a complete lifestyle city.
Possibly, some of that ‘lifestyle’ was what inspired the Gujarat government to persuade organisers of the Filmfare Awards to hold their annual song-and-dance extravaganza in GIFT City last week. The signature event of the Times of India group has always been held in Mumbai; but for all-too obvious reasons, the proposal to host it in GIFT City this year was not refused. Bollywood stars fell in line and put up a great show as usual.
But what’s one evening in the life of a city? The stars flew back home and GIFT City went back to being a ‘ghost city’ again.
When cops play ED officials
Scamsters posing as policemen, CBI, representatives of the PMO and so on are not new in the state. With the Enforcement Directorate (ED) emerging as the most feared central agency, there’s a new game in town, with police officers playing ED officials in a bid at extortion.
The Junagadh ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) filed an FIR against three police officers—inspector Taral Bhatt, inspector Arvind Gohil and assistant sub-inspector Dipak Jani—for having frozen at least 300 bank accounts in the city on the pretext of said account holders having allegedly violated financial regulations.
The matter first came to light when Kartik Bhandari, a Kerala-based businessman approached his bank to know the grounds for freezing his account. He was told that the three police officers had instructions from the ED to do so.
When he approached the police officers for details, they demanded Rs 5 lakh to unfreeze his account. On pleading that he did not have that kind of money, he was told that others with frozen accounts had paid as much as Rs 25 lakh to restore their accounts, and that they would not settle for less than Rs 5 lakh.
Investigations revealed that the inspectors had also made attempts to transfer funds from the frozen accounts to an anonymous account. All three have been suspended.
Nifty shades of grey
The yellow sands of Jodhpur are known to turn white in winter when the Demoiselle Cranes fly in from Central Asia, just as parts of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai turn pink with flamingos visiting from around the world.
This year, the wetland bird sanctuary of Khijadiya near Jamnagar has been rippling with grey. Never before have Greylag Geese been seen in such large numbers in this region, say birders.
While enchanted by the avian visitors from Europe and North Africa, they also wonder what changes in their nesting patterns and travel routes warranted this detour from their usual wintering spots in central and west Asia to India’s wetlands. Sanctuary officials are busy determining how many birds are making Jamnagar their home this hatching season.