Dharmendra Jore: Let's resurrect the monorail
The monorail may have failed on many fronts, but it must be revived to save taxpayers' money
Introduced to Mumbai amidst much fanfare as the country's first monorail in February 2014, the project was once called a toy train by the city, because it turned out that the people used it for amusement rides rather than a regular commute. An ill-designed route still makes us wonder as to whom the planners had in their mind as target commuters. Did they think of influential builders who wanted their real estate projects to get a fancy monorail tag to boost sales?
Real estate did benefit handsomely, but the promises given to commuters got lost in the polluted air of Wadala-Chembur much before the entire corridor got operational. Once a dream project, it's now a nightmare. People call the monorail a 'mobile ghost', because of incidents that have happened in the past. Last week's devastating fire gutted two coaches of the train, but fortunately it did not claim any life, thanks to low ridership on the commercially unviable Wadala-Chembur line.
Since its launch, Phase-1 service has faced a lot of flak, also due to countless technical issues that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has failed to resolve. Mumbai's failure made other states shelve their plans to construct their own monorails.
Monorail operations are itself a subject for research. The only way to get passengers down from the elevated tracks in case of a mishap is to call the fire brigade for help. Imagine the enormity of the incident, had the train caught fire when in motion. What's more, the elevated tracks don't have sideways to walk on in emergency. What brilliant engineering!
People are angry that taxpayers money, R2,700 cr, has been spent on a project that is fast becoming a 'spent force'. Some officials in MMRDA have the audacity to say that the money wasn't taxpayers', but was raised by selling government land to corporates and builders. Isn't government land public property? Does our constitution differ in MMRDA's case?
Problems on Phase-1 showed up once operations started, but Phase-2 between Wadala and Jacob Circle came up with its own when under construction. Power cables fell to the ground some months ago. Fortunately the cables were not charged. Luck saved MMRDA, yet again. Currently, the footfall on the monorail is around 19,000 passengers per day and once the entire line becomes operational it is likely to go up to 1 lakh per day. The monorail is causing drain of around R75 lakh per month on MMRDA's exchequer due to heavy loss. A private operator says that a fixed monthly amount that it gets from MMRDA is insufficient. It continues to raise bills for additional expenses on maintenance.
Thursday was a lucky day because the fire struck the train in the station. Call it unprofessionalism, lack of training, or callousness, the monorail staff were not equipped to douse the fire. Apparently, the MMRDA mandarins did not deem it fit to follow instructions of the fire department which had warned them of disaster if proper care was not taken. And now, MMRDA has stopped operations till further notice.
Concerns but no answers
Mumbaikars have been questioning MMRDA's style of functioning. MMRDA's twitter handle is inactive since 2013. The responses to media in such developments remain evasive and an incident that affects projects is played down. Information does not come easily from the authority which spends crores on hiring publicity agencies. Why do officers with fancy designations not like questions posed to them?
Two years ago, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) had exposed MMRDA thoroughly in the matters of monorail's planning, execution and warned about impacts in the future. The CAG had questioned durability of construction of the Wadala-Chembur corridor. All civil structures are to be built for a life of 120 years, but the construction agency did not go by norms and MMRDA turned a blind eye towards violation of contract conditions.
Extended deadlines have become a joke in the monorail project which is in the 8th year of construction. The monorail's second phase which was supposed to take off last month is unlikely to get moving even early next year. Who do we blame? If ex-bosses in MMRDA and then ruling parties are held more responsible, the people in the current government and MMRDA too should be blamed. Because in the past three years, the monorail has been ignored, and instead projects like metro lines and trans-harbour link are getting more attention.
Agreed that the monorail is a 'monumental failure' of the Congress. But does it mean that the Devendra Fadnavis government should let 'black sheep' in MMRDA script an obituary to the country's one-of-its-kind project?
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org