Mumbai's Monorail Debacle, Lessons For Other City Planners

A file photo of Mumbai's Monorail
A file photo of Mumbai's Monorail
Guruprasad Kamble*

MUMBAI — On December 14, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) abruptly terminated its contract with the Indo-Malaysian consortium L&T-Scomi Engineering Bhd to manage the city's monorail. The authority said that there had been issues such as poor maintenance of the monorail fleet, as many rakes were found unfit for use. This ended another chapter in the sorry saga of a transportation experiment that was doomed from its very inception.

India's first monorail was flagged off on February 1, 2014, with the hope that it would resolve Mumbai's transport woes — or some of them, at least. The MMRDA initially spent a total of Rs 27.16 billion on the 19.5 km Chembur-Wadala-Jacob Circle corridor.

Experts had warned even then that it was a foolhardy idea, which would have no practical or substantive impact on the city's transportation. Since monorail rakes have low carrying capacity, the planned route is unnecessary and expensive and the technology untested — it hasn't been used as a mode of mass transportation anywhere in the world — and will have a low cost-recovery rate.

Additionally, cheaper modes, such as the bus rapid transit system — which could achieve the same ridership and speed at a lower cost — were not considered.

Cheaper modes, such as the bus rapid transit system, were not considered.

"Monorail is a new experiment, one that has hardly any use for the city," said Ashok Datar, chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network.

MMRDA first conceptualized the monorail in 2005 and approved its implementation in a meeting conducted on September 28, 2007. A Consortium of Larsen & Toubro and Malaysian partner Scomi Engineering Bhd was awarded the contract On November 11, 2008 to build and operate the monorail.

Now, eight years later, it has become apparent that the project has neither served the purpose of taking the load off the suburban train network nor act as an efficient feeder system. If anything, it has suffered from a string of accidents, maintenance issues and stagnant passenger load. Its services were shut down for ten months after a coach caught fire in November 2017.


Inside the monorail - Photo: Karthikndr

The stated objective behind bringing monorail was that Mumbai needed a supplementary system to the existing suburban rail network, which carries more than 8,000,000 passengers per day, far in excess of its capacity. The bus services in the city are crowded and traffic congestion makes bus services slow. The MMRDA justified the monorail as best suitable for congested places since it requires less space, is capable of taking sharp turns and has the capacity to carry 20,000 passengers per hour per direction.After the closure, the monorail saw a decrease in ridership — from almost 15,000 per day to around 10,000, barely 10% of the estimated daily ridership of at least 150,000 passengers.

However, there was a vast difference between what was stated and what was eventually implemented.

What went wrong?

MMRDA started the monorail project in a corridor that passes through some of the most vacant areas of Mumbai on the eastern side. The first phase was routed through areas of marshy lands with no shops, offices or residential blocks.

The original plan was to start construction from the other side, where the human density was higher, but land acquisition in the crowded parts was not easy. "The route planning and prioritization of phases went wrong, MMRDA should have given priority to the other route," admitted B.C. Khatua, project director at the Mumbai transformation support unit, a state government think-tank that had the mandate to advise, monitor and coordinate projects undertaken by various government bodies, including the MMRDA in Mumbai.

It's a failure of planning.

"Or the MMRDA could have completed the entire route in one go, instead of two phases. We can't blame the monorail technology. It's a failure of planning," Khatua added.

In addition, the monorail on its route was barely integrated with other modes of transport. Its stations are neither properly connected to suburban train stations nor are there frequent buses nearby to take passengers to their destinations. The closest suburban railway station where the monorail ends is 4 km away. Moreover, some stations are located away from residential areas. This increased the travel time and cost for passengers.

In 2017, the Maharashtra legislatures' public accounts committee sharply criticized the MMRDA for poor planning, misjudging the ridership estimation, not studying the overall feasibility of the monorail route and wasting public money.

But it was dogged by other problems too. The implementation kept on getting delayed because of lack of permissions from different authorities, difficulties of acquiring land, changes in route alignment and a slowdown in government decision making in the wake of the November 2008 terror attacks. The overall cost jumped to Rs 30 billion.

Activists have long suspected that the monorail was pushed through to open up the vacant land in the eastern corridor of Mumbai to development, which will allow for more buildings. "One can see this as a push towards development on the eastern side," says Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, a network of professionals and part of the World Resources Institute Ross Centre that focuses on sustainable urban transport.

P.R.K. Murthy, the former chief of transport of MMRDA confirmed this, stating that "the long-term purpose is to open up the land for development and spur economic growth, this is what the monorail project will do". Some major residential projects by big builders have already begun construction in the area, which offers tremendous future possibilities.

Future of monorail

The failure of the first phase of monorail has, however, cast doubt on any further expansion plans, which included a total of nine corridors. Getting funding for them is going to be highly difficult.

With little or no public demand or consultation, the decision to go ahead with the project without studying its impact was a poor one. The shoddy planning and failure of a showpiece project have several lessons for city policymakers all over the country — that vanity projects taken up by governments and supported by politicians and urban planners for their own agendas do not end up serving the very people they are designed for.

*Guruprasad Kamble has done his masters in Urban Policy and Governance from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He currently works for the Praja Foundation, Mumbai.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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