Mumbai's new metro symbolic of paralysis strangling city's ambitions

Mumbai's delayed metro system is finally set to open, but it remains a symbol of the paralysis strangling the country's grand ambitions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 10:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 4:11am

After growing weary of five-hour commutes to work in Mumbai, Raghavendra Deshpande took a 20 per cent pay cut when he accepted a job nearer his home. Mumbai's new metro rail isn't going to change his mind.

The metro, Mumbai's first, is due to open next month after repeated delays. The 12-kilometre line, built by a group led by billionaire Anil Ambani's Reliance Infrastructure, aims to transport 600,000 people a day in a city of about 19 million.

"This is a trade-off I made because you don't feel like a human being during the commute", Deshpande, 42, says. Three years ago he made the 30-kilometre trip in taxis or trains. "We were already late in deciding to build the metro and the delay is adding to the misery."

A decade after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed to make Mumbai another Shanghai, creaky infrastructure, urban squalor and expensive real estate mar the nation's financial capital.

Passengers shouldn’t have to lose a shirt button or two on the way to work

Then there's the safety factor: every year more than 3,500 people die in accidents involving commuter trains. A new monorail and flyovers crisscross the city, almost touching crumbling buildings and defunct mills that have lingered since British colonial days.

Mumbai's state is a symbol of the paralysis hobbling India's US$1.8 trillion economy as a string of investment projects remain stalled by delays in land acquisition, environmental clearances and graft allegations. Singh's Congress party-led coalition faces elections by May as voters grapple with a struggling economy and high inflation.

Mumbai needs US$60 billion of investment in public transport over the next 20 years and the current plan falls short of needs, according to estimates by Shirish Sankhe, Mumbai-based director at McKinsey & Co.

In a 2010 study, the consultant said India must spend US$2.2 trillion by 2030 on urban transport, housing and office space to boost infrastructure.

Failure to do so is holding back India's growth while creating bottlenecks that fan inflation, says D.K. Joshi, an economist at Crisil, a local unit of Standard & Poor's.

"In some ways, the pace of infrastructure development is synonymous with the slow economic growth," Joshi says. "Considering the importance of the city as a financial centre, a smooth transport system is a necessity and not a luxury."

Mumbai's slow pace of development contrasts with Shanghai, which boasts the world's biggest metro network - covering 560 kilometres - the number one container port and two world-class airports.

China's resolve to turn Shanghai into a global economic, financial and shipping hub by 2020 has led to an office building boom to accommodate international companies. Pudong, across from the Bund historical waterfront area, has evolved from rice paddies into the city's main financial district in just three decades.

India's per capita spending on public works in cities is just 15 per cent of China's. Unless that is increased eightfold, it may jeopardise growth prospects, according to McKinsey.

Knight Frank LLP, London-based property consultants, last year ranked Mumbai the 16th most expensive city for residential space, just behind Tokyo and Los Angeles.

Gleaming new glass and steel constructions where monthly rent costs as much as US$6,500 vie for space with shanties and slums where a shack with a tin roof is reality for millions.

An offshoot of the first train line started by the British-owned Great Indian Peninsula Railway in 1853 serves the teeming suburbs. Each train carries an average of 4,500 passengers, 2,750 over capacity, according to Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. Many passengers hang on to the overstuffed trains from open exits and dart across busy tracks at stations during peak hours, leading to thousands of deaths and maimings each year.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority plans to spend US$4.8 billion on transport in the next five years, 50 per cent more than the previous five years.

"Our objective is to help citizens get better facilities with the resources we have," commissioner Urvinder Pal Singh Madan says. "There's little land available and implementing big projects in a densely populated city is a challenge unique to Mumbai."

The metro, whose construction started in 2007, connects the northwestern suburb of Versova to Ghatkopar in the east and was originally scheduled to open at the end of 2011. The elevated line with 12 stations is designed to reduce a 90-minute commute across the city to 20 minutes.

The city would need nine to 10 such lines and billions in investment for seamless travel, McKinsey's Sankhe says.

As with the delayed project, a plan to build a second international airport has struggled to take off pending land approvals. The first phase is now due to be completed by the end of 2018, four years behind schedule. It would serve 10 million passengers a year initially, and up to 60 million by 2030.

A monorail opened in Mumbai earlier this month. When its second phase is completed, it will ferry 150,000 passengers a day over a 20-kilometre route.

"It is essentially a feeder line that is best suited to congested areas," said Rajeev Jyoti, of Larsen & Toubro, which is building the monorail. "Passengers shouldn't have to lose a shirt button or two on their way to work."

None of the new infrastructure can match the British-era train system as there's no co-ordination between the monorail, metro and the new airport projects, according to Sushi Shyamal, of Ernst & Young.

"We talk of making Mumbai a Shanghai, but the cities aren't even close to being comparable," he says. "We are already behind. It is just poor planning."