I attended an international conference on urban transport mobility in Kochi last week from November 4 to 6. After listening to ministers, bureaucrats and others at this conference as well as earlier meetings, one gets the clear impression that we are in for serious problems of road congestion and pollution. Things are going to become worse despite all tall talk by government authorities, an exercise in illusion and delusion.
Mr Hardeep Singh Puri, the union minister in charge of urban affairs and transport is a former career diplomat who has served in several countries like his civil servant father. One expected him to imbibe progressive ideas from good Western cities with emphasis on curbing motor car use, big budgetary allocation for buses, cycling and walking.
He is clearly extremely in the wrong in seeing the Metro rail network as a panacea for urban transport. It is amazing that he virtually ignored public bus transport, cycling and facilities for pedestrians. And this is the typical government thinking these days.
Over the years experts are extremely sceptical of the Metro, the very name arouses laughter, derision, people do not want to talk for fear of offending the government. It is seen essentially as a project for the benefit of the real estate industry. The Metro may help after some years but the neglect of the need for basic infrastructure of buses and other facilities is extremely suicidal.
There is no transparency about the working of Metro rail costs and benefits, number of users. During the conference managing directors of Metro corporations from all over the country held a closed door meeting. This is strange, utterly undemocratic. Here was a chance for officials and others to interact, get feedback , get suggestions for improvement. It is essentially a grand exercise in evasion.
India currently has the fifth-largest metro network in the world. Around 810 km of metro lines are operational in 20 cities across the nation. More than 980 km of the metro network are currently under construction in 27 cities, according to Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Puri. The minister made the comment while jointly opening the 15th Urban Mobility India (UMI) Conference and Expo 2022 in Kochi last Friday with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
“India will soon overtake advanced economies such as Japan and South Korea to become the third-largest network. These developments will lead to a significant reduction of traffic congestion and the associated air quality and emissions concerns,” the Minister said.
The minister’s observations are extremely misleading. There is a world of difference between Metros in these cities and India. The minister should know that, he himself referred to serving in Tokyo in his first posting abroad as a young IFS officer.
Connectivity to Metro stations in most Indian cities is now extremely poor as was clear from observers at the conference. There are multiple problems.
I travelled on the Kochi Metro, it is not bad but a city of this size, a population of just six lakh or so, simply can do without the Metro. I found the bus service fairly regular and adequate, plus the administration is going to strengthen the waterways network for the city and nearby islands. The boats will be like Metro rail coaches with similar facilities and look, an official told me. There is a wonderful ferry service already. I took a ride from the local Marine Drive to the heritage Fort Kochi area with old churches and other structures, some dating from the time of the Dutch east India company and Vasco da Gama. It cost me just an embarrassingly low Rs six and the fare fir tge Ro Ro service between Vypin island and Bolgatty is just Rs. three.
The Metro is touted as a very modern amenity. But there are multiple problems. In Kochi itself I found last Sunday morning people waiting for long for the Metro station’s locked gates to open at 7 a.m. The authorities have not cared to put a board that on Sundays the service starts at 8 a.m., not 7 a.m. on other days. An official thanked me for this feedback, he was not aware of this.
In general the claims of Metro authorities in different parts that the Metro has brought down car trips is proved to be fraudulent. Mr D.T. Devare, a retired corporate official and activist, told the conference his query under the right to information act about Bangalore Metro drew the most evasive replies. Mr O.P. Agarwal, the chairman of the session and former World Bank official, agreed that these were basic issues.
The conference was held in the lavish convention centre of Grand Hyatt hotel on Bolgatty island. It is a massive waste of money and space and adds to the energy crisis with its high energy consumption, ultra high ceiling, a very big car parking space. It is ironic that almost everyone at the conference either used official or personal cars or Uber, Ola vehicles. But even these taxies were not easy to get. A delegate’s wife had to come from five km just to pick him up in her auto rickshaw.
Every succeeding year, the government machinery, the private sector seem increasingly incompetent, inadequate to deal with the urban transport needs.
(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on public transport)