Friday, February 23, 2007

Power to the people

From the Bagehot column of the current Economist, I read that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has responded to an online e-petition by citizens protesting against the implementation of a national vehicle-tracking system aimed at taxing motorists each time they drove their car. The article says..

The petition demands that the government abandon proposals to establish a national vehicle-tracking system that would be used to tax motorists every time they drove their cars. Through exaggeration and distortion the petition has rather brilliantly united the motoring, anti-tax and civil-liberties lobbies. [Full article here, paid registration required]

I noted a few things here.

1. The British Government encourages petitions, that too on its own website. This is the e-petition page, and this is the specific e-petition being referred to in the Economist article.

The idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong. Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay. It will be an unfair tax on those who live apart from families and poorer people who will not be able to afford the high monthly costs. Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion.[>>]

2. The Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, has responded
to the petition. Read his reply here. An extract below
One thing I suspect we can all agree is that congestion is bad. It's bad for business because it disrupts the delivery of goods and services. It affects people's quality of life. And it is bad for the environment. That is why tackling congestion is a key priority for any Government.

Congestion is predicted to increase by 25% by 2015. This is being driven by economic prosperity. There are 6 million more vehicles on the road now than in 1997, and predictions are that this trend will continue. Part of the solution is to improve public transport, and to make the most of the existing road network. We have more than doubled investment since 1997, spending £2.5 billion this year on buses and over £4 billion on trains- helping to explain why more people are using them than for decades. And we're committed to sustaining this investment, with over £140 billion of investment planned between now and 2015. We're also putting a great deal of effort into improving traffic flows - for example, over 1000 Highways Agency Traffic Officers now help to keep motorway traffic moving. [>>]

3. The concept of road pricing itself, which has been so vehemently opposed by the public in the e-petition. From the British Department for Transport's FAQs on road pricing -

Road pricing involves changing the way we pay for road use, to better reflect usage. It is not about stopping people travelling - rather addressing the concentration of vehicles on particular roads at specific times of day.

Research suggests that well designed road pricing schemes, alongside improved public transport, can lead to significant reductions in congestion. Through only a very small shift in travel patterns, significant reductions in congestion can be achieved. Shifts in travel patterns can be achieved in a number of ways, for example travelling at a different time of day and using public transport - road pricing is not about stopping people from travelling.[>>]

I couldn't help thinking how far Mumbai is from London (no pun intended, partially). Perhaps, the comparison isn't fair. But there a few things to ponder about, such as these

How informative and progressive are Government and Government agency websites?

Surprisingly informative. I found it hard to believe but if you spend time on the sites of the Maharashtra State Government, the BMC, MMRDA and other agencies, you'd be surprised with the data they've uploaded. Almost all my posts on this blog are based on data taken from these websites.

In an earlier post, I had given an example of how the Maharashtra Election Commission had uploaded the electoral rolls as PDFs on their website (check it out here). This was an eye-opener to me.

So, the point I'm making is that we might not be as progressive as to invite e-petitions, and our websites might not be as well designed as 10, Downing Street. But I think we've come some way in providing information to the public. We might have a long way to go, but I think we're at least in the right direction.

Can the Maharashtra State Government, or for that matter, the BMC, invite citizen participation on critical matters like congestion ?

But first, is citizen participation even necessary ? No, don't get me wrong. Think about it. Will ordinary people take time out to get involved in issues concerning the city ? Besides, how well-informed are they ? I mean, would you rather that NGOs, ordinary citizens, netizens and their ilk get actively involved in Mumbai's problems ? Aren't they already ? And what have they achieved ?

To be fair, agencies like AGNI and ADR have done some commendable work in the recent BMC elections. To be fair, advanced locality management (ALM) have done a lot to change things in some areas in Mumbai. And to be fair, our State Government itself has advocated the concept of Citizens Action Group.

So, there is no doubt in my mind that we, as citizens, can make a difference, but the efforts can be more productive if they were ran hand-in-hand with Government agencies. Not counter.

Which then brings me to Government agencies themselves...

How much can be achieved if governance at these agencies is improved ? A lot. Think about it. If the Road Transport Office (RTO) gets strict on vehicles offending no-parking zones, wouldn't that improve traffic flow during peak hours ? How many times have you noticed cars casually parked under "no parking" signs (and I see as many taxis as I see office-goers talking on their mobile phones, both with their vehicles parked under the signs)

The point I'm making is simply this - If the Government needs to make itself more open and more consultative to us, we need to be more focused on changing things. In this direction, I was glad to note that the Vote Mumbai campaign notched up its first success with Adolf D'Souza winning the recent BMC Elections from his Juhu Ward.

And finally..
Is a congestion tax effective ?
Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh had specifically ruled out a congestion tax in Mumbai (I can't locate the link although I remember he said so in an interview to Hindustan Times).

Is that good or bad ? What was the experience in London ? The same Economist article notes

This week Transport for London, the mayor's own transport body, was forced to admit that congestion is only 8% lower than it was before the charge was introduced. TfL thinks the extension is likely to make things even worse because of residents' discounts within the expanded zone.

So much for that idea.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mumbai Metro - oh no, not again

11kms. It’s not much really. It’s roughly the distance between Nariman Point and Prabhadevi or Churchgate to Lower Parel. Or Versova to Ghatkopar via Andheri (lets call it VAG) – the distance of the first leg of the Mumbai Metro.

Rs650crores. That’s a lot of money. Depends on your point of view though. For example the BMC has an annual budget of about Rs7,000crore to maintain the city. For example the Bandra Worli Sea Link is estimated to cost Rs1,306cr. For example, the entire Mumbai Metro project will cost – at least in today’s times – Rs20,000crores. Lots of zeroes there.

But I digress.

A question of viability
How much is Rs650crores ? A lot of money. It’s what will make construction of the VAG leg profitable for Reliance Energy, the contractors of the project.

If you recall, the VAG leg of the Mumbai Metro Project is a partnership between the Maharashtra State Government (as represented by the MMRDA) and Reliance Energy (REL). It's an example of a public-private partnership. It's also seen as the way forward in India for large (any?) infrastructure projects where the State is constrained to invest a large amount…because the State is most likely steeped in debt and pretty much flat broke.

However, for the private partner it makes sense. Besides making sense, the project should also make money. Profits. You know, the concept of returns, enterprise and such like. Nothing wrong with that.

So far so good ? But here’s the problem for the Mumbai Metro. Until Rs650crores is funded into the project by someone, the project will not be financially viable for REL. While the State Government feels the Central Government should foot the bill, the Central Government thinks otherwise.

The Central Government argues: The Mumbai Metro bidding had been completed before the setting up of the Centre’s Private-Public Action Committee. So, how can the Government approve its funding, if its committee was not in existence at the time of the bidding. Dicey logic ? There’s more.

The cost. At a whopping Rs215crore/km (simply Rs2,356crores divided by 11kms), VAG is almost twice as costly as the Delhi Metro (Rs120crore/km). Of course, the VAG leg will also be overhead (and not underground), but, I’m not an engineer or a consultant to figure the costing nuances between the two. This, it seems, is too expensive for the Central Government.

The State Government’s case: The Prime Minister gave his word when he laid the foundation stone of the Metro last year. Its time for him to live up to his word. Moreover, if the Centre can foot the bill for the Delhi and Kolkata Metro, why not Mumbai ?

And that's where this is at. This is where the Mumbai Metro is currently stalled.

Now, consider the timeline if you may -

1967-68: A Govt. of Maharashtra study on notes the possibility of a new rapid transit system such as underground rail

1973 (Regional Plan): Cautions against capital intensive projects like the Metro, suggesting instead decongesting South Mumbai, moving economic activities to Bandra Kurla, Navi Mumbai, etc.

1974: Indian Railways comes up with a plan for a Colaba-Kurla underground rail, which is shelved because its too expensive

1997: Tata Consultancy Services prepares a feasibility study on the Metro

1999: Chief Minister Narayan Rane assures a Mumbai Metro Planning Group that the project is "under consideration by the Cabinet sub-committee"

2004: MMRDA presents a master plan to Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde

2005: Delhi Metro Chairman Mr. E. Sreedharan presents Phase 1 of the project to Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who approves it.

Jan-March 2006: Maharashtra Cabinet finally approves VAG, financial bids are called for.

May 2006: Disagreement between Reliance Energy - then the lowest potential bidder - and MMRDA over viability gap funding. While REL cites a number of Rs1,251crores, the MMRDA wants a number of Rs650crores. MMRDA wins and REL are awarded the contract.

June 2006: The Prime Minister lays the foundation stone for the Mumbai Metro

October 2006: First signs of problems between the Central and State Government.

February 2007: Present day. No resolution.

Getting nowhere in a hurry
Think about that. That's all the development that this State Government, or for that matter, the Central Government has been able to achieve. Leave alone construction of the Metro, leave alone the thorny issue of relief and rehabilitation of the people whose houses and offices will have to be removed for this project, leave alone the controversies surrounding of why such a project was chosen instead of cheaper projects like the Skybus, BRTS, upgrading the existing rail network...leave all of those past, present and future issues, all of it alone.

The fact of the matter is that we've gotten nowhere. Mumbai has gotten nowhere closer to the Metro. Think about it. 40 years - 1967 to 2007. And the politicians, planners, even us as people, have moved nowhere on the Mumbai Metro.

Frustrating ? Of course it is. It only goes to yet again underscore the fact that development and infrastructure will always be one part politics and no part necessity. And the kind of resolve, political will and sheer focus required to improve life in this city is sadly missing in the leaders we've chosen.

[Note: this is part of an ongoing series on this blog on the Mumbai Metro. For other posts on this issue, click on this label here.]

Monday, February 05, 2007

Where the extra half hour came from

I read this piece by Tom Friedman on the "The Oil-Addicted Ayatollahs" in the New York Times. While this post doesn't have anything to do with that topic, I like the way he's worded this part.

It is hard to come to Moscow and not notice what the last five years of high oil prices have done for middle-class consumption here. Five years ago, it took me 35 minutes to drive from the Kremlin to Moscow’s airport. On Monday, it took me two and half hours. There was one long traffic jam from central Moscow to the airport, because a city built for 30,000 cars, which 10 years ago had 300,000 cars, today has three million cars and a ring of new suburbs. [Full article link here, paid registration required]
Sounds familiar ? Here are some statistics to chew on for Mumbai -

36 years back, in 1971, there were a sum total of 152,082 vehicles on the road.

Ten years later, in 1981, this increased to 351,796.

Twenty years later, in 2001, it stood at 1,029,563.

Around Aug-06, there were about 1.2m vehicles on the road.

Anyone visiting Mumbai after 5 years ? Would love to hear from you what changes you've seen.

I know it takes me half hour more to reach home on a road built to occupy far, far less vehicles than it does today.

Note - data displayed above has been taken from MMRDA (link here), BMC (link here) and a newspaper whose link I do not have, but photo I do have.

Technorati tags: , , ,

Friday, February 02, 2007

The day after

A few news articles worthy of mention today, the day after the BMC elections.

First up - three housing societies in Goregaon had a voter turnout of 90%, or 6,000 people. Mumbai's average ? 45%. Shabbash Mumbaikars. Chaan kaam kela.

Get that once again - three housing societies, 6,000 people. 90% turnout.

The secret ? jalebi, gathiya, chola bhature, khandvi-dhokla. Aao maaro saathe jamvaana.

No - that's not what the political parties bribed these 6,000 people to come out and vote for them. From today's Mumbai Mirror front page article -

The residents of Neelkanth Valley went a step further. Not only did they ensure that every voter from their society cast his/her vote, they had a party too. Caterers were hired to serve elaborate meals at the society’s plush club. Chola bhatura, uttappam, khandvi-dhokla, misal pav among several other delicacies were used to bait voters. “Everybody is on a holiday mode on polling days. Many take the day off from work. This time we collectively decided that we would turn this into a celebration to garner maximum turnout,” said Rajesh Shah, secretary, Neelkanth Valley Federation.[>>]

Meanwhile, down South in our city, the areas of Colaba, Walkeshwar, Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade recorded a turnout of (estimated) 30%. Here's what one resident has to say (from an article in the Indian Express today)
Shirley Gupta, who lives near Banganga, said she refused to vote since she thinks there is ‘’unequal representation’’ of candidates as far as plush areas are concerned. “There needs to be a candidate who understands the problems of this society and identifies with the electorate,” she said. Pointing out how Little Gibbs Road was placed in the same ward as August Kranti Maidan, she said: “These are different areas with different problems, and none can identify with the other,” she added.[>>]

Oh ok, so its not all that bad in South and Central Mumbai. As DNA reports today
During the last civic election, according to analysts, about 12 per cent of Colaba and Cuffe Parade managed to get out of their homes to vote. This year, the figure crossed 25 per cent. Abysmal, but better. However, the low percentage this year, apart from apathy, could also omission of names from official voting lists and problems associated with delimitation.[>>]

Technorati tags: , , , , , , .