‘World Class’: Arrogance of the Ignorant

Published: August 3, 2009 - 17:39 Updated: July 2, 2015 - 13:55

Is the multi-crore 'magnificent success' called Delhi Metro turning out to be a holy cow? Hardnews opens a public debate on a touch-me-not issue
Dunu Roy Delhi

Urban renewal is one of the flagship projects of the present government and the Metro has become the iconic face of the "world-class city". Both were projected in all their glory when Jaipal Reddy, Union Minister for Urban Development, was participating in a panel discussion on 'Why Dream Cities turn Living Nightmares' hosted by CNN-IBN late in the evening of July 14, 2009. The minister declared in resonant tones that the Metro in Delhi was a "magnificent success", but deftly avoided the issue of what constituted "success". 

For instance Phase I of the Metro with three lines was initiated in 1995-1996, to be completed in 10 years. When Phase I was completed in November 2006, DMRC claimed that it was "three years ahead of schedule" (based on a presumed starting date of 1998), although the recent audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India indicates that there was a delay of 6, 15, and 14 months respectively for Lines 1, 2, and 3. Who, then, is to believe for confirmation of this parameter of 'success'?

The figures for 'ridership' are even more intriguing. In the original 'Project Report' for the Metro of 1995, the number of passenger trips per day was stipulated as 31.85 lakh. This was scaled down arbitrarily to 22.6 lakh in 2003. Now the CAG reveals that it has never increased beyond 6.62 lakh, that too in 2007 - one year after completion of Phase I. Unfortunately, the general public has no way of checking out the official assertions because the page of the DMRC website relating to ridership figures has been "under construction" for the past two years.

This "successful" performance at the level of 29 per cent of target has been reflected in the balance sheets of DMRC. In 2002-2003, DMRC incurred a loss of Rs 8.3 crore. The next year this climbed to Rs 32.4 crore, and in 2004-2005, the loss was Rs 76.3 crore. After that DMRC has been claiming that it makes "operational profits" but, not surprisingly, the balance sheets have disappeared from the public domain. The only oblique reference the minister made to this measure of "success" was to acknowledge that "we have not built enough feeder channels so that more people could travel in the Metro".

However, this aspect of 'feeding' a linear system was well known long before the Metro was built, both from the experience of the Kolkata Metro as well as the Ring Rail in Delhi, both built in the 1980s. Then why was this not incorporated into the designed plan of the Delhi Metro? In fact, in an effort to 'persuade' commuters to abandon the cheaper bus system for the swanky Metro, 15 routes of the DTC with 58 buses plying along the Metro corridor, and three routes of the STA with 106 buses, had been curtailed or diverted by 2006. Yet, this did not apparently succeed in enhancing ridership figures to any significant degree - perhaps because the ticket costs were three times higher.

The financial performance of DMRC actually disguises a couple of interesting features of its functioning - contracting out and commercialisation of property. Thus, during Phase I, the CAG report reveals that 100 contracts for Rs 8,900 crore were given out, while in the first six months of 2009 (with Phase II in full swing over twice the distance) DMRC has already announced tenders for 110 contracts. These cover a range of activities from construction to structural work, maintenance, servicing, electrical and mechanical installation and repair, architectural finishing, fire-fighting, cash collection, road surfacing, and signage.

Commercialisation of land has been aided by the declaration of the Union urban development ministry that a 500 metre belt on either side of the Metro line is a "development corridor". Based on this convenient change of land use, DMRC has already awarded nine properties to concessionaires for commercial development, leased out four more for residential development, and is further developing three more on its own. Contracts have been tendered for commercial development and construction of hotels.

In addition, DMRC is engaged in revenue generation through 28 consultancies for designing similar Metro lines in other cities all over India, but the minister is unable (or unwilling) to address the issue of how the cumulative deficits are going to be accounted for.
However, this kind of commercialisation will definitely lead to another kind of "success". Property prices along the Metro are already beginning to boom as witnessed, for instance, in Dwarka near the international airport in Delhi. Further densification is taking place as more high rises come up on this valuable real estate, such as in Civil Lines, South Delhi, and the flood plain of the Yamuna. This upward growth also increases the demand for services such as energy, water, sanitation and amenities of health and education - all at significantly higher prices as most of these are privatised. In other words, the geographical space next to the Metro lines is taking on a more exclusive character as now only the affluent can afford to live and work there.

What is not commonly known in this context is that Metro alignments in Phase I have been changed from the originally proposed ones. Line 1, planned from Delhi University to Central Secretariat through Civil Lines, is the only one to retain its original route. Line 2 was supposed to go from Shahdara to Subzi Mandi and then bifurcate into two lines to Holambi Kalan and Nangloi, all essentially working class areas. But the former now abruptly terminates at Rithala, while the latter has been abandoned completely. Instead, a totally unplanned Line 3 has come up in the upper middle class region from Indraprastha to Dwarka, while almost 700 poor families have been evicted to make way for the gleaming trains.

These factors of route changes, commercialisation, and contracting out have also impacted on environment and safety - two of the prominent features of the "world class" Metro. Thus, multi-level parking lots, commercial complexes, and high rises have begun to mar the landscape with consequent adverse impacts on water quality, air pollution, congestion, noise levels, waste generation and disposal, and horrendously pathetic resettlement of the evicted families. Further, the farming out of almost all activities (including key ones such as fire-fighting and signalling) to contractors so as to keep DMRC "lean and effective" has meant that DMRC is unable to supervise the work of the contractors.

The CAG report notes that DMRC violates standard procedures of quality control by scaling down of testing requirements, non-witnessing of tests by the company's representatives, non-preservation of test reports, non-submission of testing procedure plans by contractors, and testing in non-credited laboratories. But what the Auditor General does not record is the supervisory structure of DMRC.

Thus, it was only in December 2008 that DMRC advertised for three posts of 'DGM, Safety'. Since data is not publicly available of how many workers DMRC employs or how many safety supervisors are there, it is only pertinent to note that this works out to only one DMRC safety manager for about 60 km of track.

Hence, while the minister  acknowledges that there have been 50 deaths since "the time Metro project was started in Delhi" he does not compute that this works out to 5 deaths per year - and for this to compare favourably with the average national industrial death rate of about 0.1 per 1000 workers, DMRC would have to have at least 50,000 employees. This would challenge its claim to being "lean" with the "lowest people per kilometre ratio".

It also conceals the fact that contractors are encouraged to be equally lean and thus work is 'rationalised'. That is, the engineer in charge of construction is made responsible for safety and is always faced with the choice between meeting targets on time or stopping work while adequate safety precautions are put in place.

This pattern of thinking infests the whole enterprise of urban renewal. Within the claim that the Metro is a "grand" success is hidden the bare fact that its underground line costs between Rs 250 to Rs 300 crore per kilometre and the elevated line is Rs 150 to Rs 180 cr/km, as compared to Rs 8 cr/km for surface rail and Rs 5 cr/km for bus-based transport for carrying an equal number of passengers. When quizzed on the offer of the Indian Railways to upgrade its trunk routes and Ring Rail in Delhi for a mere Rs 600 crore, as well as the possibility of building a similar bus-based system for an even lower Rs 400 crore (as against the Rs 10,571 crore spent on Metro Phase I), the minister feigned ignorance. 

This is rather surprising because the upgradation of the Ring Railway and its feeder routes has been discussed since the mid-1990s, with committees set up even in 2002 to examine the matter, comprising members from the railways, the transport department, the government of Delhi, NDMC and MCD, and DMRC. It is even mentioned in the Master Plan of Delhi notified in 2007.

So why did the matter not reach the honourable minister?

Even when he claims that Rs 95,000 crore have been sanctioned for his ministry's Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), why is it that his attention is not drawn to the ministry's website which shows that Rs 45,839 crore have been approved, and only Rs 6,931 crores (15 per cent) actually used?

The minister further goes on to say on TV that "90 per cent of this amount was meant for basic services - drinking water, drainage, underground sewage, housing for the poor and not for flyovers or such". But he seems to be unaware that an analysis of the City Development Plans by civil society groups of over half the JNNURM cities shows that only 11 per cent has been earmarked for basic services.

He also seems not to know that his ministry puts up data on the website to show that over half the money has been grabbed by the 'developed' states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, while roads, flyovers, water supply, and sewerage account for 3/4th of the project costs. And he is blissfully unaware that ticking over behind him on the CNN-IBN screen is the graphic that shows that 87 per cent of the viewers are convinced that urban life is a nightmare.

What is responsible for this ignorance of our presiding political leaders?

Much of it may have to do with the bureaucratic apparatus that surrounds them and mediates between them and the public. For instance, letters to the minister are never acknowledged, faxes cannot be traced, appointments are never given, phone calls are received by secretaries who are "not aware" of the matter, and even applications under the Right to Information Act are returned with the bland response that "no record exists".

It is this same bureaucracy that has created the JNNURM, that has not allowed it to be cleared through Parliament, that signs the legal agreements between governments and multi-lateral funding agencies, and whose will then becomes binding on elected representatives and urban local bodies.

In a sense, therefore, what we are seeing is the steady and remorseless dismantling of the democratic structure of governance, and the replacement of the 'corrupt' politician by the 'efficient' administrator; of the 'citizen' by the 'stakeholder', of the accountable 'city planner' by the alien 'international consultant'. The entire give and take of politics, of the balance between the powerful rich and the powerless poor, and of the negotiation over due rights and entitlements, has been rendered subservient to the laws of commerce - if you can buy it you can have it, and the devil take the hindmost.

There is an implicit arrogance in this imposed model of 'good governance'. And it essentially means that the 'people' do not know what is good for them, but have to be guided by the resolute hand of the knowledgeable technocrat.
And that all that glitters is really  gold.

Is the multi-crore ‘magnificent success’ called Delhi Metro turning out to be a holy cow? Hardnews opens a public debate on a touch-me-not issue Dunu Roy Delhi

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