At long last, the panacea mooted for all of Kochi’s transport woes is here- the Metro rail. Hailed by all the mainstream media, the planners, policy makers and governments, left, right and centre, this gigantic Rs 6,000-crore project enters the list of the city's iconic projects - the International Stadium, Dubai Port, LNG terminal, Vallarpadom rail line etc. While much has been said about this stand-alone project covering just one of the several arterial transport corridors of the city, its need and viability, both in service and financially is a foregone conclusion. But what make the whole project attractive and unique are the non-Metro activities that have been evolved by the KMRL team. Nowhere in the country or anywhere else in the world has such a lot of innovations been evolved to make this otherwise limiting project have a wider reach and relevance to a larger section of people.
Kochi with its high sounding Metro tag is neither a metropolitan city nor even a big city when compared to the other big league cities. But the Metro rail has boosted the Malayali ego and penchant for mega projects. In fact, if one goes closer into the development prospects of the city it can be seen that there is a line-up of approved projects awaiting execution. These, if implemented, will forever change the whole social and structural configuration of the city. The projects like Smart City, Solar City, Water Metro, Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, Atal mission for urban rejuvenation, Prime Minister’s Awas Yogana (PMAY) for the homeless, total sanitation under the Swatch Bharath and the Harita Keralam together have an outlay of nearly Rs 4,000 crore. Of these, the first four are exclusively for Kochi city alone in Kerala. These can be integrated into the sphere of public transport for which the Metro is meant. All these can set models for the rest of the country.
Since the density of population of the city and its suburbs is very low (Kochi 6 lakh; agglomeration comprising 10 panchayats, 5 municipalities and Kochi corporation is only 13 lakh), everyone including Mr E. Sreedharan will agree that ridership on the Metro will be low and that it will never break even. Densification of the areas around the Metro corridor is naturally envisaged as a long-term solution to increase the users and also to utilise the Metro as a tool for development. Densification in turn calls for augmentation of infrastructure and services to cater to the additional activities that come. Roads, parking, water supply, power supply, etc are even presently deficient. And augmenting these will be next to impossible. It is in this scenario that the non-Metro activities of KMRL gains significance.
The formation of the UMTA, with the KMRL MD as chairman is the most important of all. Though spelt out in the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) and made mandatory under the JNNURM bus project, no state government has yet taken it up seriously. To develop an integrated multi-modal public transport system, enabling legislation is essential. But there is very little expertise in the country presently in this area. KMRL after wide consultation with the best experts in the world has formulated a draft legislation which is pending before the government. Enactment of this piece of legislation will signal a new era not only for Kochi but for the whole of the country. It will enable local transport authorities to develop transport facilities according to the local needs and hence provide access to opportunities in livelihood, treatment, education, recreation etc for the people in the suburbs. This will further enable integrated public transportation and use of intelligent transport solutions as in other parts of the world.
With three national waterways and over 40 minor ones, Kochi is a blessed group of islands separated by water. Yet no public investment has gone into the development of these. The Water Metro project, originally a project of the municipal corporation, has been piloted by KMRL with German assistance into a reality. The 78 modern boats and 35 boat jetties linking the interiors of the islands with paved and well-lit lanes will change the life of the islanders and transportation in the city. It will further decongest the city roads by providing alternatives and short cuts all throughout. Clubbing together the over 1000 private bus operators to become a part of the integrated transport network is an impossible task. But through innumerable consultations, meetings etc, they have agreed to form into a number of societies and limited liability partnerships and become a part of the integrated transport network under UMTA. This will enable re-routing of the buses through hitherto unserviced areas.
Towards the last-mile connectivity, the autorickshaw drivers and the bicycle operators have been roped in. These are all very challenging, uncharted areas, especially so in the volatile ambience of Kerala. The aim is providing seamless public transport from doorstep to destination as elsewhere in the world, but nowhere yet in our country. The multipurpose smart card, developed exclusively for Kochi’s integrated system is the most advanced in the world and can be used across all modes as well as for personal purchases. The issue and operation of the card, ticketing machines etc has been outsourced to Axis Bank bringing in a gain of over Rs 400 crore even before the start of operations. By changing the earlier specifications (for which only a single tender was received) of the rolling stock, manufacture of Metro trains could be started in the country resulting in a saving of nearly Rs 4oo crore. UMTA as well as most of the above benefits could have been gained even without the Metro rail. But the fact remains that nowhere else in the country where Metros are in operation or being implemented, have such daring innovations been thought of. Once again Kochi and Kerala are showing the way forward through its non-Metro ventures. Kudos to the KMRL team headed by Elias George.