Stray incidents sometimes have deep symbolism. When a little-known Oriya activist attacked national cricket coach Greg Chappell this week because the Indian team had no player from Orissa, I said it is only a question of time before Bhubaneshwar would want a metro railway. The metro, like a cricket player in the national side, is a status symbol for India's aspiring millions, and also a great utility, as the people of Kolkata and Delhi have discovered. Mumbai has its own metro on the make to supplement its famous suburban rail system that works a miracle everyday for the city's millions.
It is quite clear that urbanisation is a mega trend in India, and with it come some other trappings and aspirations.
Both Bangalore and Hyderabad reported progress on their metro projects last week, but how fast they will move in the future is still an open question. Work on the first "reach" of Bangalore's metro will start in February, and Andhra Pradesh's cabinet approved a Rs 8,760-crore plan scheduled to begin by June. All that sounds good, but there are plenty of worries and delays ahead for the nation's creaking cities and aspiring masses if policymakers do not get their act together on building metros.
Kolkata's metro, in the good old days when the city was Calcutta, took a long time coming and Delhi's own was not easy to build either. From acquiring land to facing protests from people opposed to it (where are they now?), the two cities did face major problems, apart from issues related to finance, technology and contracts. Not so long ago, traders in Bangalore's CMH Road were crying foul over a plan to run the metro through their zone. There is a familiar pattern in all this, which calls for a solution that must leap ahead of the problems.
Metros are a crying need due to the rapid growth of urbanisation and also because it is a critical infrastructure for exploding service industries such as retail, software and business process outsourcing. Investment bank Goldman Sachs was bullish on India this week as it looked ahead at economic growth prospects, but some of the statistics it offered could be a matter of serious concern in a nation where policy-makers spend too much time and attention on rural issues or airports, power, roads and telecommunications. Goldman says India has 10 of the world's fastest-growing urban areas and estimates that 700 million people will move to cities by 2050. Even if 10 per cent of that number is concentrated in 10 cities, it means each would have 70 lakh citizens or more.
Consider also the fact that on current reckoning, it costs Rs 155 crore to build one km of elevated rail and Rs 330 crore to build the same length underground. Costs like that need efficient management.
Given that metros involve complex issues concerning the central, state and city-level governments, I think it is time for New Delhi's leaders to think ahead. There is a strong case for setting up a National Metro Authority of India on the lines of the National Highway Authority of India, which can standardise (template, to use that fancy new word) issues related to documents, procedures, financial tie-ups, pricing, technology and social challenges so that the learning curve in this is not steep and costs are contained. Investors, bankers and multilateral agencies will extend funds happily if there is an agency that can handle metros with the clarity that NHAI does. In the 21st century, the scarce resource is management talent, and we need more people like E Sreedharan, the man who has helped build the Konkan Railway and the Delhi metro. A body to replicate knowledge across the nation is vital and a federal authority can make that difference.
Why wait till some protestor does something outrageous to demand a metro?