What makes a world class city? Travelling all over London for the past month, covering Wimbledon and doing touristy stuff, the first thing that springs to mind is a comprehensive commuting system. Travel is expensive in London, no question about that. But what you get in return is efficiency, reliability, communication and outside peak hour timings, relative comfort. But the biggest asset is probably the fact that everything is coordinated and integrated. The same travel card can be used for different forms of transport within the city which means you can hop from one to the other. Connections become easier and since the system is synchronised, travel headaches are reduced significantly.
It is impossible not to compare this to India’s only, um, world class city. The suburban train system has served Mumbai incomparably for decades. But it has long been stretched to the utter limit and any recent improvements have only been tiny and incremental. When I was last in London two years ago, the Overground system was being built. Now it is an effective ring around the city. How long has it taken for the Mumbai Metro to build one line from Versova to Ghatkopar? Work started in 2008 and since then it has been a series of delays and cost overruns, not to mention several disagreements over funding between Central and state governments and the private developer. The due date is apparently later in 2013 but it is also true that if you hold your breath for too long you will die.
The Mumbai Metro may become a remarkable transport system. But it has not been integrated with the existing railway system. The Indian Railways have been working on their own to upgrade their systems. The BEST may be the best bus system in India but it is not coordinated with anyone either. There are stories about railway and MMRDA officials getting into arguments about what is required and what is not. And that is why Mumbai has innumerable “skywalks” over railway stations that no one uses.
More seriously, it also why the Railways have built their own elevated (which is what the Mumbai Metro is) rail system, which will cover areas they think need augmentation of facilities. The MMRDA which planned the Metro has its own ideas and the people who live in Juhu and Bandra where the next metro line is supposed to come up have their own ideas. That is, if the metro service had been “down” into the ground as promised, few would have any objections at all, but right now it’s all up in the air: literally and metaphorically. Of course, the fact that most parts of Mumbai cannot have an underground rail system is quite well-known. So you might argue that by calling it a “Metro” which implies underground, some fooling all of the people all of the time is going on.
But let’s get back to being “world class”. Mumbai is imploding, little doubt about that. An inefficient self-serving administration and half-baked decisions are making it worse. Look at potholes. Every year the monsoon arrives and brings exactly the same problems, almost all of them foreseeable and man-made (or woman made). It is with great difficulty that half a road contractor gets rapped on the knuckles and then it’s back to life as usual: the people suffer and grumble and the authorities do nothing. You notice that I do not even mention corruption but that’s because it’s always comforting to have an elephant in the room to ignore.
The answer may not be as simple as getting a powerful mayor or voting with our heads and not our hearts or castes or prejudices. It may in fact be as complicated as using our heads to come up with a solution for ourselves. I know. It’s tough. But if they could do it here in London, why can’t we do it in India’s only, er, world class city?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona