By M. A. Siraj and Khader B. Syed
It was in June 2006 that the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for the Namma Metro. It was by far the largest urban infrastructure project taken up for Bengaluru whose population is projected to peak to 19 million by 2031. For a 19 Million projected population, there would be 23 million commuter trips per day. For a sustainable urban transport scenario, 45% of those 23 million trips, i.e. roughly 10 million should be served by publlic transport. Going by the snail’s pace at which the METRO work is proceeding—the tunnel boring machines cutting just a metre of rock under the ground a day—the entire 42-km network of the Namma Metro is not likely to be fully operational before 2017. And even on completion of all its phases, it would cater to only 1 to 1.5 million of the 10 million commuter trips a day that would be taking place in the City by then. The BMTC is expected to be sharing another 4 to 5 million trips. This still leaves a gap of nearly 3-4 million trips that would be looking for some mass transit system. In its absence, the people will have the only option of continuing to use the private and personal vehicles which are the most inefficient mode of urban transport for a city of the size of Bengaluru.
Excessive lionization of the Namma Metro project has bred a kind of obsession with its capacity to handle the commuters that the City is likely to generate in near future. This fascination has served to push all other complementary as well as alternative transport options for the city to the backburner. The authorities, it seems, are placing optimism with the project which it neither promises nor deserves. Call it myopia of the city fathers or the highhandedness of the Metro lobby, the State Government has systematically spurned all other alternatives suggested for public transportation for a city of Bengaluru’s size and importance. Chaos on the thoroughfares meanwhile is on the rise and making it an unsustainable city for investment and living. Road users have to grapple with traffic gridlocks, pickets popping up at the drop of a hat, one-ways, and ‘Metro work in progress’ signs at every conceivable turn.
The Metro was showcased with such degree of zeal as ‘remedy for all transportation woes of the city’ during the recent years that no other option has found even a modicum of acceptance with the authorities. Be it Suburban Rail, BRTS, revamp of BMTC operations or improvement of pedestrian/cyclist corridors, none has found a place among the priorities of the State Government.
It was during Mr. Jagadish Shettar’s tenure as chief minister that the Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT) came up with a proposal for converting the Outer Ring Road (ORR) into Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). It was conveniently transferred to Hubli-Dharwad for the precise reason that with ongoing Metro project, the city cannot afford to allocate more resources to other projects. It is nobody’s case that cities like Mysuru, Hassan, Hubballi-Dharwar, Mangaluru should be deprived of any development for better transit choices. But there was hardly any justification for the same not to being taken up with Bengaluru. For some strange reasons, BMRCL considered every other infrastructure project to be direct challenge and competitor to Metro project.
Much before the Metro appeared on the mental horizon of the authorities, there was a proposal to introduce a circular rail system in the City since 1987. It kept cropping up at frequent intervals for discussion till it took a more concrete shape into ‘Commuter Rail’ (nicknamed Namma Railu) proposal around 2010. A citizen advocacy group ‘Praja-Raag’ in partnership with IISc-based Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transport and Urban Planning (CiSTUP) came up with a ‘Plan to Action’ report proposing a comprehensive railway network plan around Bengaluru. It envisaged use of existing railway lines and infrastructure for running an affordable, reliable and frequent commuter train service connecting Bengaluru with surrounding suburbs and towns of Ramanagaram, Tumakuru, Doddaballapur, Chikkaballapur, Bangarapet and Hosur. The idea was to take growth to these towns and allow people to live there as well as have a cheaper, dependable, efficient, hassle-free daily access to their worksites in Bengaluru’s city centre.
Sustained advocacy exerted enough pressure on DULT to engage the RITES into producing a feasibility report in July 2012 for a Commuter Rail Service. It identified the existing infrastructure gaps that could be filled in the most cost-effective manner and lay a network on an area of 440 sq. km. around the City with a projected daily ridership of 25 lakh commuters. RITES had pegged its cost at Rs. 8,500 crore against the Rs. 40,000 crore earmarked for the Metro. It was not to replace the Metro but targeted at complementing it and the BMTC services. Even the finances it required were needed in smaller installments. Mere Rs. 200 crore for the Phase-I would have brought in 24 initial services within six to nine month and substantially mitigated woes of daily commuters.
Following RITES report, the Namma Railu project, rechristened as Suburban Rail, received the approval of State Government headed by Mr. Shettar but had to be kept on hold with the Election Code coming into force. Surprisingly, even the new Government headed by Mr. Siddramiah also gave it green signal in July 2013. But then the coldness induced by brief political rivalry between the CM and the then Union Railway Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge threw a spanner into the works. The State Government failed to use the good offices of Mr. Kharge or his successor Mr. Sadanand Gowda who held the portfolio briefly. One wanted the CM to approach him with the Suburban Rail file and another insisted that the project to be a baby to be handled by Urban Development Ministry.
Meanwhile a rude jolt has been given by the commuters in Whitefield who have come together to register their protest and demand better rail connectivity with the City and areas beyond. Misplaced optimism about Namma Metro, insecurities it triggers with regard to alternative and complementary transport options and total official apathy towards the citizens woes have all combined to make the city less and less navigable on an average workday. Quo vadis?
M. A. Siraj is an independent journalist based at Bengaluru. Khader B. Syed is an IT professional based at Maryland, US. He is founder member of the Praja-RAAG, Bengaluru.
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