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Thursday , 20 June 2024

Interview with: P R K Murthy, Construction within constraints

P R K Murthy, Chief, Transportation, MMRDA fields uncomfortable questions with elan and brings out the dilemma of providing travel infrastructure, despite various constraints, in an over populated metropolis like Mumbai. He tells Vidyottama Sharma that despite knowing well that every move of the government will come under the scanner, there is no way efforts will not be made to ease the traffic scene in Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

MMRDA is into developmental activities for transport, housing, water supply and environment among other things. How much weightage do you give to transportation?

The MMRDA Act was amended in 2002-2003 and is now focused mainly towards executing transport infrastructure and all related activities whether they are redevelopment, rehabilitation or SRA (slum rehabilitation) arising out of carrying out transportation work. Certain powers are given to the Metropolitan Commissioner at par with the Municipal Commissioner in accordance with Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act. So the emphasis is on developing the transport infrastructure. We are not into real estate or developing the buildings, we develop those that are affected by our transportation projects. But MMRDA is focusing on growth centres in the region to improve travel and living conditions in MMR ( Mumbai Metropolitan Region )

What basic hurdles do you face while planning and executing your projects?

Quite a few hurdles in Mumbai actually. The main is unchartered utilities. Many times, while preparing the detailed project reports, it is not possible to dig up roads. Hence, we have to depend on secondary information from various sources like Municipal Corporation (water supply department, sewage department, etc.), power companies like Tata Power and Reliance Power, telephone companies, gas authorities, etc. But when we actually take up the project, we get the correct picture of the utilities only when we trench and see what is below for ourselves. There is no record of the same and whatever information is given to us may not always be accurate. The dimensions may vary by a metre ? plus or minus. This puts our entire planning in jeopardy and changes the foundation designs. Every foundation is a peculiar design. The suspense is revealed only when we open the trench.

Does getting the permissions from different agencies on time create a problem?

Not really. The procedure of applying for permissions has to be followed. Basically, first the Traffic Police have to give the permission for barricading in time. They have their own constraints. Since Mumbai roads are bursting at their seams, diversion of traffic or restricting the right-of-way (ROW) to manage the traffic is a big challenge for them. And since they are on the roads for 18 to 20 hours, they take some time to find alternate routes before giving their approval. The next is getting permissions from the municipal corporation for their utilities as we cannot even do trenching before that. And the irony is that only after trenching do we come to know which utility would need to be shifted. So my slogan in Mumbai for all my staff is: ?Come out of the khadda (trench / foundation) first?. If you are above the foundation level, that means you have solved 90% of your problems of the project. This phase is most difficult.

The second issue is of R & R (resettlement and rehabilitation) and then, of razing the structure, etc. For Mumbai Metro, we have been able to resolve the mosque issue near the railway tracks in Andheri West with political intervention. One of its minarets had to be relocated as it was affecting the main viaduct ? a tin roof had to be converted to a slab owing to power traction and safety requirements. Then, we have to construct a wall so that people do not approach it near the tracks. Otherwise, the train would not have crossed from East to West and West to East. The Maheshwari temple issue too is being resolved. It was affecting the station access as well as the staircase. In order to complete the concourse level, we had to acquire the property which we have done now.

Some transportation projects get stuck for decades (like the Trans Harbour Link that has been in the plans since 1960s). There are other reasons too for the delay but lack of proper coordination among government agencies is considered to be the main reason.

I don?t agree with this at all. There is complete coherence, at least where Mumbai?s government and local authority departments are concerned. Otherwise, no project can be carried out. I don?t think that government departments are that inefficient that they take decades to complete.

Coordination efforts are required only after the project has been conceived and all the departments are involved one way or the other in the decision making process. There may be delays for some other reasons like financial constraints. I am not authorised to comment on the Trans Harbour Link but I know that MSRDC had initiated the process of its bidding twice earlier. It is in the making now.

Mumbai Metro keeps getting delayed. When will it finally be commissioned?

We are very confident that it will be completed and commissioned in 2013. And the project is not delayed as people think. The 35 year concession agreement was signed in March 2007 with five years for construction. It should have been completed by March 2012 but we faced two-three major hurdles like the land for the depot, religious structures and unforeseen court litigation. Initially, Railways gave in-principle approval but subsequently it was decided to go in for elevated rail corridor and that delayed the entire approval process by about two and a half years. We have now constructed the first missing link of Saki Naka-Asalpha portion. So, we will complete the Metro on time. Even Delhi Metro had taken more than seven years when the first line of seven kilometres ? Ritala – Tees Hazari section ? was built. In Mumbai, the problems of staircases, landings, lifts, escalators are most challenging ? Delhi roads are much wider compared to Mumbai?s. Delhi?s problems are not as magnificent as Mumbai?s problems.

“Take a look at construction accidents throughout the world. Our record is not that bad. I don?t say that five accidents are much better than ten accidents. In spite of taking all safety precautions, accidents take place. An accident is an accident. It is not intentional. But the main objective is zero accidents. Sometimes some things happen which are not in our control. But otherwise safety improvement has come a long way. We have completed 95% of the Metro work. Only 5% work is remaining. Now there is very less scope for any accident.”

But then at places Mumbai Metro hasn?t been thought through properly. People will travel very fast but the entry and exit points will throw up major problems at places like J B Nagar since autos would take up most of the space outside the stations.

Whether it is underground or elevated, the requirements for entry/exit are the same. If at all in India there is a city which requires a Metro, it is Mumbai. The demand will have to be met within the constraints. You have to build a metro where it is required by the people and all such areas are congested. In Bhuleshwar area or South Mumbai, the density is 100,000 people per sqkm. Do you need a Metro there or not? If there is no access, we have to make access. No road in Mumbai is wide enough to take the luxurious BRT, five lanes of Road and also the Metro access. These are the constraints ? we have to work around them. The planning is not bad, it is appropriate.

Everybody cannot say ? ?not in my backyard?. Metro will serve eight lakh people for which a small portion faces an entry/exit problem! We will acquire the land and solve it. Can we sacrifice a larger city interest for a small local problem?

In these constraints, is the safety angle being thought of because given the paucity of space on the roads, accident rate is high?

The construction work of Metro has been a learning experience for us right since the time we started it. People too have to be more understanding ? they must not go and violate the prohibited areas. At the same time, we also have to employ our safety standards. These efforts too take considerable time which delays the work again. People are accountable for safety issues, so safety has now been tremendously improved. There is a third party consultant, over and above the consultants and contractor, to look into the safety aspects. There is also an independent engineering body for the same. Now, Metro Board has appointed SGS, an international firm which is an expert in construction safety. So, all the safety aspects have been taken into consideration. All the checks have been thoroughly followed and a lot of safety improvements have been done.

Has this been done after the accidents that have taken place in which lives have been lost?

We need to get one point clearly — not all the accidents are directly because of negligence. There are certain inherent problems. Even the latest accident in Andheri had a different reason. The road had been continuously dug up to lay utilities, and then re-laid with paver blocks. This weakened the bearing capacity of the sub surface. People at the site might not have realised the temporary shuttering and unshuttering would weaken the sub surface and it would settle the way it did. So, it is an eye opener for them too.

The accident was unfortunate. We have suggested they should first test the sub soil, then put steel plates over which we can start the work of staircases, lifts or escalators so that they won?t slip or sit in. Even if there is a problem at a particular space, the load will be taken evenly and spread over. Safety has been substantially improved now.

Work on elevated Metro II from Charkop to Mankhurd through Bandra is stalled because of Reliance Infra accusing MMRDA and the government of not fulfilling the conditions to start work. What is the friction?

Both the parties have their own stand and are saying that they have fulfilled their conditions. MMTPL, the SPV created for Line 2, has expressed its inability to construct a depot because of the imposed CRZ conditions. No project gets clearance in India without conditions. The allegation of pre-conditions not being fulfilled is not correct because we got the environmental clearances in 2011, even if they are conditional. We have also got the Railways and all other clearances. But it is a difference of opinion. I don?t call it friction.

Major part of the best infrastructure facilities are provided only till the airport because VIPs and international tourists/travellers travel till there! Beyond the airport, the facilities are poor!

On the contrary, as part of Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project, nothing is done in the island city except Marine Drive beautification. The Juhu missing link, the Dindoshi missing link, the Western Expressway widening to ten lanes, Eastern Expressway widening, the service roads ? everything is done for Mumbai suburbs, that too beyond the airport. But yes, the maintenance is better in the island city. Traffic has increased by ten times during the last ten years. At least the traffic police and other departments are making the best efforts to move the traffic. Which city is better otherwise?

There are better cities.

Even in Paris on the Express Highway from the Airport, you find bumper to bumper traffic. Traffic has increased beyond expectation. That creates congestion which doesn?t reduce in spite of building all the flyovers and interchanges. If there is supply, there is more demand. If there is more demand, there is supply. So it is a vicious circle. Mumbai can only survive on public transport. I don?t say that roads are not required but rail based mass transit is the only solution for this city for all the corridors despite the allegations that there is no place for staircases, lifts and escalators. 25,000 people travel during peak hour by BEST buses between Andheri and Dahisar. Which bus system can take the load if there is no BRT or Metro? In the long term, Western Express Highway (WEH) will require a Metro, there will be 70 to 80,000 people travelling on that corridor. These will also be green initiatives for this city. We are spending on energy consumption, there is environmental degradation and we are creating carbon pollution. All this can be relieved only by capital investment in mass transit projects. Mumbai needs investment in public transport and mass transit coupled with better transport management measures. That is the only way to go forward.

“Line 3 underground Metro connecting Colaba, Bandra and SEEPZ is our next project. In the appraisal stage right now, it will be 33km long and will be fully underground. Trans Harbour Link and the Multi Modal Corridor Project are the other projects.”

The common man is always skeptical of government initiatives.

We are trying our best within the constraints. We will welcome if there is an agency from a corporate sector or anywhere which can deliver much faster within the same given constraints and problems. After all it is teamwork with citizens? participation. Everybody should support a good project and come forward. All the activists and environmental NGOs keep blaming MMRDA. They think MMRDA should do the capital investment as well as the maintenance. Unfortunately, we are not equipped to take up maintenance work, nor should we be into it. This is an organisation created for capital infrastructure. Let the other local authorities and traffic police handle maintenance.

Is your truck terminal still happening at Wadala or is it being relocated?

Truck terminal has no relevance within the city now because when it was planned in 1975, Wadala was considered as outskirts. People were scared to go beyond Dadar. Now the city has grown and residential areas have gone much beyond Mulund and other places. So, the truck terminals have to be rightly relocated at peripheral or vehicular points of cities from where they can regulate truck movements on WEH or EEH. Wadala has no relevance now. They have been planned at Dahisar, Mulund, Vashi ? all the entry points of national highways and state highways.

“We will be completing all our works of Mororail by January 2013. After all the safety approvals are obtained, a Safety Commissioner will be appointed by the state government. When he gives the fitness certificate, we will open it. That could be some time around March next year. Normally it takes two to three months for a Safety Commissioner to look at every aspect of safety.”

These terminals will give facilities for parking for the trucks and help the drivers in changing their trans shipments into smaller consignments. Truck drivers themselves have no facilities till today. So resting points, lodging facility, restaurants, dormitories, etc., are planned. We have requested the government to look at the proposal in this regard.

A few experts say that MMRDA removes problem from one place and shifts it to another, like in the case of the Lalbaug flyover. Do you agree that MMRDA?s planning would be better if it consults other related agencies beforehand?

When you initiate a project, it has to stop somewhere. Lalbaug has given relief between Sion and VT ? it now takes only 25 minutes to cover the distance. When you are eliminating a signal, you are solving a problem at that place. That doesn?t mean the problem is transferred. Nothing should move from Sion to VT or from Dahisar to Bandra if all the problems have been brought to one place, but everybody travels non-stop. I can only say that the vision of the transport experts should be broadened. The so-called experts should do post implementation studies ? whether the projects have benefitted the people or not.

I agree that flyovers are not long term solutions. But if a junction is badly congested, you cannot say nothing should be done there. Can the city survive without flyovers on the Western Express and Eastern Express Highways? In CBD and main city areas, flyovers may not be the right solution. Instead efficient traffic management measures shall be resorted to.

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