Mumbai fixated on building expensive metros to ease commuting woes

The better alternative would be to invest in upgrading BEST and the suburban train system.

Published : Aug 27, 2022 17:00 IST

Panvel Railway Station in Navi Mumbai on July 27, a day on which trains on harbour railway line were running behind schedule because of a technical glitch. 

Panvel Railway Station in Navi Mumbai on July 27, a day on which trains on harbour railway line were running behind schedule because of a technical glitch.  | Photo Credit: PTI

MUCH before the metro craze descended on India, Mumbai could boast of two of the best public transport systems in the world: the suburban train system (STS), rightly called the lifeline of Mumbai, and the bus transport system, appropriately named BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport).

BEST starved of funds

Unfortunately, the powers that be ensured that the STS was never expanded to keep pace with Mumbai’s population explosion, and BEST was starved of funds: it was deprived of the subsidy that it traditionally enjoyed from its power supply unit. As a result of these twin tragedies, the number of private vehicles exploded exponentially and led to a further deterioration in BEST’s fortunes, both financially and in terms of loss of efficiency caused by traffic congestion, which brought the average speed of a BEST bus down to 12 kmph. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the parent organisation of BEST, made very little effort to compensate it for its loss of the subsidy, thus pushing BEST further in the red. A poor selection of Chinese buses that broke down regularly further aggravated the problems confronting BEST.

Some NGOs and transportation experts also suggested options such as bus rapid transit (BRT), but these were summarily dismissed on the ground that a dedicated bus lane could not be carved out of any of the roads in Mumbai. However, the city’s decision makers saw nothing wrong in blocking the same arterial roads with pillars for the elevated metros. The disruption and inconvenience caused to road users was “collateral damage” that was happily ignored.

  • At one time Mumbai had two of the best transport systems in the world: its suburban train system and its bus transport system.
  • No effort was made to expand or upgrade them as the city grew.
  • Instead, the powers that be are going in for metro rail projects, which are expensive.
  • This means that the fares on metros are beyond the reach of the average commuter.
  • It is not clear how it was decided that metros were the best solution to the problem of Mumbai’s commuting woes, and there are many unanswered questions about the projects.
  • Also, the projects are in violation of environmental laws in certain stretches.

Faced with the nightmare of commuting, the decision makers, instead of upgrading the STS and BEST, decided to bring in alternative transport options such as the Metro, the Monorail, cable cars, and even a Skybus metro. The Skybus never saw the light of day in Mumbai; an accident during the trial run in Goa put paid to this project. The Monorail has been an unmitigated disaster, both from the users’ point of view and financially. The cable car project proposed through the Sanjay Gandhi National Park has been dropped, which leaves only the metros.

Mumbai”s Metro 1, which is a 11-km-long line operating from Ghatkopar West to Versova.

Mumbai”s Metro 1, which is a 11-km-long line operating from Ghatkopar West to Versova. | Photo Credit: Aadesh Choudhari

Metro 1 is a 11-km-long line operating from Ghatkopar West to Versova. It is a heavily utilised, elevated east-west connector. It was built through a public-private partnership between the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and Reliance. It is heavily subsidised in terms of a Viability Gap Funding of Rs.650 crore, free land, advertising rights, rights to set up concessionaries, and revenue from fares. The current fare is Rs.4 a km. A few years ago, Reliance approached the statutory Fare Fixation Committee (FFC) with a request to increase the fare to Rs.10 a km. The FCC approved this, but the Bombay High Court stayed the increase after the MMRDA appealed against it. If this fare increase had come into force, a commuter travelling from Versova to Ghatkopar on Metro 1 would have had to spend approximately Rs.100 for a single trip of 11.4 km. By contrast, a single journey AC fare from Churchgate to Bandra on the STS costs only Rs.50. Similarly, a monthly AC pass from Churchgate to Bandra is Rs.900, whereas the metro monthly pass from Versova to Ghatkopar currently costs Rs.1,375 (at Rs.4/km) and would have gone up to approximately Rs.3,400 if the fare had been increased to Rs.10/km. (In 2020, however, the MMRDA announced the following revised fare structure: Rs.10 for the first 3 km, Rs.20 for 3–12 km, Rs.30 for 12–18 km, Rs.40 for 18–24 km, Rs.50 for 24–30 km, Rs.60 for 30–36 km, Rs.70 for 36–42 km, and Rs.80 for distances above 42 km.)

Also read: Killer lifeline

For reasons unknown, and without public consultations, the Maharashtra government decided to go ahead with a spate of metro projects in Mumbai. The most controversial of these is Metro 3, which will operate from Colaba in south Mumbai to Aarey in the north. There are no details available about the fare structure on this 33-km-long corridor, but it will be much higher than Metro 1 and STS fares. Given the fact that it is an underground corridor, the construction costs are about 2.5 times more than that of an elevated corridor. Metro 3 is now estimated to cost Rs.33,000 crore (that is Rs.1,000 crore a km).

The first set of four coaches for Metro 3, at Aarey in Goregaon, Mumbai, on August 3.

The first set of four coaches for Metro 3, at Aarey in Goregaon, Mumbai, on August 3. | Photo Credit: PTI

The following questions arise:

1. Why was the money that is being spend on Metro 3 not used to upgrade the Western and Central Railway systems?

2. Why was there no public consultation?

3. How were these metros planned without taking into account the requirement of car sheds and other essential infrastructure?

4. Why are the metros being built as metre-gauge systems instead of broad gauge? A broad-gauge metro could possibly have been integrated with the STS at some locations.

5. Why is an underground metro being built in a part of the city that will be submerged due to sea level rise, as the Municipal Commissioner stated?

6. How will a government that is unwilling to invest in upgrading the city’s lifelines be willing to spend 10 times the amount on metro systems that will be unaffordable for most Mumbaikars?

Aarey depot controversy

As per a Supreme Court judgment dated December 12, 1996, the entire Aarey area should have been notified as a forest. This was not done because even at that time the government intended to exploit this land commercially.

The activists fighting to save Aarey Forest have suggested that the Metro 3 depot can be combined with the proposed Metro 6 car shed at Kanjur Marg. This would actually not only help save the forest but also improve connectivity and save costs. But the government rejected the suggestion and claimed that it would increase costs.

At a protest rally  against the metro car shed project in the Aarey Forest area, in Mumbai on August 7.

At a protest rally against the metro car shed project in the Aarey Forest area, in Mumbai on August 7. | Photo Credit: PTI

A look through some of the records pertaining to the issue makes it clear that in 2016 itself the then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was aware that car sheds were required both for Metro 3 and Metro 6. Unfortunately, even the land that has been identified at Kanjur Marg is problematic as it falls within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). Even if the government manages to overcome this hurdle legally, it will be faced with the reality of sea level rise and the consequent flooding.

Also read: Mumbai’s going green?

Lastly, what is worrying is that there are strong vested interests feeding off this controversy. An NGO suggested that the Aarey depot could be relocated to Royal Palms, which is itself an encroachment in Aarey Colony. Documents accessed by this writer indicate that one of the biggest construction and real estate companies in India might have bought the development rights to salt pan lands in Kanjur Marg. The firm is interested in the Kanjur Marg Depot issue since a relaxation of the CRZ norms for the depot would enable it to seek the same relaxation for an affordable “public housing” project at the site.

“Public transport that is unaffordable cannot be categorised as public transport.”

All the metro projects need to be reviewed in their totality and their capital costs, operating costs, fare structure, financial viability, and the ability of the government to subsidise them for the next 30 years need to be examined. Even today, the better option would be to invest in upgrading the STS by increasing the frequency of trains, adding three air-conditioned coaches to each train, and providing a BRT along the main corridors. Public transport that is unaffordable cannot be categorised as public transport.

Debi Goenka is an environmentalist and executive trustee of the NGO Conservation Action Trust. One of the successful campaigns he spearheaded is protection of the Borivali National Park.

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