Mumbai is obsessed with building expensive metros to alleviate travel problems

The best alternative would be to invest in upgrading BEST and the commuter train system.

MUCH before the metro craze hit India, Mumbai boasted two of the best public transport systems in the world: the Commuter Rail System (STS), aptly called the Mumbai’s lifeline, and the bus transport system, aptly named BEST (Brihanmumbai Power Supply and Transport).

fund hungry BEST

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 grant it traditionally received from its power supply. As a result of these double 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 jams, which reduced the average speed of a BEST bus to 12 km/h. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, BEST’s parent organization, made very little effort to make up for its lost grant, thus pushing BEST further into the red. A poor selection of Chinese buses that regularly broke down further compounded the problems BEST faced.

Some NGOs and transport experts also suggested options such as bus rapid transit (BRT), but these were summarily rejected on the grounds that a dedicated bus lane could not be cut on any of the roads in mumbai. However, city policymakers saw nothing wrong with blocking the same thoroughfares with piers for elevated subways. The disruption and inconvenience caused to road users was ‘collateral damage’ which was thankfully ignored.

Strong points

  • At one time, Mumbai had two of the best transport systems in the world: its commuter rail system and its bus transport system.

  • No effort was made to expand or modernize them as the city grew.

  • Instead, the powers that be are embarking on expensive metro rail projects.

  • That means subway fares are out of reach for the average commuter.

  • It’s unclear how it was decided that the metros were the best solution to Mumbai’s commuter problems, and there are many unanswered questions about the plans.

  • In addition, the projects violate environmental laws in some sections.

Faced with the commute nightmare, policy makers, instead of upgrading the STS and BEST, decided to introduce alternative transportation options such as the subway, monorail, cable cars, and even a Skybus subway. The Skybus never saw the light of day in Mumbai; an accident during the trial run in Goa put an end to this project. The monorail was an absolute disaster, both user-wise and financially. The proposed cable car project through the Sanjay Gandhi National Park has been scrapped, leaving only the subways.

Mumbai Metro 1 which is an 11 km long line connecting Ghatkopar West to Versova.

Mumbai Metro 1 which is an 11 km long line connecting Ghatkopar West to Versova. | Photo credit: Aadesh Choudhari

Metro 1 is an 11 km long line connecting Ghatkopar West to Versova. This is a heavily used and 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 subsidized in terms of viability gap funding of Rs.650 crore, free land, publicity rights, concessionary set-up rights and revenue from tariffs. The current rate is Rs.4 per km. A few years ago, Reliance approached the Statutory Tariff Setting Committee (FFC) with a request to increase the tariff to Rs.10 per km. The FCC approved this, but the Bombay High Court suspended the increase after MMRDA appealed against it. Had this fare increase come into effect, a commuter traveling from Versova to Ghatkopar on Metro 1 would have had to spend around Rs 100 for a single 11.4 km journey. In contrast, a one-way AC fare from Churchgate to Bandra on the STS costs only Rs.50. Similarly, an AC monthly pass from Churchgate to Bandra costs 900 rupees, while the monthly metro pass from Versova to Ghatkopar currently costs 1,375 rupees (at 4 rupees/km) and has reportedly risen to around 3,400 rupees if the fare had been increased to Rs.10/km. (In 2020, however, MMRDA announced the following revised tariff 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 km, Rs.50 for 24-30 km, Rs.60 for 30-36 km, Rs.70 for 36-42 km and Rs.80 for distances over 42 km.)

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For unknown reasons and without public consultation, the Maharashtra government has decided to go ahead with a series of metro projects in Mumbai. The most controversial of these is Metro 3, which will operate from Colaba in Mumbai’s south to Aarey in the north. There are no details available on the fare structure of this 33 km long corridor, but it will be much higher than the fares of Metro 1 and STS. Since it is an underground corridor, the construction costs are approximately 2.5 times higher than those of an elevated corridor. Metro 3 is now estimated to cost Rs.33,000 crore (i.e. Rs.1,000 crore per 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 spent 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 needs for carports and other essential infrastructure?

4. Why are metros built as meter gauge rather than broad gauge systems? A broad-gauge metro could have been integrated into the STS in some places.

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

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 deposition controversy

According to a judgment of the Supreme Court of December 12, 1996, the whole area of ​​Aarey should have been notified as a forest. This was not done because even then the government intended to commercially exploit these lands.

Activists fighting to save Aarey Forest have suggested that the Metro 3 depot could be combined with the proposed Metro 6 car shed at Kanjur Marg. This would not only save the forest, but also improve connectivity and reduce costs. But the government rejected the suggestion and said it would increase costs.

During a protest rally against the planned metro car shelter in the Aarey forest area of ​​Mumbai on August 7.

During a protest rally against the planned metro car shelter in the Aarey forest area of ​​Mumbai on August 7. | Photo credit: PTI

A look at some of the documents relating to the matter makes it clear that even in 2016 the then Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, knew that carports were needed for both Metro 3 and the metro 6. Unfortunately, even the land that has been identified as Kanjur Marg is problematic as it is part of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). Even if the government manages to legally overcome this hurdle, it will be faced with the reality of rising sea levels and resulting flooding.

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Finally, what is worrying is that there are powerful vested interests that feed on this controversy. An NGO has suggested that Aarey’s depot could be moved to Royal Palms, which itself is an encroachment on Aarey’s settlement. Documents accessed by this author indicate that one of the largest construction and real estate companies in India may have purchased the rights to develop the Kanjur Marg salt lands. The company is interested in the Kanjur Marg Depot issue because a relaxation of the CRZ standards for the depot would allow it to seek the same relaxation for an affordable ‘social housing’ project on the site.

“Unaffordable public transport cannot be classified as public transport.”

All metro projects must be reviewed in their entirety and their investment costs, operating costs, fare structure, financial viability and the government’s ability to subsidize them for the next 30 years must be examined. Even today, the best option would be to invest in upgrading the STS by increasing the frequency of trains, adding three air-conditioned cars to each train and providing BRT along the main corridors. Unaffordable public transport cannot be classified as public transport.

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

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