Urban affairs minister Puri needs to get a better grasp on public transport


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)

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