Kerala has been chasing a Metro for Kochi since the turn of the millennium. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation submitted a detailed project report to the state government in 2005 and the state put up a proposal before the Union government in 2007. A long wait followed until 2011, when Tom Jose was appointed as the managing director of Kochi Metro. The IAS officer, who is now an additional chief secretary (labor, excise), recounts the progress of the project from the days when it functioned with a handful of staff and without an office.
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The Kochi Metro project was put on track in 2011. That is when the initial works started. The idea was mooted earlier but there was not much progress on the proposal. I checked the file when I was given the charge of the Transport Department. I held detailed talks on it. The government put me in charge of the project in 2011. We had already reached a consensus that Metro was essential for the city. Kochi was not a planned city. The roads were narrow. The city was vulnerable to traffic blocks. More and more vehicles were put on the road every year. Almost 13 percent of new vehicles hit the road every year yet the roads were not widening. The people were getting stuck. Metro was the only solution before the government.
There were differences of opinion on spending such a huge amount on Metro. We called a meeting of people who had anything to do with Metro, including residents’ associations. Most of them dismissed the plan as a white elephant, while the others batted for the project. After compiling the opinions, the government decided that the city needed a Mass Rapid Transit System (MTRS). There would not be any blocks on this path and people could travel on time. Metro Rail could reach place not accessible by car or bus. The project could transform the lifestyle of the people in the city.
I have commuted on Moscow Metro. A train leaves the busy Kiyevskaya station every 30 seconds. Even if you miss a train, the next one is in quick succession. The government decided in favor of a Metro considering the situation across the globe and in other Indian states.
The KMRL is born
The government entrusted me with the responsibility of forming a special purpose vehicle for Metro. That is how the Kochi Metro Rail Limited was formed. The company did not even have an office then. We were working out of the Inland Water Transport Department’s office at Gandhi Nagar. The KMRL recruited its staff from there. We only had four or five employees in the first stage. It was tough to get the projects approved. I requested the government to give me the additional responsibility as the transport secretary because only a secretary could prepare cabinet notes to expedite the approval process.
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We launched associated works of Rs 159 crore in the first phase. The Banerjee Road and other roads were widened. Encroachments were cleared. The drains were cleaned. Twenty-six roads were improved to divert the traffic to. The maintenance works were done with a stern condition that not a pothole has to appear on the roads for the next five years. These roads helped in doing away with traffic snarls even when the North over bridge was demolished.
The Metro project was approved within nine months. The works were expedited, thanks to the hard work of the KMRL staff. They obliged my request to work for 24 hours without asking for leaves. Today, the KMRL is one of the best run offices in Kerala.
The central government was skeptical of a Metro in Kochi when the state government sought its approval. A team of officers from Kerala camped in New Delhi to get the approval. We held several presentations to convince the center of the inevitability of Kochi Metro. The center finally agreed to bear half of the expense of the project.
A Water Metro was also mooted in this stage because Kochi had many canals. The original alignment of the Metro was changed. The Metro was originally supposed to go through the Vyttila Junction but it was changed. The Mobility Hub was already there but there were no long-distance buses serving the hub. I convened a meeting and offered to build a Metro station at the hub. A traveler from Idukki, for example, should be able to get down from a bus at the hub and get into the Metro to any destination in the city. We also decided to build jetties near Metro stations wherever possible. The idea was to integrate Metro, bus and boat services. Long-distance buses were shifted to the hub within a week of the meeting.
The central government wanted a single ticket for travel, enabling a traveler to ride a taxi, boat or Metro using a single card. That is becoming a reality now. Once the projects are complete, the way we travel will undergo a sea change. Traffic blocks would be a thing of the past. People who wanted to travel in a bus could do so. Those who wanted to ride a boat could do so. I expect Kochi to become a city with unique modes of transport.
Water Metro, Future Metro
We have to do one more thing to make Kochi a city with excellent transport facilities. We have to improve the canals. We have submitted a project proposal. Canals have been encroached by private parties in several areas. We have to rehabilitate the people who live by the canals. The work is on to dredge the canals. The Kerala Water Authority is relaying its pipes. Human waste is still being channeled into the canals. We have to change all that.
Kochi will transform once boats start service within the city. The quality of life will go up. The major problem the city faces is the traffic block. Then the canals are disappearing. The waste woes is the next problem. If we were able to solve all these, Kochi will be one of the major cities in India. No other Indian city has canals crisscrossing the city. But these canals have been encroached at many places. We have to build walkways and bicycle paths at these places. Tourist facilities should be put in place. Malls and residential areas should come up. At this rate, we should be able to reclaim about 34,000 square meters of land near the canals. These possibilities will bring more people to Kochi. More investment will follow.
We expect to complete the Water Metro project within four years. A feasibility study has been completed. A detailed project proposal is expected to be completed within five months. Only then we will be able to form a cost estimate and fix a deadline for the project. If we really work hard, we should be able to finish the project in four years. Efforts are on to identify land for the project.
Even the people who have encroached the canals belong to the city. The Water Metro can come up only by accommodating them. We have to consider their accommodation and their children’s education. They now live in pathetic conditions. Slums come up when a city grows. We seldom give a thought to the people who build the city. We do not care where the workforce comes from or where it goes to. We see them in the day but they vanish into the night. Where do they go? Most of them sleep in the streets.
There is no point in ignoring the people who actually build the city. The government is forming projects to accommodate them as well. The people who have to be evicted for the project will be given alternative accommodation within a year and a half. We still have two-and-a-half years to complete the restoration of the canals. Some of the bridges may have to be demolished for the boats to pass. Even private boat operators can use the jetties of the Water Metro, along with those of the KMRL.
The sound of money
As the Metro network gets larger, the city will have more facilities. The areas covered by Metro will be in high demand. When a shopping mall comes up in that area, it brings with it investment and employment opportunities.
Metro’s objective is to do away with the traffic snarls. Some people are proposing a flyover in place of Metro. Flyover has its limitations. We need to find more land for it. Metro does not have that problem because it is built on pillars. The flip side is the higher investment. It could be a liability for the government if the operating cost is not covered. It will take 50 years for the project to break even. We have to get back the operating cost at least before that. We have to seek diverse revenue streams for that.