At the risk of sounding unduly pessimistic, the question must be asked. Does the city of Chennai, with its gamut of functionally semi-literate official agencies, possess the capacity to run a sophisticated Metro rail system?
The state of crumbling, dirty, corrupt civic governance and the moribund nature of bureaucracy would make us think not.
Our rent collecting officialdom has not solved the primary requirements for a clean city that aids the movement of people and materials. Whether it is solid waste management, cleaning of drains, supplying power or maintaining public space, Chennai is a dirty mess. All of that can only flow into the new metro tunnels as they flow in the streets and canals. The sizeable number of spit-and-go city residents can only make the problem even more difficult to solve. Infrastructure can be created, but people must decide to change their habits. There is nothing elitist about being clean, it is actually a Gandhian ideal.
It is unimaginable that a modern metro rail can survive intact if it is serving an impersonal city that lacks a citizenry with a sense of civic identity. Cities may be impersonal by their very definition, and in a caste-ridden society, that is even welcome. But it offers cold comfort if you are looking for non-aggressive behaviour from those who could not care less about the state of public space.
Back to the question of metro rail, The Hindu reports today that the Japanese government has given its sanction to the costly transport system, initially to run in two arteries. That report is here. It is also worth taking a look at this report in the Business Standard, about the new funding model adopted in Hyderabad for the Metro in that city (no cost to governments, fully funded by private concessionaire although public benefits in the long term are undefined). Incidentally, Hyderabad is the first city to issue orders to form a transport authority for that city.
We feel a deep sense of apprehension about the prospects for professional operation of any metro rail in Chennai also for the following important reasons : The DMK government has failed to create a transport regulator, although it fobbed off media queries recently by stating that the Transport Minister is indeed forming such a group. That clever move was reported by The Hindu, report is here.
Also, the existing models followed by both the AIADMK Government earlier and the present DMK Government show that their philosophy of transport is one of “command and control,” with rudimentary ideas about cross-subsidisation (they have near-empty Volvo buses and poorly designed and crudely manufactured deluxe buses that charge heavy rates ostensibly to subsidise rickety ordinary services). There is also an undue influence of worker unions in operational matters. We are fully supportive of worker rights in the domain of labour and welfare, but see no reason for their influence on operational issues that are detrimental to commuter interests.
We demand that the Metro project be pursued along with a transparent functioning of the promised transport regulator. This is essential to bring about integrated transport, common ticketing and equity in service provision as envisaged under the National Urban Transport Policy.
There has to be clear fixing of responsibilities at the Chennai Corporation, which has rendered the city’s roads practically unusable, filled as they are with trash, and left broken, pitted, crumbling and woefully neglected. This administrative collapse at the Corporation is happening at a time of great commercial activity and unprecedented flow of funds in Chennai. Where is all the money going, we ask.
One only has to look at the potholes developing in the approach to the new Mahalingapuram flyover to see the point. Someone at Ripon Building is siphoning out the money ostensibly in the name of creating new infrastructure.
Even the holes dug into new roads in Mahalingapuram to put up the dais and pandals for the inauguration by Chief Minister M Karunanidhi lie unfilled, weeks after the event. Such is the capacity of our civic body and the concern of our rulers for proper spending of people’s hard-earned tax monies.
We have already made the point about our suburban railway and the MRTS Beach – Velachery service lying sorely neglected by the Union Railway Ministry, its Minister from Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Nadu Government. Our opaque and unprofessional bus system operated by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) has also been commented upon in the past. We can only reiterate: clean the Augean stables.
Given such a background, we have every reason to believe that a technologically advanced system such as a metro rail cannot work with our present levels of competence in the Government agencies. It is time the Tamil Nadu government woke up to this reality and did a thorough review of its agencies. The first step to take is to set up a transport regulatory authority under law, and make it truly independent. Whether the Dravidian parties and their recently spawned offshoots have the political will for such reform remains in doubt.