Yes, its an excellent conference centre. The main plenary hall is fabulous. It can seat about 1,300 in airconditioned comfort almost two-third of them with tables and microphones in front several commission halls, great sound system, superb acoustics, plush carpets, huge stage, perfect lighting, elegant dais.. it has everything. VIP lounge and dining room, atrium, holding rooms, simultaneous translation booths... perfect place for an international conference.
Yet, its just that. A great conference venue. But not a Convention Centre.
In 2003, when Ficci was to organise the first Parvasi Bharatiya Diwas, it spent lot of time hunting for a venue for the inaugural session. We were looking for a hall to seat about 5000! We needed as many as 12 more rooms for concurrent sessions. We wanted a place where couple of thousand including heads of state, ministers, Nobel laureates, Bharat Ratnas, ambassadors...could eat multi-cuisine meals in comfort; a place close to their hotels, a place where people could relax, shop, enjoy and also engage in serious deliberations and networking.
Vigyan Bhavan was out because the plenary hall is far too small and even so, it takes you 15 to 30 minutes before your car can come out through the single narrow exit. It was out because a government outfit monopolises catering there and not more than 200/250 persons can have a sit down meal - that too in the atrium, dining room wont even seat 100! Ofcourse you cant serve alcohol there. It was out because it has no places to relax, no water bodies and fountains to soothe frayed nerves, no lawns and greenery... Siri Fort Auditorium met the same fate. Admittedly it can seat 2000 plus, but thats it. No other halls and you cant even serve a live meal there.
Only box lunches and brown bags! The Ashok Hotel Convention Hall almost made it but its laid-back management came in the way.
So, we had to fall back on good old Pragati Maidan. A huge exhibition hall was converted at considerable expence into a plenary room with tiered seating. Other smaller halls came in handy for concurrent sessions. Make-shift restaurants had to be created. We used the Indira Gandhi Stadium for evening cultural dos and put up hangar structures for dining areas. It meant lot of effort and hardwork, inconvenience to delegates running from one venue to another, huge costs for creating temporary structures, sound systems that could be improved... but we just about scraped through with a mega event in a developing country.
But now we are on the threshold of being a developed nation. We want the best minds in the world to meet here. We want to showcase our products and services. Conventions and exhibitions is an established mode of marketing. We are on the fore-front of Knowledge Industries. We want global business leaders to come here frequently. Now, weve no excuse for not having several world class convention centers. Merely promises in budget speeches and other fora wont do. We need action. A beginning has been made at Hyderabad and to some extent - at Greater Noida. We need many more and in double quick time.
The best convention centres in the world are located in USA, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand... Typically, their plenary halls can seat 3000 to 5000. They all have additional halls of smaller capacities, meeting rooms, exhibition area, restaurants, big reception/banquet area, press rooms, communication and business centres, hotel, shopping plazas, movie theatre, theme park... all in the same complex.
Pragati Maidan is an ideal site. So much can be done here. Enough space, central location, railway siding, water bodies, trees by mid 20th century standards. All we need is imagination, a bold approach, some surgical procedures, global benchmarks, shedding of bureaucratic taboos... We have a guaranteed winner here as long as the project is handled like a business cooperation.
The writer is former additional secretary general, Ficci