"If you come here with a suitcase and an idea, Coimbatore and Coimbatoreans will conspire to make you succeed."
Col. (Retd.) T. Sreedharan uses this loose adaptation of a Paulo Coelho line to sum up the spirit of the city that gave him a new life, on the foothills of the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu. A Tamilian whose family had settled in New Delhi, he first came to Coimbatore in 1990 to command a regiment and fell in love with the city's climate and people. Sure enough, he returned two years later carrying retirement benefits from the Army—R5 lakh—and plunged into real estate, a profession he knew nothing about.
"I get R32,000 pension (a month) from the army and my two daughters are settled. I don't have to work for a living but I am slogging as I want to achieve something," said Sreedharan. He runs Covai Property Centre, a development firm that also sells a gated community residence for the aged.
It is this abundant spirit of the individual that has transformed a landlocked city, with no natural resources or raw materials, into a manufacturing hub of repute. And as an extension of that, private initiatives by the city's industrialists and entrepreneurs are bravely attempting to make up for a dearth of public sector investments.
Coimbatore's industrial history is replete with instances of factory owners importing and ripping apart machines to fabricate their own versions. Counted among India's fastest-growing economic centres, the city leads the country in manufacturing of textiles, textile machinery, castings, pump sets and poultry products. It also has a sizeable presence in the paper, jewellery and auto components industries, and contributes more than R3,500 crore a year in taxes to the state and Union governments, while earning more than R25,000 crore worth of foreign exchange, data from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and other local chambers show.
Politically, Coimbatore does not carry much weight in the top echelons of the Union or state governments. But that has hardly stopped Coimbatore's people from helping themselves.
The city faced one of its worst water crises in 2003. Its main source of water — the Siruvani reservoir — had supply to last just two months. Residents dug into the city's history and found that its rulers had some 500 years ago dug up water tanks and linked them.
"The inter-connected water bodies were like a necklace around Coimbatore," said Vanitha Mohan, executive director at Pricol Ltd, a maker of auto parts.
Mohan launched a non-profit body, Siruthuli (literally, a small drop of water), to track and map water bodies and work on recharging ground water. "We desilted the lake and cleared all water channels. Just three days of rain and the lake filled up."
Siruthuli joined hands with the Coimbatore city corporation and constructed about 150 water harvesting centres, boosting the ground water table. The Central Ground Water Board last year granted funds to build another 250 water harvesting structures, Mohan said.
P.R. Natarajan, the CPM member of Parliament from Coimbatore, admitted Coimbatore has failed to get big public sector investments, but found fault with the city's business people.
"The industrialists and entrepreneurs have exploited the absence of public sector units to suppress the wages of workers and make higher profits," he said.
He added that they have not "come forward with any real money to fund projects of public utility" though the Coimbatore corporation faces a fund crunch.
M. Kandaswami, owner of Anandha Fabrications (CBE) Pvt. Ltd and president of the Coimbatore District Small Industries Association, or Codissia, countered: "Laying roads and building bridges is the government's job and we cannot do it."