Thursday, December 07, 2006

Full House Mumbai

The following piece appeared in this week's Hafta, where I'm also now on vacation for about a month. Regular posting on this blog will also come down till year-end given chutti commitments.

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What will it take to get real-estate prices in the city down? If the Government was to be believed, increasing supply of land is one such measure. In fact, recent Court verdicts in the city are also expected to release large tracts of land for development.

We take you through some of these key Government decisions and court verdicts, all of which are focused on real estate issues in Mumbai.

1. The Mumbai Mill Land Case - In March 2006, the Supreme Court freed up redevelopment of Mumbai's Mill Lands by holding that that the term "open spaces" does not include lands vacant after demolition. The interpretation of this term lay at the heart of a protracted battle between environmentalists and builders. The Supreme Court verdict which paved the way for mill owners to retain, and hence redevelop, a higher area of their mills, was supposed to have helped in raising supply of land and ease property prices. Blame it on bad execution on the part of the Government but nine months after the verdict, property prices in the Mill Land area, as well as in the suburbs (where prices were supposed to have crashed with land now becoming available in areas closer to the central business district) have only gone up.

2. Housing Policy – The first-ever housing policy released by the Maharashtra State Government last month was a directionless damp squib with the only key highlight being a move towards a transparent carpet-area based mechanism for land transactions. As discussed in an earlier Hafta piece, the Government, in what seems to be a naïve assumption, expects this move to bring property prices down. Another proposal in the policy provides for a higher floor-space-index (FSI) in Mumbai's extended suburbs, which again implies raising supply. Experts and planners do not expect any meaningful impact from the draft housing policy. And other than the Chief Minister himself, no one seems to believe that any measure in the housing policy will get real estate prices anywhere in the city to come down.

3. Repealing the Urban Land Ceiling Regulation Act (ULCRA) – A product of the Emergency era, the ULCRA, is aimed at enabling the Government to acquire surplus land to provide housing for the masses. While the Government has fallen abysmally short in this noble intention, builders, thanks to politicians, have found their way around the Act by using exemptions. Repealing the Act is also necessary for getting infrastructure funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (also discussed in an earlier Hafta piece). The Chief Minister expects that repealing the Act would increase supply of land in the market and hence get real-estate prices down. Yet again, the CM's theory has not found too many takers and experts and planners do not expect repealing of the Act to cool off real-estate prices in Mumbai.

4. Lifting restrictions on congested corridors – The Bombay High Court recently upheld the Maharashtra State Government's policy on transfer of development rights (TDR) and lifted restrictions (earlier in place post a PIL filed by Bhagwanji Rayani) on constructions in certain corridors between the Western Express and Eastern Express Highways. TDR, a development right given to builders that surrender land to the Bombay Municipal Corp., has also been termed a "boon" for co-operative societies of old buildings. Following the introduction of TDR (in 1991) many suburban societies have given up their old structures to builders in return for larger flats in newer – and taller – buildings. The Bombay High Court's verdict effectively releases more area for development and is expected to cool off property prices in the suburbs. The jury's still out on whether this measure will bring down real-estate prices in the city, but don't expect to find too many believers here - TDR prices themselves rose 20% in a single day after the verdict.


Going through these verdicts and Government decisions, one is tempted to see the builders smiling all the way to the bank. After all, this is a city known for its builder-politician nexus.

One key issue is the kind of infrastructure that would be required to bear the burden of more houses, more families and more businesses. The MMRDA is already having a tough time meeting targets for its existing projects, so we'd rather not do any crystal-ball gazing on the impact of these new constructions on the city's infrastructure.

However, no crystal-ball gazing is required to predict where property prices in Mumbai are headed. If recent deals are to be believed (for e.g ., the 3,000 sqft. Cuffe Parade flat which went for Rs22crores, i.e. Rs73,000/sqft) the only way seems to be up.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On the Economist's concerns on India

I've reproduced a comment I made on some concerns that blogger Pramit Singh posted on, after reading this recent Economist article.

(Also, thanks, VD, for your inputs on everything below).

Consumer-price inflation has risen to almost 7% well above Asia's average rate of 2.5%.

What is the composition of CPI ? Besides, ask yourself, has your grocery bill sky-rocketed ? Please remember that Asia’s consumption basket will be different from India and would include electronics whose prices have been declining in India. Look at mobile bills.. they’ve crashed in the last couple of years, or at the bare minimum, you're paying less for talking more. Cars have become cheaper. The only thing that’s become more costly is petrol, which has nothing to do with Indian economics.

In a survey of 600 firms by the National Council of Applied Economics Research … 96% of firms reported that they were operating close to or above their optimal levels of capacity utilisation—the highest number ever recorded

Isn’t that good ? it indicates high capital efficiency. Btw, did you know India has among the highest ROEs in the world ? which means we’re sweating our assets better. Also remember that these capacities were built almost a decade back and if you’ve got India shining then dude, these 10-year old capacities are going to be exhausted and in need for expansion. And also have a look at the booming capital goods sector which amply demonstrates that Indian companies armed with stronger balance sheets are also seeing visible demand growth and are hence reinvesting.

Indian companies are also experiencing a serious shortage of skilled labour

True, but isn’t that good for the educated because their salaries will keep rising much ahead of inflation which you already think is high ? Sure, this also has to do with the Government’s policy on education and they better do something about it.

Wages are rocketing. Companies' total wage costs in the six months to September were 22% higher than a year earlier, compared with an average increase of around 12% in the previous four years

And despite this, companies have been able to grow profits. Also remember wage inflation is not necessarily bad especially in a growing economy, because it increases spending power which uplifts the rest of the economy as well. Just count how much money you spent on your last shopping spree/holiday/visit to PVR

India's current account has shifted to a forecast deficit of 3% of GDP this year from a surplus of 1.5% in 2003—a classic sign of excess demand

And high oil prices is a major contributor to this. Anyways, a growing economy will need more capital expenditure on machinery (as said above), some of which will need to be imported a lot of the time. The way IT revenues are growing, I think this issue will be resolved soon.

Total bank lending has expanded by 30% over the past year, close to the fastest growth on record –

Isn’t that also good ? India is an under-banked economy and there’s a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the world. Besides, how else will Chunnu and Munnu get their Maruti if banks aren’t eager to lend ? And same goes for the farmer who wants to buy a tractor to improve his efficiency

Share prices are almost four times their level in early 2003. India's price/earnings ratio of 20 is well above the average of 14 for all Asian emerging markets –

The other “Asian emerging markets” have sectors like steel, mining, semi-conductor manufacturing as dominant sectors in their indexes. These sectors by definition are highly capital intensive, have low return on capital and hence trade at lower PEs. FYI, Tata Steel in India trades at 6x PE and Hindalco at 10x PE. Perhaps you could invest your money in commodities and lower the PE of your portfolio.

House prices have also gone through the roof: …prices in big cities have more than doubled in the past two years. Housing loans jumped by 54% in the year to June and loans for commercial property were up by 102%

Agree. But the wealth effect that this is creating is spurring consumption. Ask people who own property, if their spending pattern has changed as their property value increased, or at the very bare minimum are they feeling better. In the IT sector, five years into his/her job, an employee can afford a house priced at Rs50lakhs, which was unthinkable 5 years back. Affordability has increased, thanks to wage inflation (referred to above by yourself) and credit growth (ditto).

- India vs. China: In China, Inflation is only 1.4% and it has a widening current-account surplus, which implies excess supply rather than excess demand

I find it strange that the Economist, itself a vocal critic of the lack of transparency in China’s economic data, harps on these numbers. Anyways, China has a current account surplus but screwed efficiencies. Meaning – they just throw (invest) money into capacity creation with no caution to ROEs, etc. Ever wonder why their famous expressways, even in smaller cities, happen to be empty at times ? Does the Economist have any numbers for China’s capacity utilization in any sector ?

Moreover, average house prices have risen by less than 6% in the past 12 months. And share prices have gained only 42% in the past four years. Even the expansion of bank credit has slowed to an annual pace of 15%, not much faster than nominal GDP growth

I didn’t get your argument here. Are you saying that the growth in housing prices/share prices/bank credit should rise further or has started declining ?

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Election Time

The following piece appeared in last week's Hafta. Comments welcome. I think Mumbai's civic polls could well be a big turning point for the city.

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The Brihanmumbai Mahanagarpalika, or Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, or just plain old BMC, goes to the polls early next year, to be precise, on 28th January with a provisional date of Feb 4th, both of which are Sundays as per norm. With a budget of Rs9,865crores (or more than US$ 2billion), the BMC is the richest civic body in India. Understandably so, considering its mandate is to keep Mumbai running. To use the BMCs own words:

"The primary agency responsible for urban governance in Greater Mumbai is the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). MCGM is the most affluent and the most efficient local body in the country and one of the biggest local governments in the Asian continent. It is responsible for provision of municipal services, provision of infrastructure including public transport and supply of electricity. Its planning department is responsible for the Development Plan of the City and enforcement of the Development Control Regulations. It is not directly involved in public housing, however, it is responsible for providing basic amenities to slums, which are encroaching on its own lands or other lands within its jurisdiction."

The other, and more relevant, aspect to the BMC is taking the blame for every breakdown this city has (and God knows how many of those we have everyday). Yet, Mumbai's civic polls are all set to be a major turning point for the cities fortunes, or perhaps the lack of them.

It’s all about politics
For close to two decades, the BMC has been run by the Shiv Sena-Bhartiya Janata Party combine. However, with the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party Combine winning the State Elections in 2004, power over the city has been split. This is because the MMRDA – the other organization responsible for almost all conceivable infrastructure projects – is run by the Congress with the Chief Minister being the MMRDA Chairman.

With opposing parties running Mumbai's largest and most important organizations, there have always been spats, face-offs and blame games between both organizations, and hence political parties, for all the ills plaguing this city. Crater filled roads ? Blame the MMRDA for digging up all the roads for the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). Choked up drains ? Blame the BMC for not clearing the pipes before the monsoons. And so on and so forth the blame games between both organisations have continued for some time.

With the Shiv Sena-BJP in disarray for a variety of reasons, the Congress-NCP combine is sensing a real chance to take over the BMC, and pretty much getting a full house for all city-related matters for the next two years (before state elections in 2008). There is also talk that both parties – the Congress and the NCP – could even contest elections on their own.

Staying ahead in the race
Ahead of the civic polls, both political combines are raising their decibel level to show how committed they remain to Mumbai. They would want us to forget their collective incompetence that bought the city to its knees during the 26/7 floods. Even though public memory is short-lived, the blame for 26/7 disaster will remain on Mumbaikars mind when they vote next year. Memories of a hapless Chief Minister, and a BMC Commissioner in denial, are hard to forget

Hence, both combines will try hard to make us forget those bad memories and instead focus on how these parties, through their organisations, remain, er, committed to the city. The Chief Minister, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh, would want us to remember all the work the MMRDA has done, including the Mumbai Metro and the MUTP. Also throw in two Prime Minister visits in the last six months to that list and Central Government approval for funding the Brimstowad drainage project. Mr. Anil Deshmukh(NCP), Minster for Public Works, wants us to remember work underway for the Bandra Worli Sealink and his approval of the Peddar Road Flyover.

On its part, the BMC – and hence the SS-BJP combine – doesn't have any so many headline projects on its report card in terms of major achievements. No wonder then that recently the BMC cleared (not spent) city projects worth Rs463crores in October. This was an exponential jump over earlier months and is attributed to the fact that this kind of profligacy will not be possible once the Election Commission releases its Code of Conduct for the civic polls.

In the run-up to the polls, we can also expect newspapers to be full of both parties flaunting their achievements. On the sidelines, smaller parties like Raj Thackeray’s MNS and the Samajwadi Party will largely be restricted putting up posters of their leaders and holding rallies to flay incumbents and opposition alike over the usual issues of rising prices and depressing quality of life in the city.

What’s new
Are there any alternatives to the above political parties ? Interestingly enough, yes. Count among these, the entry of Lok Paritran in Mumbai. Lok Paritran has held initial meetings in Mumbai in the last couple of months and is finalising strategies ahead of the civic polls.

Then there is the independent Vote Mumbai campaign which is making a serious attempt at introducing an alternate urban governance system for Mumbai as a solution to its manifold ills. One suggested solution that could find takers is that of a Directly Elected Mayor, as against the current system of a Mayor who is largely ceremonial and who fills the newspapers for all the wrong reasons (for example, leading a rally to stop trains during a bandh).

Finally, citizens groups will be going into overdrive as civic polls near, to raise citizen awareness on candidates and key city issues. An interesting – and significant – effort is that of Citizens Roundtable (read more here) which will comprise two former Municipal Commissioners, urban experts and activists. AGNI, a leading Mumbai NGO and a member of this forum points to an interesting fact “in one third of the constituencies, the margin of victory in the last civic elections was as little as 1000 votes, sometimes only 25 to 40.”

Indeed, Mumbaikars would do well to listen to groups such as Citizens Roundtable before exercising their franchise on January 28th 2007.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

A bright Sunday morning

Two articles in the front pages of both the Times of India and the Hindustan Times make you think about the future of Mumbai. They also give you an insight into what the politicians and builders are thinking about Mumbai. Makes me wonder whether any other class of people matter for this city.

First up, the HT article (For today, this link should work, but for later go to the HT epaper site and search archives for 12th Nov), whose headlines go “8,000 sq ft flat in Worli? Skyz the limit”. Move over Bellissimo, look who just toppled you. That’s right. Skyz, a project by Oberoi Constructions, will have 65 floors, but only 44 apartments. Each will measure 8,000sqft, will be a duplex apartment spread across two floors.

"We wanted a swimming pool for each apartment but the civic body turned it down as there is a water shortage in the city", explained Oberoi.




Apartments will start 15 floors above the ground everyone gets a view of the sea. Of course the first question in your mind - how much ? Rs20cr per apartment. And like Bellissimo, you have to be invited to buy the apartment. And this time I hear they mean it, not like Bellissimo where your friendly neighborhood broker or home-financer could get you an invite). So I’d suggest you forget that drive down to the Glaxo compound in Worli (where the towers are being built), and don’t even think of asking anyone there to show you a sample flat.

My point is anyone paying Rs20cr for this flat, or for that matter any builder investing money in this project, obviously assumes that real-estate prices in Bombay, or at least those in and around Worli (which is said to soon become the new Cuffe Parade), will only keep going up. That’s a fair assumption to make ?

Next up is the Times of India, which in this article talks about the development plan (DP) for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). This is the single most crucial document for Mumbai. It will cover planning for everything from land to transport to communications, water supply, etc. Basically a blue-print for the future development of this city. A committee of 45 members will decide on this plan. So, you’d expect some urban development experts, urban planners, architects, professionals, etc. Sure there are. But only 4, as against no less than 30 politicians. I’m guessing the rest are bureaucrats.

Eminent architect and urban planner Charles Correa says he fears the entire process of drafting the regional plan may be abused. “It all depends on the relationship between these politicians and the planners on the panel,” he adds.
I remember asking Chandrashekhar Prabhu about whether he believed in the idea of a CEO for Mumbai, or at the bare minimum having one agency in charge (instead of the BMCs, MMRDAs, MSRDCs, etc, etc). His answer surprised me because he said he didn't give a damn who ran the city as long as they did a good job and had a professional, approach with the involvment of urban planning experts. No such luck this time. The DP is made for a 10-15 year period and this one will cover the period 2011-2021).

Yet again politicians get to decide the future of the city, which according to builders is set to be very, very rosy. I don’t know where’s the disconnect here with the present day. I mean each and every day that goes by, the words “planning” and “development” seem meaningless for this city that is just OD-ing on traffic jams, dug-up roads and crowded trains. Envy the politicians and builders – they seem to be one optimistic lot about the future of Mumbai. Pardon my skepticism then as I return to my Sunday morning coffee and reality checks.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Carpetbaggers

The write-up below appears in this week's Hafta. Expectations were running high from this housing policy, given the unabated rise in property prices, as well as infrastructure issues. However, the policy turned out to be toothless and a wash out.


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Housing by carpet

The recent draft housing policy unveiled by Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh, has raised more questions than provide answers to long-standing housing problems in Mumbai. The policy, which has been seen as a damp squib, is still in the draft stage and will now go into discussion for about two months with various bodies before becoming law. We look at a few recommendations of the policy.

The recommendation that has raised the most questions pertains to land transactions now being charged on the basis of carpet area as against current industry practice of charging on the basis of built-up area. Carpet area, simply put, is the area where you can literally lay down a carpet that covers your entire flat. As against this, built-up area includes the walls and super built-up area adds lifts, staircases, entrance area, flower-beds, and anything from the builder’s creative mind that goes to increase the headline area he tells you while tempting you with that dream house. In effect, you land up paying for a whole lot of area that you do not use and probably do not own. This practice is called loading, and is typically measured by how much the built-up area exceeds the carpet area. While the accepted loading norm used to be about 25% (to cover the builder’s costs), it has steadily inched higher to 30-40%. For example, when you buy a flat with built-up are of 1,000sqft, the actual carpet area is typically about 650sqft.

The Government now wants to make it mandatory for buying/selling of land to be done on a carpet area basis. With this, the Government expects property prices to fall by 30-40%, simply because it assumes that with the rate remaining the same, a lower area (i.e. the carpet area) would mean a lower price. However, after talking to a few brokers – and going by the reaction of most builders – what the industry expects more likely to happen is that property rates would in fact increase so as to keep the value of the transaction intact. So much for reform.

To be fair, this proposal is being seen as a positive step, if only to increase transparency and keep a check on builders in an industry shrouded in under-handed dealings and black money. The move is also supported by home finance institutions, for example, HDFC’s Chairman Mr. Deepak Parekh has in the past called for builders to move towards carpet area based pricing of houses.

The draft housing policy also includes a recommendation for builders of large projects to reserve a portion in these projects for smaller flats (400-500sqft). With this measure, the Government expects to provide affordable housing for low and middle income groups. In return for these lower-area flats, the Government will provide higher floor-space-index (FSI) to the builder. However, the policy has neither specified how much extra FSI would be provided nor how the Government would monitor implementation of this measure. Implementation would remain critical considering that builders have in the past misused similar provisions by merging low/middle income apartments group to create larger ones and then selling them off to higher-income groups .

The draft policy also recommends an FSI increase from 0.5 to 1 in the extended suburbs of Mira-Bhayendar, Vasai-Virar, Thane, Navi Mumbai, etc. Interestingly enough, some time back the World Bank had met the CM and expressed interest in providing assistance of US$5billion (over 10 years) for development of Mumbai’s neighboring areas.

Another key recommendation, which could become controversial in the future, is the move to invite competitive bidding for slum redevelopment projects. If implemented, this could mean a change in Government thinking away from the existing rule of obtaining consent from 70% of slumdwellers in an area. Hafta readers would also recall our interview with housing activist, Mr. Chandrashekhar Prabhu, who had this to say about slum rehab schemes:

“The schemes are not catering to the poor and are always meant to make money for the builder. The committee which formulated the current rehab scheme had no slumdwellers, but only builders. Now, would someone making such a scheme make it in a way to benefit someone who the same builder is going throw out? It was never meant to be a slum dwellers scheme. The Govt also appointed a committee under Mr. S. S. Tinaikar, former BMC Commissioner. He made a 700-page report whose summary says that this slum rehab scheme is of the builder, by the builder, for the builder; it should hence be stopped forthwith and an alternative scheme should be worked out with the contribution of all stake-holders.” [Link]
The policy has also failed to lay down a definitive timeline for repealing the Urban Land Ceiling Act (ULCA). As discussed in an earlier Hafta piece, the repeal is a key reform process from the perspective of infrastructure funding for Mumbai under the Jawaharlal Nehra National Urban Renewal Mission. While the repeal of the Act found no mention in the policy, the Chief Minister has indicated that the matter would be taken up in the winter session of the legislature (due to begin in Nagpur on Dec 4th). Mr. Deshmukh also stated that the Government has acquired 400 hectares in Mumbai under this act in the last two years and expects release of this land to bring down property prices by 30-40%.

At a time when the Government should have taken a bold and reform-oriented stance it has paid lip service and failed to tackle the issue of sky-rocketing property prices in Mumbai. Yet again, the quest for a reasonably priced house in this city of dreams remains just that – a quest for many. No wonder then, that the term “affordable housing” in this city sounds more like an oxymoron.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Taking sides

Shivam Vij is a blogger, and a journalist, whose work I've come to admire. And that's not just because he writes well. I admire the way he chases facts and researches his stories.

A few days back he reported on the atrocities against Dalits in Kherlanji. A place I'd never even heard of. He also posted some gruesome photos of the victims.

There are times when I need to be shocked and horrified at the crimes that happen in the same India I'm told is shining. This was one of them and Shivam, in my opinion - and as I've commented on his blog - did a great job in reporting on this dastardly act. That's really all that matters to me.

However, other bloggers questioned and protested against him putting up those gory photos of the victims. And in response to this, er, outrage Shivam has posted his defense here. Do read.

For the record, and to repeat myself, I'm with him on this. And I also share Dilip's dismay. Some things just have to be said. These bloggers (Shivam and Dilip) did a great job of saying them.

Update - Also read Gawker's take - I agree with him.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

History lesson again

A few days back, I had posted on the timeline of the riots which preceded the March 1993 Bombay Bomb Blasts.

Today, in a sombre post, Sonia Faleiro recalls that history while talking about the recent July-06 blasts.

In the aftermath of the bomb blasts, Mumbai’s Muslims feared a violent reprisal from the majority community, mirroring the riots of December 1992-January 1993. The riots followed the destruction of the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya by a mob led by Hindu fundamentalist leaders perpetrating the belief that the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. The riots killed over 1,000 people, demarcating forever Mumbai’s people and places. Shortly after, on March 12, 1993, fifteen serial explosions, masterminded by members of the underworld and Islamic terror groups, struck Mumbai’s most famous landmarks including the Bombay Stock Exchange, killing 257 people. The blasts were believed to be payback for the riots.

It is not surprising then, that after the attacks this July, Mumbai’s Muslim community was immediately on its guard.

Read her full post here.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Mumbai Metro Rail - potential hiccup

Just when you thought that with the Prime Minister himself flagging off the Mumbai Metro Rail Project, it would finally take off. Not quite.

After first haggling over the amount of viability gap funding (VGF) with the contractors, Reliance Energy, the State Government is facing what could be another hurdle. Newspaper reports suggest that the Government could reject the Rs650cr VGF because – get this – bidding for the Mumbai Metro happened before the Govt made its Public Private Partnership Appraisal Committee (PPPAC).

As per this DNA article
A senior Union government official said central assistance is reserved for future projects. "The government’s schemes are implemented only with prospective effect" he said. In the circumstances, funding cannot be made available for Mumbai’s metro project because its bidding process preceded the finalisation of the VGF guidelines. [Link]


As per this FE article
"....North Block now feels that the project cannot be considered under the PPP-AC, as the bidding was finalised before the committee was set up. So it does not fulfill the technical parameters. Now the finance ministry is of the opinion that the project should seek sanction from the ministry of urban development under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNUURM). For this, it has also written a letter to JNUURM. Sources said the finance ministry was not very happy with the project cost and the terms of the concession agreement, and if it agreed to consider it under the PPP-AC, it might ask for a revision of both." [link]


After getting, Brimstowad approved for full centre funding, the Maharashtra State Government has already lined up many other projects under JNNURM. Considering the strict riders that come with the JNNURM, I doubt the State Govt. would want to club the Metro under the JNNURM as well. More so, given that the Metro has already been flagged off, versus all the other projects (even the Brimstowad) which are only in the report and approval stage.

Worst case scenario ? MMRDA - i.e. the Maharashtra State Government - foots the Rs650cr bill, which is not particularly good for the already tottering state finances.

However, there seems to be hope. Or at least, so the MMRDA would want us to believe.

As per this follow-up DNA article
"[MMRDA] Officials told DNA that since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself had inaugurated the project, there was no room for the Centre to back out. "The secretary-level clearance has already come through, and on November 1 there is a meeting with Finance Minister P Chidambaram," said T Chandrashekhar, MMRDA metropolitan commissioner." [Link]


Final decision due in a couple of days, Nov 1. Given that the Congress is playing the development card ahead of the BMC elections, I'd think that this issue will be quickly - and favorably - resolved.

Earlier posts on Mumbai Metro Rail :
Sept-06: Route changed
June-06: Flag-off
May-06: Contract awarded
May-06: Viability gap issue resolved
May-06: Issues over viability gap
Apr-06: Project details

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Who's afraid of JNNURM?

Back at the Hafta after ages.

Couple of things here. This portal of the Jawarharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) came as a big surprise to me. The emphasis on urban reforms is really something. Besides the mandatory requirement for repealing acts like the ULCA, I was impressed by the emphasis given to citizen participation. Or should I really be surprised ? After all Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha was the National Technical Advisor to the JNNURM.

This piece appeared in the Hafta dated 23rd Oct 2006. Read the full article below. Comments welcome.

*****
Conditional Change
After laying the foundation stone for the Mumbai Metro in July, Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, returned to visit Mumbai last month to approve full Centre funding for the much-needed Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drainage (Brimstowad) project. Two large projects flagged off in three months, surely seems like a lot for a city that has waited decades for any infrastructure overhaul.

While the Brimstowad report has been gathering dust since 1993, it came in the spotlight only after the 26th July 2005 deluge which exposed the weaknesses of the city’s ages-old drainage system. With the PM clearing the funding, work will finally kick-off on this ambitious Rs1,800cr project which will involve widening and deepening of four major underground drains in the island city and seven in western suburbs and eight in the eastern suburbs.

But the work will also involve relief and rehabilitation (R&R) of 20,000 families, which itself will cost Rs600crores. This will be the State Government’s biggest challenge since it dare not repeat the debacle of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) R&R which resulted in the World Bank temporarily suspending funding for the MUTP project.

All the kings’ horses and men
While the State Government is basking in the glory of getting funding for the Brimstowad, their biggest challenge only lies ahead. They have yet to make any headway in procuring Centre approval for other vital projects for the city.

At last count, other than Brimstowad, there were 10 other projects that came for review between the Centre and the Maharashtra State Government at the time of the PM’s visit. Post review – and to quote from the press release – “The Prime Minister directed that Mumbai's development needs should receive a very high priority, and its problems redressed without any delay. He directed that expeditious approval be given to the Middle Vaitarna Water Supply Project for Mumbai IV, and Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Projects under JNNURM by October/November 2006.”

However, and as things go for this city, a month down the line, nothing has moved forward. What’s worse is that the State Government and all its bureaucrats can’t even do a good job of submitting the required information to the Centre for getting critical funding for these projects under the Centre’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Mission (JNNURM).

It is indeed ironical that almost all the projects mentioned by the Prime Minister are ages old. They’ve been studied by various bodies like the BMC, MMRDA, etc as well as consultants over the years and yet, even today, the combined lot of the politicians and bureaucrats – also in charge of India’s financial capital – cannot prepare reports on these projects with the required details.

Time for change
So, why is the Government dragging its feet over much required infrastructure funding for Mumbai? One answer could be reluctance on the part of the Government to comply with the changes that the JNNURM requires State Governments to make for getting urban infrastructure funding. What are these ? Take a look below (extract from Government’s Toolkit on the JNNURM)
  1. (a) “Implementation of decentralisation measures as envisaged in 74th Constitutional Amendment Act. The State should ensure meaningful association and engagement of ULBs (urban local bodies) in planning the function of parastatal agencies as well as the delivery of services to the citizens.
  2. (b) *Repeal of Urban Land Ceiling Regulation Act (ULCRA).
  3. (c) *Reform of Rent Control Laws balancing the interests of landlords and tenants.
  4. (d) Rationalisation of Stamp Duty to bring it down to no more than 5 per cent within next seven years.
  5. (e) Enactment of the Public Disclosure Law to ensure preparation of medium-term fiscal plan of ULBs and parastatal agencies and release of quarterly performance information to all stakeholders.
  6. (f) Enactment of the Community Participation Law to institutionalise citizen’s participation and introduce the concept of the Area Sabha in urban areas.
  7. (g) Assigning or associating elected ULBs with “city planning function”. Over a period of seven years, transferring all special agencies that deliver civic services in urban areas to ULBs and creating accountability platforms for all urban civic service providers in transition.
* Footnote: In respect of people oriented schemes relating to water supply and sanitation, the under-mentioned State level mandatory reforms may be taken as optional reforms: b) Repeal of Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act c) Reform of Rent Control Act.”

Phew. Surely, that’s a lot of change to digest for the ruling politicians. But like it or not, those changes are for real. Those changes will have to be made if the city has to be overhauled – and was there any doubt on that? Those changes will also involve managing the different people (vested interests?) affected by these large infrastructure projects in Mumbai. And therein lies the true test for the politicians.

Well begun is..
Meanwhile, its festive season and time for all the politicos to blow up their mugs and minimise God on party posters to wish all of us a Happy Diwali, Id or whatever. And yes, the BMC elections are also due soon. So, while the Congress is flaunting its achievements on its party posters across the city, it would do well to keep in mind that getting projects approved and funded is only a step, a step due for decades, in the right direction. Execution, however, will be another – and longer – story altogether.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lest we forget the history

For those refered to in here, these are a few events that took place before 12th March 1993.

July-92 to Dec-92 – Rallies, processions, etc held by the Sena, BJP, etc. across Bombay on the Ayodhya issue, mostly in communally sensitive areas.

6th December 1992 – The Babri Masjid is demolished.

26th December 1992 – Maha-aartis launched and continue till Feb-1993.

3rd January 1993 – Alleged MHADA officials survey Pratiksha Nagar, Antop Hill for Muslim residences.

5th January 1993 – Four Mathadi workers stabbed to death.

8th January 1993 – "During the wee hours of 8th January 1993, at about 0030 hours, some of the Hindu residences in a chawl popularly known as Radhabai Chawl in Jogeshwari jurisdiction were locked from outside and set on fire by miscreants. One male and five female members of a Hindu family (Bane) and their neighbours were charred to death and three other Hindus sustained serious burn injuries. One of the victims was a handicapped girl. This incident was sensationalized by the media by giving exaggerated and provoking reports." [Chapter II Para 1.11 (i)]

Final tally of deaths during riots between Dec-92 and Jan-93 - 900. [Chapter II Para 1.24]

12th March 1993 - 10 bomb blasts across Bombay. 257 killed or missing and 713 injured.

(Source: Chapter II of the Srikrishna Commission Report. Link here)

"Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Mumbai Metro: Charkop route changed

Tough luck Colaba. The Colaba-Charkop metro rail leg has been changed to a Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd route.

Here's what's changed

Route
Earlier: Colaba-Charkop
Now: Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd

Length
Earlier: 36km
Now: 32km

Cost
Earlier: Rs7,423cr
Now: Rs6,192cr

Number of stations
Earlier: 36
Now: 27

Elevation
Earlier: Of the 36 station, 25 would be overhead and balance underground
Now: All 27 stations will be elevated (per Indian Express article here)

Completion date..oops, no change here.
Earlier: 2011
Now: 2011

This is what the proposed route and it's stations will look like (picture courtesy: Mumbai Mirror.)


As to why this change has happened

Hindustan Times says (e-paper link here):

Plan to build the Colaba-Charkop line was shelved after it was found that the part-underground, part-elevated line would be financially unviable. The Rs 9,000 crore-line would cost an additional Rs 2,000 crore if it were made underground till Mahim (earlier, it was till Mahalaxmi). The new corridor, which will be entirely elevated, will be cheaper and can also be built faster.


However, the Indian Express has a different take (link here):

Originally, the Bandra to Charkop arm had been part of the north-south Colaba-Bandra-Charkop route, which is now being tweaked—more portions will be underground—following objections from the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee.
Note that this is just a change in the route and does not mean anything in terms of progress on execution of the project. So the only thing that's happened is that the MMRDA has changed the route and the Chief Minister (also the Chairman of the MMRDA) has approved the change.

The project will now go the State Cabiner for approval. Given the size and the cost of the project, it will most likely run into some kind of hurdles such as sharing of the costs, etc, etc.

MMRDA has also estimated viability gap funding at Rs1,658crores. While current news articles suggest that this amount will be borne by the State Government, do remember that work on the Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar leg had been stalled over this issue.

Given that the BMC elections are due soon, one can expect headlines to keep coming steadily on the approvals received and projects flagged off by our politicians on infrastructure projects for this city. Back-patting stuff that their hoardings are made of. And what of real work done and benefits achieved ? Wait till 2011 for that.

News articles referenced (all dated today 29th Sept 06):
Mumbai Mirror: Rs6,192cr Charkop Metro Project gets go-ahead from state (link here)
Indian Express: By 2011, Charkop to Mankhurd in 45mins (link here)
Business Standard: Board nod for 2nd Mumbai Metro Line (link here)
Hindustan Times: Metro re-routed: Colaba must wait (e-paper link here)

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

In print and all that

India Today carried an article on Bombay bloggers, featuring Govindraj Ethiraj, Arzan Sam Wadia, Amit Varma, Peter Griffin and..er..self. Arzan has a post on it (link here, thanks Arzan) with a scan of the article done by his sister Mehernaaz (thank you).

For reasons best know to them, India Today got my URL wrong - it is not http://mumbaimatters.blogspot.com. In fact I had tried for that URL when I first started out this blog, but at that point it was taken. Despite that, even now, as it was then, if you click on that link, you are greeted with "Not Found".

At the photo shoot, I was hoping to meet up with Govind - a blogger that I, along with many others, have a lot of respect for - but unfortunately he couldn't make it.

And talking of respect for bloggers, I'm wondering why an article on Blogging in Mumbai didn't even have a mention of Dilip D'Souza and Sonia Faleiro.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Blame the consultants

The piece below appears in this week's Hafta.

*******

If it was a company, you could blame it on the consultants. Considering that Mumbai contributes close to US$9bn (Rs40,000 crores) annually in tax receipts to the Central and State Governments, it would make for one hell of a large company. In case you’re wondering where that number above came from, it was provided by M/s McKinsey & Company, in a joint report done by that leading consultant firm and Bombay First a corporate backed lobby group.

The report (available here), titled “Vision Mumbai: Transforming Mumbai into a world-class city”, was published in Sept-2003 and could, in all probability, have been the origin of the odious Mumbai-Shanghai comparison. In true consultant style, the report had a vision statement which read as follows
"Mumbai ’s aspiration is to become a world-class city in the next 10-15 years. In order to achieve this, it needs to be distinctive on the dimension of economic growth and above average on quality of life.

It will, therefore, need to step up economic growth to 8-10 per cent by becoming one of Asia’s leading service hubs, with a fast-growing manufacturing base in the hinterland.

On the quality of life dimension, comparing it to the benchmark cities revealed that it needed to move from average to above average on mass transport, from poor to above average on private transport, housing, safety/environment, financing and governance.

It will also need to make improvements in the remaining areas, i.e., go from being average to above average in water/sanitation and education and from above average to world-class in healthcare."

On receipt of this path-breaking and seminal blah-fest, the Chief Minister promptly constituted a task force to study it and make another report. In less than six month’s time, the Chief Minister’s Task Force came out with its own report (available here) with the same title but its very own “Vision 2013”. Devoid of the professional eloquence that a consultant gets to the table, the best that the CM’s men could come up with, for a vision statement, was this – “Transforming Mumbai to a world-class city with a vibrant economy and globally comparable quality of life for its citizens”.

Somewhere after that, 26/7 happened and flash forward to present day, the Mumbaikar remains as harried and hapless as he was before these reports were made. The ironical part is that given the number of consultants appointed by the Government over the years, you’d think that some action would be taken on the recommendations made by these experts. No such luck. The present state of Mumbai’s infrastructure bears testimony to the fact that various state Governments over the years have hired these consultants for Mumbai only to pay lip service. Execution was, and remains, a different story altogether.

A history of consulting
As pointed out in an earlier Hafta article, the first consultant the city got was M/s Wilbur Smith in 1962. Forty four years later, one recommendation of this committee, viz. the Bandra Worli Sealink freeway project, is finally being implemented. However, the logic for this ambitious freeway in the present day has been questioned by architects and urban activists like Chandrashekhar Prabhu (read our interview with him here). In fact, even the MMRDA has stated that the consultant’s proposals “did not take into account the importance of public transport and did not examine the possibilities of changing the land use pattern to manage the travel demand”. (page 267 of the MMRDA Regional Plan).

Next up, we had M/s W. S. Atkins in 1994 who were commissioned by the World Bank, along with ORG and Kirloskar Consultants in 1994 to prepare a Comprehensive Transport Plan for Mumbai. To be fair, this was one of the most comprehensive studies down on transportation in Mumbai, and perhaps even the launching pad of the MUTP.

Analyzing data from 1971 to 1991, this report gave us those key statistics exhorted by those in favour of public transport – i.e. 88% of all transport in Mumbai is through public transport, 7% by private vehicles and 5% by taxis. Most importantly, this report had forecast that by 2011 the total number of vehicles registered in Mumbai would double over 1991 levels – or from 0.8m to 1.36m. In all likelihood, M/s Atkins were too conservative because by 2001 itself, registered vehicles in Mumbai stood at 1.29m (per MMRDA).

Transforming Mumbai..or something like that
With the Atkins study outdated, the MMRDA commissioned yet another consultant – this time Lea International– to undertake what seems to be the most ambitious transport study done so far. It even has its own name (TRANSFORM) and website. Using responses from thousands of commuters across rail, bus and roads, the 18-month study, costing Rs7crore, will “aim to formulate long term transport strategy for Mumbai Metropolitan Region by identifying requirements of travel till the year 2031.” Surveys for the study have already been completed and a draft investment plan is expected to be put forth for public consultations. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, the Central Government (Urban Development Ministry) is also gearing up to decongest cities. Towards the noble task of alleviating commuting woes, the Government has appointed – hold your breath now – M/s Wilbur Smith to conduct sample surveys across 30 cities (Mumbai included), which would be used for a study called Traffic Engineering and Transportation Planning. Code-name TREAT you say ?.

What goes around, comes around
And so 44 years after its first study of Mumbai, M/s Wilbur Smith is all set to prepare yet another one on the city. The average Mumbaikar, consigned to crowded trains and traffic jams, can’t be blamed for looking askance at M/s Smith or at the babus and the sarkars who have appointed these international consultants. Between themselves no one has been able to come up with a solution for the city’s transportation problems. So, do forgive our scepticism at vision statements and dreams for world class cities. These grand designs might soothe consultants and politicians, but for Mumbaikars today they are remain bad clichés that have run their course.

*******

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Doubts raised on Mumbai Transharbour link

The bid document with the final plan for the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) has been released today and there are already issues in this US$1 billion project. (My first post on this freeway is here, with another follow-up here)

Today's HT carries this article citing various traffic experts who've pointed out flaws.

“The bridge isn’t wide enough to cope with the traffic needs,” said IIT professor S.L. Dhingra, who has been associated with several infrastructure projects in Mumbai.

Note that the earlier plan for the MTHL also had a rail component. In fact, the MSRDC's webpage on the project also states that the rail component will be added in Phase 2 of the project in 2015. However, the HT article states that this could be pushed away further.

“The project will be incomplete without rail connectivity,” said independent traffic specialist Arun Mokashe who’s worked on several infrastructure projects. “To provide better connectivity to Greater Mumbai, the railway component is a must.” Another senior traffic consultant and former top MSRDC official said the plan “totally lacked foresight”.

“In 1983, no one knew that a Special Economic Zone and an airport would come up in Panvel. So there is a serious need to rework the original blueprint,” he said.

It does appear that the Government, in a hurry to make a big bang announcement on yet another large project, has completely missed out on the larger picture. As the experts in the article above have pointed out, Mumbai and Navi Mumbai will be completely different cities when the MTHL finally gets constructed, thanks to the proposed SEZ and new international airport. Both projects can only raise the traffic numbers for the MTHL. Hence, any blueprint has to keep this in mind rather than base work on 30 or 40 year old transport studies.

If these issues (i.e. more lanes, an organised dispersal and the rail component) are not integrated within the project at the start, it could well be another case of short-sighted planning that leads to problems in the longer term. Case in point - the Bandra Worli Sealink, which will be completed before the Worli-Nariman Point link is built, and could hence result in traffic building up on Haji Ali (for more on this also read our interview with architect, Chandrashekhar Prabhu).

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Burning bridges

Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was blown up last night by Washington city officials to make way for a new version. What's interesting was that the button was pressed - or rather, the plunger was pushed - not by a politician or civil servant or a leader, but by 53-year old Dan Ruefly, a veteran user of the bridge.
"What an honor," said Mr. Ruefly, 53, who won a contest sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project to find the motorist with the worst bridge-related commuting story. As the winner, he got to trigger last night's detonation of 2,600 tons of steel. "It was great to be able to do this for all of those commuters who have sat on that bridge. It was worth the wait."
Wonder which road Mumbaikars would be glad to get rid of - L. J. Road Mahim junction ranks up there, as does the Peddar Road stretch. Then there's the narrow Andheri Station junction, Dadar T. T, Sion circle, etc, etc...

I'm sure we won't run out of any such road stretches that are the "banes of many commuters" but I'm also sure it will take many more dislocated backs and shattered hip bones to get rid of them. Till then, laage raho BMC.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Can Ministers "guard" Mumbai ?

There's this hoarding on Marine Drive, just under the flyover and near the petrol pump after the Mumbai Police Gym ground. It's a Nationalist Congress Party ad congratulating the appointment of Shri Jayant Patil as the "Guardian Minister" of Mumbai.

Yes, you got that right. Our city has a Guardian Minister. As if the efforts of our Mayor weren't enough we now have a Minister to guard over us. So - who is Jayant Patil ? No less than the Finance Minister of the state of Maharashtra. Check out his bio here.

What will Shri Patil guard us against ? Bad roads ? corruption ? crowded trains and roads ? rising property prices ? or terrorism ? Could someone please show me the responsibilities of such a Minister ? And who is he accountable to ? Does he have a list of priorities ? Or, like the CM, will he just reiterate the..er..importance of the..um.. completion of projects like the MUTP, Mumbai Metro, etc to address the woes of Mumbai ?

On googling for "Guardian Minister Mumbai", these are a few of the activities the Hon. Guardian Minister has done so far

- Visited the BMC HQ. And was reminded by the Sena-run BMC that the Maharashtra State Govt (run by Congress+NCP) owes the BMC dues worth Rs579cr. Ah..politics.

- Promised Slum rehab. Can't a resist a quote he's given there "We are striving to improve citizens’ standard of living and give them basic amenities." - Finally an agenda. For brevity sakes, we reduce it to one line and leave the rest to the BMC, MMRDA, BEST, ABC, XYZ and the other acronyms responsible for improving our standard of living.

Now here's another interesting aspect to this issue. Shri Chandrakant Handore is the Guardian Minister for Mumbai Suburban District (links here, here and this one here which..er..has him named in a gangster tape). So does he report to the Guardian Minister ?

And in case you were wondering who were the earlier Guardian Ministers for Mumbai, before Mr. Patil, there was a certain Ramraje Naik Nimbalkar. And before both of them, there was none other than Chhagan Bhujbal himself.

This seems to be another case of all hype and no substance. After the Sheriff and the Mayor, surely this is another case of meaningless designations, posts without responsibilities or accountability.

And then again, it looks like a sop, a sweetener, given to the NCP in return for their support to the Congress so that both can rule Maharashtra - and hence Mumbai. Yet again, the politicians looking after themselves under what seems to be a random attempt to guard the city.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

On leave

of absence from blogging due to unavoidable reasons.

Back in the sphere after about 10 days.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

MUTP - Mumbai's Unending Transport Problems

That's an alternative full form for Mumbai Urban Transport Project - or MUTP. My piece on this ambitious project appeared in yesterday's Hafta. Reproduced below.

Whither tomorrow

A brief history of development
It all began in 1962. The year in which LA-based M/S Wilbur Smith prepared a detailed road transport plan for Mumbai. Proposals in this report included construction of freeway networks – primarily the Bandra-Nariman Point and Sewri-Nhava Seva links. The Wilbur Smith study was also supplemented by a Mass Transportation Study in 1967-68 whose proposals included construction of underground rail network.

Interestingly enough, soon after this study, a Regional Plan in 1973, highlighted the fact that expensive projects like freeways and metros would become necessary as long as economic activity in South Mumbai continued to rise and get concentrated. The study reiterated the need for a Bandra-Kurla Complex and a Navi Mumbai.

So, what happened to all the proposals and recommendations from these ages-old studies and reports ? Some were completed (Nhava Seva Port), some given up (a rapid transit system), some taken up in the BUTP and the MUTP (read ahead), some currently being implemented (the Bandra Worli Sealink), one big one whose foundation stone was laid a couple of months back (Mumbai Metro) and one whose tender will be awarded this year (Mumbai Transharbour Sea link). Indeed, infrastructure upgrades in Mumbai have had a long, chequered past.

Ambitious plans and grand designs
Post the formation of the MMRDA in 1975, the first major transport overhaul achieved for the city was the Bombay Urban Transport Project (BUTP). Implemented between March-77 and June-84, the projects achievements included addition of 700 buses and three bus depots for the BEST and construction of five flyovers and road-widening projects across the city. Cost of the project? All of Rs40cr, or US$50m (at the then rate of Rs7.94/$), half of which – or US$25m – was funded by the World Bank.

Almost 20 years later, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), is being implemented at a cost of Rs4,526cr – just under a billion dollars – again half of which (US$542m) will be funded by the World Bank. Needless to say, it’s the most ambitious infrastructure upgrade ever undertaken for this city, and will be implemented by no less than five different agencies – the MMRDA, the Mumbai. Rail Vikas Corp., MSRDC, BEST, and of course our very own BMC.

The rail component (Rs3,510cr) of MUTP includes addition of lines between Mahim-Borivali, Kurla-Thane and Borivali-Virar. The road component (Rs1,016cr) includes large projects like the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road and the Santacruz-Chembur Link road.

Controversies abound
Expectedly, controversy and delay has dogged the MUTP from day one. While the preparatory work for the MUTP was conducted in 1988, World Bank funding for the project came through fourteen-years later in 2002. However, the biggest challenge to the MUTP remains the issue of relief and rehabilitation (R&R) of people affected by this massive project (PAP) – or the 19,128 families, as per the MMRDA’s own web page on the MUTP.

The total cost of R&R is pegged at about Rs480cr (included in the overall project cost) and as per the Government of Maharashtra’s R&R rules, each project affected family is entitled to get a tenement of 225sq. ft, free of cost. In case of urgent shifting, transit accommodation of 125sq. ft with all basic amenities is to be provided to the PAP. World Bank norms also require all PAP to be resettled before any the start of engineering work.

Over April and December 2004, the independent Inspection Panel of the World Bank received four separate requests for inspection from organisations representing residents and shop-owners in Kurla and Jogeshwari. The Inspection Panel then investigated these requests and issued a report in Dec-2005.

To quote from the World Bank’s website - “The Panel found that the Bank did not comply with a number of requirements under its own policies. Among other things, the Panel found that the Bank overlooked the needs of low and middle-income shopkeepers, did not consult with them in the selection of resettlement sites, and did not ensure that suitable arrangements were provided for their resettlement. The originally proposed resettlement sites posed difficulties for many shopkeepers in restoring their businesses and maintaining incomes, as confirmed in a recent Business Needs Study launched under the Project. The Project also failed to give adequate attention to the employees of the displaced shops, who faced risks of income loss.

In addition, the Panel found that many other affected people, including the most vulnerable, faced adverse impacts as a result of non-compliance with Bank policies. Serious problems were identified relating to environmental and living conditions at the resettlement sites and income restoration. Environmental and social support services at the sites were not ready or adequate when people were shifted, and many lacked adequate access to water and sewerage.”

It took all of four months for the MMRDA and the Maharashtra State Government to address these concerns, before the World Bank resumed funding of the MUTP on 30th June 2006. World Bank Country Director, Michael Carter, noted that “The Bank and the Government of Maharashtra have been working closely over the last few months to address the issues that led to the suspension of disbursements, especially in respect of the grievance process, the resettlement of shopkeepers, and post resettlement services. We are pleased that good progress has been made in each of these areas.”

While the road and R&R components of the MUTP have their own share of hurdles to face, the rail component is not seeing a smooth ride. Newspaper reports indicate that the Railway Ministry and the Maharashtra Government are in a bind over who would bear the cost of the project. As for the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corp – one of the implementing agencies for the rail component of the MUTP – it seems to be in a state of limbo. A plea filed by Borivali resident Devraj Roy, under the Right to Information Act, revealed that precious little has been achieved so far (2% to be precise on some projects), target dates have been extended even as railway officials ran up foreign travel bills running into lakhs.

Anniversaries as reminders
Even as chaos reigns over the billion-dollar MUTP there is no immediate respite in sight for the Mumbaikars manifold commuting woes. MUTP itself is targeting 2008 for completion, as is the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. The Trans Harbour Link is yet to find a contractor and don’t even think about the Metro (2020). We’re six years away from the 50th anniversary of the Wlibur Smith study on Mumbai’s roads and have barely anything to show in terms of progress on any of these 30-40-50 year old projects. Indeed, a grim reminder that Mumbaikars have borne too many todays and are yet to see a better tomorrow.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

JNPT Sewri Trans harbour link - wait a bit more

Nearly 40 years in the making, the Sewri-Nhava Seva Trans-harbour link (MTHL) seems to be finally taking off. After first receiving State Government approval in 2001, the MTHL then issued pre-bid documents in early 2004 and received Central Government approval in Dec-2004. In fact, the Finance Minister also mentioned the link in his Budget-2005 speech and the project also received Environmental clearance in March 2005.

But work till date ? Nil.

Now, in Aug-2006, the MSRDC is finally focusing on the MTHL, and, more importantly, has given out bidding documents for this link.

Three "consortia" are in the fray for this project (L&T-Gammon, IL&FS and IFFCO) and obviously one will win the tender. Their bids will be in by Oct 25, 2006 and MSRDC will then - hopefully - announce the winner by mid-December. MSRDC says,
''The deciding factor will be the duration of concession period, that is, the period for which they will collect the toll.''
And finally - when will it get completed ? 4 years after work begins.

And work begins six months after the order is awarded (i.e. June-2007).

Which means around mid-2011. Just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of it's inception. Talk about labour pain.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The part I don't get

It’s tough to reconcile this, so do help me out.

Today’s HT on its front page carries a photo of Shweta and Vijaya Futane – wife and mother of office-boy and MBA-aspirant Yogesh Futane who died in the Mumbai train blasts.

Both of them now pack greeting cards, earning Rs2 per stack. Do you get that ? The wife and mother of a bomb blast victim. They have to pack greeting cards now for a living.

Then there’s this photo of another victim with his right hand cut off. The title of the article is “How will I fund my daughter’s education?”. That’s Dhiraj Rathod. The blasts cost him his right forearm.

There’s much more inside the paper, and much more you’d read anyways.

And then last night there was this TV interview. Karan Thapar doing a “Devil’s Advocate” with Mr. M. K. Narayanan, our National Security Advisor.

Read the entire interview here.

I’m reproducing a coulpe of extracts below highlighted in blue

"Karan Thapar: So what’s happening in India is part of a series of events worldwide?

M K Narayanan: Partly worldwide. But, in this case partly India based. What I am saying is that 7/11 is not an isolated incident in Mumbai and you can forget about it. It’s part of a larger pattern. And I say that is important because the people who are responsible for what is taking place, are today a new band of what I would call, a international fanatic group, and their objectives are not always very clear. But, the final goal is obvious.

Let’s come to Mumbai and why do we say that the LeT is involved. When you have a smoking gun, it’s obvious. When you don’t have a smoking gun, that’s where I suppose intelligence agencies have to be reasonably sophisticated, if I might use the term. You may disagree. But, I think it is a combination of intelligence, ground facts, ground realities and very importantly deductive and inductive logic as to how do you arrive at this logic.


Now if in the case of Mumbai blasts, the first important fact is that you cannot have an event of this kind unless you have a certain number of modules, which are available. We have the information that in Maharashtra, in places like Aurangabad and I’m only talking of Maharashtra, but it’s equally true to extent of Gujarat and also true to Andhra Pradesh or Hyderabad and a couple of other places and there are modules available.

Some are known, some are suspected and unfortunately we do not know some. We are aware and we have been tracking modules and it’s because of that the Aurangabad incident could take place. So the first necessity for an event of this kind was the existence of a LeT module, which exists.

The second one is that you take the explosives for instance, one of course in ammonium nitrate that is a common explosive, but there are traces of RDX involved also. It has been possible to establish some kind of connectivity, I don’t know if you can have a proof on that, between the RDX that was used there and some of the RDX that we missed out now in the Aurangabad incident, known as the LeT event.

The third item is with regard to the generic pattern of LeT activities. This is where the deductive and inductive logic comes out, in which what are their targets, what have they achieved, it’s not as if they have wasted their resources like some of the other groups. There is a pattern that’s available – the fingerprints and the footprints of these organisations.

Karan Thapar: Can I suggest something? All of this is putting together - the facts available, inductive and deductive, some of it is suggestive, some of it is corroborative, to Indians this is convincing because we in a sense want to believe it. But the problem is that the world outside is doubtful. They say at best it’s suggestive.

M K Narayanan: I have not completed. Finally where do the instructions come from? Now that’s where electronic intelligence comes in. Sometimes you have people picked up. The investigations for the Mumbai blast are still on. I don’t want it derailed.

We have a couple of foreign nationals, who are under interrogations. We are hopeful that the connections will then be enough to prove to the rest of the world. I think the proof as far as we are concerned is fairly obvious.


I would also like to tell you that there are three or four names which constantly come up when you look at these LeT modules, the controllers in Pakistan for instance - Asim Cheema, Alkama.

I don’t want to reveal everything we know about how the linkages work. There is connectivity about how the people have come in, how some of them come in through Nepal, how they are tracked. Sometimes they are lost, sometimes we don’t know about them.

But, that is the kind of thing you put together and finally when we do that, it should be enough to convince any rational person who is looking at a terrorist conspiracy, which is directed to against India. If you don’t want to believe it, then it becomes much more difficult. "

So, if I’ve got that right, India’s National Security Advisor believes
(1) that the Bombay blasts were the work of terrorist modules and that
(2) we have proof of LeT modules in Aurangabad.
(3) We also think that there is a connection between the RDX in the Bombay blasts and that missing in the Aurangabad LeT haul
(4) It's "fairly obvious" where the instructions for this blast came from.

And how conclusive is this proof ? This reply came as a shocker to me.


"Karan Thapar: Is the sort of proof that you have as good as the sort of proof America had against the Taliban and against Afghanistan when it acted in 2001?

M. K. Narayanan: I think what we have at this point is definitely stronger than what America had when 9/11 took place or immediately thereafter. Since then, they have got a little more information.


But the question then again is -- are you willing to believe it? If you’re willing to believe it, I think we will provide the same kind of story."

So, here’s the part I don’t get. The one person advising the Prime Minister on security seems reasonably convinced that Pakistan was behind 7/11. Why the hell are we as a country not doing anything about it?

Don’t we have any responsibility whatsoever to the victims of the blasts, and their families? Their families. The same families who are now reduced to stacking greeting cards, earning Rs2 per stack.

Because their sons and their husbands were killed in the bomb blasts.

The same bomb blasts which, we believe, were carried out under instructions from Pakistan.

The same Pakistan, who is secure in the knowledge that it has US support.

The same US, whose Asst. Security of State says that we need to come up with evidence on the blasts.

And the same US who went to war after 9/11 against the Taliban, saying and proving that the Taliban did it.

The same proof that we believe is weaker than the proof we have in the 7/11 Mumbai train bombings.

And we still do nothing ? It’s tough to reconcile this. Do help me out.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

26/7 - Never forget

Tuesday, 26th July 2005.

Mumbai lost 546 people to 944mm of rains and flood-related disasters. That number includes 75 killed in landslides and another 179 that drowned in floods. (that toll is as per BMC’s own affidavit).

Considering that we’ve barely come out of the 7/11 train bomb blasts, it’s a tall order to remember those who died a year back on this day. And 546 is a huge number.

One year down the line, and barely anything’s changed in the city. We’ve already had grim reminders in this monsoon that the city remains vulnerable.

Madhav Chitale what ?

The Maharashtra Government had constituted the Madhav Chitale Committee to investigate 26/7. The report was approved on May 24th, 2006 and the Government continues to "take action" on the report's recommendation, leave alone taking to task those responsible for the collapse in the city's infrastructure.

There was also a Concerned Citizens Commission, headed by Justice P. B. Sawant, formed in Sept-05 which was supposed to have submitted its report within three months. While I’ve not read much about this Commission, I’d be glad if someone can forward me a copy of this report.

Finally..

Somehow, I can’t get myself to call tomorrow an “anniversary”. How can disasters have anniversaries? We will remember 26/7 tomorrow. The media will ensure it. And then, as it does for all things Mumbai, everything will die down and things will get back to what we con ourselves to call “normalcy”.

That normalcy is something I don’t buy for a minute. I wish there was something more permanent to remind us of these disasters (including obviously the train blasts and other dark events this city has seen) and their tolls on human life.

I agree with Govind when he says today that “grief as expressed in permanent memorials may be a powerful emotion”. Towards this I also thank (and agree with) Dilip on his “Never Forget” initiative.

And so, before we forget, here’s that BMC number again. 546 dead, in Mumbai, due to 26/7.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Govt's idiocy - banning blogspot

Currently traveling and regular programing to resume in a week's time.

In the interim I saw that the Govt has done a Big Brother and banned blogspot/some specific blogs. (I've been lucky enough to post so probably I can thank my ISP for that.)

As expected, the blogosphere is raising hell. Head over to
1. Bloggers against Censorship for the latest on this and
2. Desipundit's compilation of the blogosphere's finest venting their ire and
3. that tech guru Amit Agarwal, who - again as expected - has a list of answers to the various how-to's.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bombay blasts

At 2.32am, per TV channels, 163 dead. 11 minutes, 7 blasts.

At 2.32am, per TV channels, Western Railway's locals between Churchgate-Bandra, Vasai-Virar and other routes have started functioning.

I've just come back home after seeing scores of people on the road offering bottled water, parle-g biscuits and even cooked meals in small packets to each and every vehicle they can stretch their hand to. They were everywhere. And they're still there as I type this.

My thanks to that awesome lot at Mumbai Help for making those calls. Bloggers - you rock. Awesome work.

Head over to Desipundit for their sticky post on 11/7.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Meet our Mayor

"I over-reacted" – Bill to Beatrix Kiddo when she finally hunts him down in Kill Bill 2*.

To this, I now add…

"What else could they have done?" Sena MP, Madhukar Sarpotdar, answering to NDTV’s Sreenavasan Jain’s question on why the Shiv Sainiks reacted violently in Bombay after the statue of Meenatai Thackeray, the late wife of Sena Supremo, Balasaheb Thackeray was desecrated.

…And here now, is my picture of the day (Courtesy: TOI). Guess who is the circled man in that photo?



He’s the mayor of Mumbai – Datta Dalvi. He’s seen leading protesting Shiv Sainiks staging a “rail roko” at Vikhroli Railway Station.

That’s right. Welcome to Mumbai. Where the mayor of the city steps out of his home on a Sunday morning, gets down on the rail tracks and leads protestors to stop trains.

The mayor of the city.

Shiv Sena’s leaders have done it again. While Mr. Sarpotdar’s statement to Mr. Jain should come as no surprise (given his illustrious background in the 1993 riots), the Mayor of the city coming out personally to stop trains comes as a neat slap on the face for Mumbaikars.

The same Mayor, who states "Mumbai City is known not only as the capital city of Maharashtra State, but also as the Urbs Prima in Indis, or the Premier City of India." as he pens the foreword for the one prime agency under his control – the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

Forget solving the problems of the city, forget leading the BMC, forget even chilling at home on a Sunday. The Mayor of the city believes that as a Sena leader he has been given the right to stop trains from functioning because the statue of his Supremo’s wife was desecrated.

All this is happening in 2006. In Bombay – the Premier City of India.

The least they can do is remove “The Honourable” part when they address the Mayor.

Being preoccupied with my anger at a situation like this, may I point you to these links
Govind’s take on the Sena’s Sunday party
Gawker's brilliant open letter to the Shiv Sena and
Dilip's recap of past "achievements" of Sena leaders

* - That's Bill's answer to Beatrix when she asks him why he, along with the Deadly Vipers, had wiped out all her friends and to-be family at her wedding.