Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
Driving to nowhere
The writer is a senior journalist and environmental activist.
Since the 1990s, there has been a thrust in India's transport sector towards increasing reliance on private investment. This can take many forms: private entrepreneurs constructing roads and bridges, often on a "build, operate and transfer" basis, the entry of many more multinational car manufacturers, and the easing of restrictions in the imports of components. Throughout urban India, which now accounts for some 300 million people, the perception that the State is unwilling or unable to provide quick and reliable transport is fast gaining ground. There is increasing dependence on private modes of motorised transport, whether it is automobiles, two-wheelers or buses.
Middle-class citizens aspire to owning or using these vehicles and believe that the State's responsibility is to provide the infrastructure for this purpose. This has led to a situation where private modes are swallowing the bulk of funds earmarked for transport in cities and towns. Nowhere is this stark contrast more apparent than in Mumbai, the country's commercial and industrial capital. There has been heavy investment in a plethora of roadways and a near-total neglect of public transport in a metropolis where the overwhelming majority rely on this mode to commute to work.
Mumbai's peculiar geography has admittedly complicated the situation. The north-south transport axis has been part of the city's life for so many decades that it is difficult to think of changing it. The entire concept of building a twin city across the harbour in the early 1970s was meant to provide an east-west axis and alter the flow of traffic. Unfortunately, the planners first built a road bridge over the Thane creek to Vashi, which did not bring about a critical mass there. It was only a couple of decades later, with the rail bridge alongside it, that Navi Mumbai got the boost it badly needed.
However, the central business district (CBD) in the new city has not really taken off, because managements have been reluctant to shift across the harbour, given the inadequate transport links. Although the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has been developing the Bandra-Kurla area as an alternative CBD within Greater Mumbai, it is taking some time to grow into a full-fledged centre. While areas in the suburbs like Andheri are attracting some new sunrise service industries, South Mumbai retains its overwhelming importance.
While successive State governments have been guilty of neglecting Mumbai's transport problems, it was the erstwhile Shiv Sena-BJP government which drastically altered the course. By initiating a range of road schemes, it unequivocally opted for private, motorised transport in preference to public transport. This may be said to fall in line with the economic liberalisation moves encouraged by successive national governments, with the State gradually withdrawing from area after area of public life. In Mumbai, this coalition government took the drastic step of bypassing the apex planning body, the MMRDA, as its transport expert, A. V. Ghangurde, publicly cited at a seminar. Instead, it entrusted both the planning and execution of the road projects to the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), an engineering agency which has no expertise to take an overall view of the merits of such schemes. The total cost of all these schemes was over Rs. 8,000 crores, excluding the Eastern Freeway Sea Link.
W. S. Atkins, consultants hired by MMRDA to advise on a comprehensive transport plan for the metropolitan region in 1994, showed that Mumbai was unique in that 83 per cent of the passenger trips in peak hours were by public transport (train and bus), another eight per cent by "intermediate public transport" (taxis and three-wheelers) and only nine per cent by private transport (both cars and two-wheelers). This is why critics castigate the overwhelming emphasis as the "nine per cent solution" for a city which is poised to become the world's most populous in two decades. One can also contrast the passenger carrying capacities of different modes: cars carry only 4,000 passengers a hour, versus 15,000 by bus, 45,000 by train and 75,000 if there were an underground system.
There are three sets of road projects which the Shiv Sena-BJP government initiated: fly-overs, sea-links and freeways. By far the most controversial of these were the fly-overs. The government appointed a committee to advise on the viability of fly-overs controversially chaired by a builder, V. M. Jog, who obviously had no expertise in this field. Mr. Jog dutifully obeyed his political masters and recommended 50 fly-overs, for which pains he was awarded an additional project at Andheri, the only one not to be constructed by the MSRDC. The 50 fly-overs were to cost Rs. 1,500 crores and the one at Andheri Rs. 110 crores. Mr. Jog's controversial fly-over was the subject of a writ filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group because he sought to cover the cost by selling commercial space beneath it. In other words, whatever congestion was meant to have been reduced by the fly-over was created beneath it! He was originally permitted 9,000 sq m but was eventually given 45,000 sq m - five times the area - to exploit on the market. After a delay of several months, which caused interminable traffic jams, the court allowed him to proceed with less space.
According to the MSRDC, the fly-overs were justified on the ground that the four major expressways being constructed to take traffic in and out of Greater Mumbai at a cost of another Rs. 10,000 crores would not work unless there were fly-overs to carry the vehicles smoothly through the city. These were to link the metropolis with Pune (this expressway has been completed at Rs. 1,450 crores), Nashik, Talasari and Sawantwadi. The MSRDC cited how the earliest consultant on improving the city's transport links, Los Angeles-based firm, Wilbur Smith, recommended fly-overs as early in 1962. The consultants also mooted the highly debatable West and East Island Freeways along the coasts of the island city, a scheme which the MSRDC is now reviving. Needless to say, Los Angeles experts are hardly qualified to advise Mumbai since the Californian city is notorious for sacrificing all planning norms for the benefit of the all-powerful automobile lobby.
The MSRDC also argued, illogically, that the fly-overs would help reduce air pollution. Maharashtra's Minister of Public Works, Nitin Gadkari, to whom the flyovers were a pet project, argued that since cars would move speedily, without being obstructed by traffic lights, there would be less emissions. However, he was supremely indifferent to the counter argument that by building fly-overs, there would be a spurt in the number of vehicles and the total emissions from these would surely increase the overall load of pollutants. Already, vehicles account for 70 per cent of Mumbai's air pollution. Gadkari also believed with the coastal freeways and sea links that the pollutants would vanish into thin air along the ocean, not realising that the prevalent wind currents are from the sea towards the land.
The World Bank, which had funded the first phase of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) and wanted to initiate the second phase, unequivocally came out against the fly-overs during the course of a review of MUTP2 in October 1998. It pointed out that "there appears to have been little traffic impact assessment" or financial evaluation of the project. The fly-overs would increase road capacity and encourage (and probably generate new) car use in the city. Some of them, notably those in the island city like the Haji Ali-Wilson College viaduct, would have "severe adverse environmental impact (noise, visual intrusion etc)". There was no economic justification and the estimation of recovery of costs through tolls was also inadequate.
As it happened, there were legal stays on the proposed tolls. The state government eventually had to scrap the tolls on fly-overs within the metropolis, including 14 within the island city, and only charge those who were entering the city. It will thus fall far short on recovery of costs. The Bank observed: "While there is no objection to the tolls per se, this programme nevertheless subsidises and appears to encourage car commuting and could actually generate additional intra-Greater Mumbai, particularly in island city, traffic demand with consequent congestion impacts." The Bank also criticised the neglect of the bus system, since fly-overs span too long distances to accommodate this form of public transport. Finally, it commented on the lack of public consultation prior to the project.
Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) examined the traffic, economic and environmental impact of fly-overs and also opposed them. In particular, it cited those in congested areas as being undesirable. It found that "construction of flyovers on the island will only increase the usage of private vehicles . . . this would increase the congestion levels and parking problems in the city". The investment in the island city would not be justified, as the overall social benefits would be lower than the cost. Dr. B. R. Patankar, a former head of the BEST and now working with TCS, has stressed: "The automobile, born in the beginning of the 20th century, can no longer remain the focus of the urban transport infrastructure planning as was the case four-five decades ago."
To add insult to injury, the tolls with which the MSRDC had proposed to recover the cost of the fly-overs were the subject of a writ petition in the High Court, which ruled against them. At present, only vehicles which enter the city and use the Western and Eastern Express Highways are liable to pay the tolls which is unfair and exempts the regular users. This is a typical instance of the authorities proceeding without doing their homework and in the process, imposing a burden of Rs. 1,500 crores on the state government for a scheme that benefits only a tiny minority of motorists.
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