Indian metros: grand plans, slow progress
REPORTS by the McKinsey Global Institute and others suggest that annual investments worth a huge Rs 1 trillion ($US 16bn) are envisaged over the next 20 years to ramp up India's creaking urban transport infrastructure, with a substantial chunk likely to be directed towards rail-based systems. So-called Regional Rapid Transport Systems (RRTS) to connect metropolitan centres with adjoining cities and towns by dedicated rail corridors are also planned in the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi, among other centres.
Institutional, financial, administrative or legislative mechanisms are now being put in place to ensure fast implementation of metro and monorail projects.
So, has an unstoppable process of metro rail construction across India been initiated?
"For the moment, it might be prudent to temper such enthusiasm with a degree of caution," says Mr Krishan Lal Thapar of the New Delhi-based Asian Institute of Transport.
Such circumspection is borne out of several factors. For one, both the Ministry of Railways (MoR) and the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) have continued to remain engaged in a turf war to control activities relating to metro projects. As the agency for metro projects, the MoUD has proposed amendments to the Metro Railways (Operations and Maintenance) Act 2002 to ensure that urban transport projects are delinked from the MoR. Whereas the MoR, which is empowered under the Act to certify technical and safety aspects, has been stiffly resisting the amendments.
In a series of meetings with MoR officials in late 2013, MoUD officials proposed amendments to the 2002 Act to authorise it to build metro corridors not only in the urban centres, but in any municipality in the country. The MoUD also wants authority to run freight trains on metro lines. "If amendments proposed by the MoUD are carried through by parliament, the ministry would emerge as a business competitor to the railways," a MoR official said. But it is unlikely that amendments to the Metro Rail Act will be carried out by parliament before the national elections which will take place in April or May.
This raises another question: is there more hype than substance to the planned rapid implementation of metro and monorail projects in India? There is not much to be optimistic about, going by the progress made so far. Phase I of the Bangalore Metro, launched in April 2003, has completed construction of just 6.7km out of a total length of 33km so far at a rate of 1.21km per year. The Chennai, Kolkata east-west line, Mumbai and Hyderabad metros (launched in 2008, 2004, 2004 and 2003 respectively) have yet to complete a single section of line.
Phase I of the Delhi metro was constructed at a rate of 8.13km per year, while the pace of construction was ramped up under Phase II to 19.6km per year. In contrast, the Kochi metro was started in July 2005 and re-launched in July 2012, but has not yet completed a single stretch of construction.
The Mumbai monorail project has not started, with the concessionaire on the verge of backing out, while Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) appears disinterested in funding the Kolkata east-west corridor, as the route is considered unviable. "Only the Hyderabad metro project, which has L&T Metro Rail as the concessionaire, seems to show hope at this stage," an expert said.
Issues are as much about financing as about technology and political will. While state governments are generally keen on metro projects, some schemes including the Kolkata metro have not made progress because of inter-party rivalries.
But MoUD secretary Mr Sudhir Krishna exudes hope. "Innovative financing mechanisms (as envisaged for Delhi metro Phase III) are being worked out for all metro projects," he says. "This involves not only financing from multilateral financing institutions like Jica, but also domestic borrowing duly facilitated by government guarantees. Interest subsidy is proposed to be serviced through land-value capture along the metro corridors."
The potential for building metros in India is truly huge. Cities and towns contribute more than 60% of the country's GDP at present. In 2001, 28% of the total population lived in urban areas accounting for 286 million people, but by 2011 the proportion had increased to more than 31% or 377 million people.
It is projected that by 2031, about 40% of the total population - 600 million people - will be living in urban areas. There were 35 cities in India with a population in excess of one million in 2001, but by 2011 the number had grown to 53.
The Planning Commission has stipulated eligibility guidelines for state governments wishing to construct and operate metros during the 12th plan period (2012-13 to 2016-17). The guidelines state that state governments can seek approval for metro projects in cities which are projected to have peak traffic ridership of 15,000 passengers/h/direction by 2021, and the average distance travelled by each passenger must be more than five minutes. This could pave the way for many more projects.