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The Journey Begins Now

Come 2005, and the Metro may end Delhiites' commuting woes

The Journey Begins Now
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

AFTER more than three decades, several promises that remained on paper, and a retinue of governments of various hues which played Rip Van Winkle to perfection, the Delhi Metro rail project will finally see the light of day. October 2 will witness the foundation stone being laid for a rail-based transport network—a combination of underground, surface and elevated—for the capital.

Quite an achievement, considering that a total of 35 studies have been conducted so far to gauge the feasibility of the project before the idea could take final shape. And when the first subway train chugs off in 2005, at the end of the first phase covering 55.3 km, there will be a lot of dust to shake off. The idea for a rail-based transport system was first mooted in the fifties, mulled over in the sixties, debated in the seventies, overcome by indifference in the eighties, and mired in confusion in the nineties. It may sound unbelievable, but the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the agency which will implement the first phase of the Rs 8,000-crore project, was set up in 1995.

Still, the Metro project, which is now being spearheaded by a group of ministers headed by Union home minister L.K. Advani, brings more than a ray of hope to Delhiites. It means that the burgeoning vehicular population in Delhi—2.8 million and growing by 0.3 million every year—and pollution—65 per cent of which comes from these vehicles—can now be contained.

It also means that the booming commuter population in the capital has yet another alternative to cars, buses and TSRs. Delhi's population is expected to touch 1.43 crore by 2001, 1.71 crore by 2006, 1.95 crore by 2011 and 2.1 crore by 2016. And, even by 2001, as estimates of the National Capital Region (NCR) Planning Board suggest, in the absence of a mass rapid transport system, the growing number of commuters will need at least 10,000 buses. "The ultimate aim is to integrate the metro service with the rail network of the region," says an official in the urban affairs ministry. That will also mean that the ring rail network in Delhi, which runs only 11 trains through the day, will be utilised to the optimum. When that happens, the DMRC will take care of commuters travelling within Delhi and the Indian Railways will ferry passengers to and from Delhi on its 180 trains that touch Delhi round the clock.

E. Sreedharan, DMRC managing director, who has successfully set up the Konkan Railway from scratch, is confident of completing the daunting first phase of the project by 2005. Daunting because the target was set in 1995 and for two years hence the government could not appoint a professional to head the corporation. Meanwhile, it was losing Rs 2 crore everyday because of project cost escalation. Sreedharan himself has not had a smooth run. He is currently caught in a minor crossfire between urban affairs minister Ram Jethmalani and the department secretary Kiran Aggarwal.

But the DMRC is steaming ahead. It has already awarded a large number of civil works for the project. Larsen and Toubro has been given the contract to construct a dedicated bridge across the Yamuna for the proposed network. This bridge will form part of the stretch from Shahdra in east Delhi to Nangloi in the west—a stretch which has the highest commuter traffic. "By 2011, half of Delhi will stay in slums because the growth of infrastructure services will not keep pace with the increase in population," says R.C. Aggarwal, chief regional planner at the NCR Planning Board.

And there lies a catch-22 situation for the rail network—if the tickets for a ride in the air-conditioned comfort of the metro rail are too costly, people will not make a beeline for that ride. On the contrary, if the fare box collections are not good enough, the project will be mired in losses for eternity. Says Anuj Dayal, spokesperson for the DMRC: "For an average travelling distance of 7.5 km, the fare has been planned at Rs 5 on the basis of current prices." By 2005, the fare has been projected to increase at 7.5 per cent annually.

THE fare structure will ensure that the project has a financial rate of return (FRR) of 2.8 per cent," says Dayal. However, those associated with planning for the Delhi Metro say that of the 37 rail-based transport networks studied, 35 were found to be unable to recover costs. Apart from the FRR, Dayal argues that since the economic rate of return—comparative advantage of rail over road transport in saving wastage of fuel and of rail being environmentally friendly in other ways—is 21 per cent, there is no reason why Delhi should not have the metro rail. Of course, ensuring that the FRR targets are met will be tough.

No less tough will be to ensure that the denizens of the capital are not constrained by the construction activity when that begins. One only has to look at the long travails of the Calcuttans for that but the DMRC is hopefully wiser.

For example, the Central Secretariat-Delhi University corridor, which connects central Delhi with the north and which will be fully underground, will be dug by an ultra-sophisticated tunnel-boring machine. The machine will first dig 12.8 metres vertically and from there, start digging horizontally for the entire corridor. In between, for the Chawri Bazaar station, which is the heart of the wholesale market of Chandni Chowk, the digging will go down vertically 20 metres because the contractors would not like to risk getting anywhere near the foundations of centuries-old structures around Chandni Chowk. DMRC's worry is not just the people but also the civic services provided to them. "Most of our effort at present is geared towards ensuring that telephone and electricity cables are not disturbed," says Dayal. Already, there is a steady flow of money to civic agencies to ensure that they shift the services with enough care to ensure continuity even in the face of relentless digging that shall begin soon.

To ensure that the bus and other transport services function as hub and spoke, the DMRC plans to provide huge parking areas for cars, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and cycles near all stations. Except in the congested Chawri Bazaar, where there will be no parking space and only pedestrians can use the services. Of course, extreme care is being taken to ensure that the basements of the old buildings are not even remotely disturbed. "After all, people need safe houses before they can travel in the metro," says one urban affairs ministry official.

Luckily for the DMRC, the slums have so far not been a problem. The situation is a trifle contradictory because with the Delhi Assembly elections scheduled in the next six weeks, the last thing politicians would want is the uprooting of hutment clusters. Sensing such a problem, DMRC circumvented it by shifting on to the Delhi Government the responsibility of acquiring the land which is occupied by hutments now. Once that is done, the DMRC will just have to pay for the shifting of the hutment clusters.

Meanwhile, plans are being developed steadily for the first phase, for which the Union Cabinet has given the approval. During this phase, only the Delhi University-Central Secretariat; Shahdra-Nangloi and Pul Bangash-Holambi Kalan are the corridors that will be constructed. These are the corridors which record the highest commuter traffic in Delhi and the national capital region. With the metro facility, around 60,000 commuters per hour per direction will be carried by trains that will have a frequency of three minutes. The metro is expected to carry 3.2 million passengers in the first year of operations. Once the MRTS is operational, the government hopes for an estimated fuel saving of Rs 375 crore.

 For the second phase, the Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) is in the process of preparing a detailed project report. The report, along with the finances that will be needed later, will have to be presented before the Union Cabinet. A length of 143 km of metro railway is envisaged for the second phase which is expected to be completed by 2024.

For three decades, Delhi was taken for a ride. Now it can have a real one.

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