Creating a ‘21st Century World’: Will Metro Systems Create ‘Smart Cities’?

By inviting private capital and adopting an urbanisation plan that caters to the affluent, India’s upcoming metro systems will not be a public good aimed for the masses.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently inaugurated the Metro Bhavan in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony, where over 2,000 trees to build a car shed for the city’s upcoming metro railway system. Speaking at the inauguration, Modi called the metro necessary to create cities for a “21st century world” that could ensure “mobility, connectivity, productivity, safety and sustainability” for the populace. However, the state administration has been criticised for its heavy-handed approach to clearing space from Mumbai’s “green lung,” and has also highlighted the environmental costs of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) development narrative. 

The current government envisions a metro system in 50 cities of the country. Besides Mumbai, metro systems in Pune, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Kochi, and Bengaluru, to name a few, are currently in various stages of construction. Whether these projects will meet the desired goals of being environment-friendly by reducing congestion, pollution, and providing a viable alternative to public transport is being debated. Experts contend that metro systems are not very successful in middle-income to low-income countries, where other forms of public transport (like buses and suburban railways) are fairly inexpensive. Further, the increasing amount of private capital being invested in these projects may result in these services being unaffordable for the majority.

Through this reading list, we debate the necessity of these metro systems in India, and whether they are integral to the country’s urbanisation goals, which necessitates a shift to sustainable transport.    

1) Private Capital and the Metro

Meenakshi Sinha cautions against the current government’s drive to install metro transport systems in cities across the country. Sinha argues that a clear link can be drawn between metro projects and land monetisation, which results in land being transferred from public use to private profit-making areas.

Land monetisation along metro corridors has manifested itself in the form of property development for commercial use, or high-end residential complexes that are meant for consumers who can pay the best price. These are, thus, profit-generating real estate development projects that are usually undertaken through public-private partnerships (PPPs) between state agencies and private developers on lands acquired along the metro corridors. Given the limitations of budgetary means to finance metro rail projects, land monetisation has been projected as a means to supplement revenues for the metro projects (MoUD 2014; PIB 2017).

Further, Sinha questions the government’s push to develop metro projects via PPPs. By agreeing to fund such ventures, Sinha argues that besides having land transferred to them for “public purpose,” private players also avoid several regulatory and bureaucratic agencies. The state thus acts as a land broker for private commercial and residential projects.

The state agencies are often not entitled to anything more than a share of nominal ­revenues from most of the allied real estate projects along the metro corridors, while the private developers gain access to some of the prime land within urban areas and even additional building rights on the acquired piece of land for future construction. The real estate development may also be exempted from local taxes and charges, causing significant losses to state exchequer. The result is that in the case of most of the PPPs, while the government agency ends up bearing the risks associated with projects, the private entity sweeps in the majority share of profits from the projects. The PPP sharing arrangements, then, instead of realising the aim of bringing in private investments to fulfil public projects, drain away much of the public resources to private entities.

2) The Metro Cannot Function Without State Subsidy

Geetam Tiwari writes that one of the reasons that the Delhi metro has seen some amount of  success is due to the fact that the project has been heavily subsidised to ensure that it remains financially viable for the populace. While other transport services like buses have been criticised for being loss-making ventures, Tiwari argues that subsiding them in a manner similar to the metro would make them immediately profitable. 

Approximately 9% to the capital cost of a bus, and 19% of the cost of operating a bus service can be attributed to various taxes and duties, though its externalities are considerably lower than private motorised transport. If bus transport corporations are offered similar tax benefits as metros, most transport corporations will become profit-making entities. There has been no serious discussion of this at the central or state government levels, while the Ministry of Urban Development has issued a detailed note on “Innovative Financing for Metro Projects” (MoUD 2012).  

3) Stemming Vehicle Growth and Pollution

Assessing the effects of the Delhi metro, Pritpal Randhawa writes that despite the stated claims of the Delhi metro project prior to its implementation, both pollution and congestion in the city have continued to rise, making Delhi one of the most polluted cities in the world. Randhawa argues that the simultaneous construction of flyovers and other policy geared towards private transport doom the financial and ecological viability of such public transport systems.

The connection that was made between the DMR and reduction of pollution and congestion was recast in the later years as “energy efficiency”, popularised by the discourses of climate change … while the direct use of fossil fuel-based energy in a mode of transport —electricity in the case of metro rail—amounts to reduced fuel consumption, its impact in terms of making people stay farther away from their workplace may translate into a larger consumption of energy itself. Moreover, there needs to be an assessment of how the infrastructure of metro rail system itself consumes huge amounts of resources—when metals, electricity, etc, are put to use to make the metro rail system functional. It needs to be seen whether it translates into an extension of accumulated energy consumption (Sharan et al 2011). 

4) Metro and the Myth of Sustainability

Dinesh Mohan questions why Indian policymakers seem to be out of sync with an expert opinion on developing sustainable cities. Mohan argues that capital-intensive projects such as a metro rail system is wasted in a country like India, where vehicular transport is largely inexpensive, and land use and transport patterns are continuously in a state of flux. By looking at data from low-income and middle-income countries with metro systems, Mohan argues that the “smart urban mobility” goals of the government can be achieved by instead investing in existing modes of public transport.

Per capita income does not have any strong relationship with metro productivity levels and some low-income cities have higher rates than high-income cities and vice versa … For the cities examined BRT systems seem to compete well with metro systems with levels of productivity similar to the best rail systems. Population size, per capita income, and length of the BRT system seem to have little effect on productivity. This means that BRT systems are more likely to have success than rail systems on any heavily travelled route in any city … Therefore, it is not surprising that the projected ridership of 34,000 passengers per day per km of the metro in Delhi did not come true as there is no empirical evidence for such high ridership values anywhere in the world.

Further, Dinesh Mohan also examines the ”sustainability” aspect of metro systems, arguing that the Delhi metro is run on electricity, which is largely produced by coal-based thermal power plants in India.

A recent master’s thesis (Kumar 2012) at the civil engineering department, IIT Delhi, carried out a life cycle assessment of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses and the metro in Delhi. It reveals that only considering the operational aspect of transportation systems gives an incomplete picture of the overall cost. For instance, life cycle energy consumption per passenger km travelled is 90% to 120% higher for the Delhi Metro than vehicle operation. Life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per passenger km travelled are 93% to 123% higher than vehicle operation. The energy and GHG increases are primarily due to infrastructure construction, infrastructure operation and maintenance, vehicle manufacturing, and vehicle maintenance. The GHG emissions of Delhi Metro are 1.5 times higher than the CNG-run bus system in Delhi.  

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