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.

india_mumbai_monorail_transport

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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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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