16 July 2009

Metro Trouble

I believe that a Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) like the Delhi Metro is not a feasible, long-term intra-city transport option.

Here’s why.

As an entirely electricity dependent MRTS, the Delhi Metro naturally consumes a considerable amount of electricity. Nonetheless, there seems to be no general consensus regarding its exact consumption- a paper on the Institution of Railway Electrical Engineers website claims it’s the largest power consumer in Delhi, a May 9, 2006 report on the Tribune website puts the same to 45MW, or 1.15%, of the average demand of 3,200MW and a write-up on the Metro’s website fixes total consumption to 75+45=120MW or 3.75% of the average demand of 3,200MW. Now, as anybody who’s spent this summer in Delhi knows, this last figure cannot possibly be accurate, for, first, as the channels and papers have been publicising, the total demand at the peak of summer in June was a staggering 1000MW more at around 4,400MW and second, since this figure is so patently obsolete and the Metro’s network has increased considerably since then, its net consumption of too must’ve gone up. There is, unfortunately, no clear figure for that.

Be that as it may, one thing is totally unambiguous: an over-whelming percentage of the Metro’s electricity comes from either non-renewable fossil fuels like coal and natural gas or from ecologically unsound hydroelectric power plants in the lower and middle Himalayas. This crucial fact has till now been consistently ignored by media and civil society alike, for even as we rightfully applaud the DMRC for installing a solar power plant on the Connaught Place station and justifiably take pride in it been awarded carbon credit validation by the German TUVNORD for the use of the innovative regenerative breaking technology, we simultaneously forget that at its core the Metro still functions on hazardous, toxic and ecologically unsafe technologies. Like a majority of successful corporate establishments, all the DMRC does is to stay on the right side of public conscience by adopting small, piece-meal green methods with great fanfare without changing it’s core base of unsound energy generation technologies.

What is urgently required, therefore, is a holistic scientific analysis by an independent, unbiased agency on the overall environmental impact of the Metro’s creation and its unfettered expansion.

First of all, it must be found out to what extent electricity generation in thermal power plants offsets the Metro’s commendable achievement of preventing emission of around 2,275 tonnes of vehicular carbon-dioxide. Indeed, even as we in Delhi celebrate the supposedly modernising influence of the Metro and felicitate it for it’s role in the reduction of vehicular pollution, we overlook the fact that the DMRC characteristically follows conventional Western wisdom of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ by increasingly buying power from a NPTC plant in far-off Orissa. All this happening in the National Capital acquires another, ironical dimension when we consider how the Indian Government cries itself hoarse in every international climate change forum about developed Western nations relocating all their dirty work to developing countries and so making them victims to their insatiable hunger for resources.

Similarly, a detailed study on the multi-nuanced ecological impact of the construction of the Metro too is in order. The DMRC claims to be “one of the most eco-friendly projects in Delhi” so it will be worthwhile to find out whether or not it sources construction material like bricks, cement, concrete, girders etc from clean, green and ethical firms instead of the popular run of the mill profit-maximising, unsound businesses. The affects of exposure-whether adverse or not and if so, how much-to fine concrete dust to construction workers and those living near construction sites too must be conclusively established.

Moving on, one must also consider the costs involved in maintaining the DMRC’s entire network. Whether or not the Metro makes profits, maintenance costs are bound to go up each year as its assets age. Gradually, in about a decade or so, it’ll be bound to phase out a majority of its existing rolling stock if it still wants to maintain its current high standards and afterwards major changes and upkeep would be required in all the stations as well. It is not wholly inconceivable that as time passes maintenance costs would slowly become a considerable amount of its expenditure so that the DMRC’s huge infrastructure and unmovable assets might just end up as an encumbering public liability. Once again, an unprejudiced investigation is in order to determine whether or not these will eventually become equal to or override the net income.

On the whole, I think the DMRC can really not be fully blamed for not being far-sighted enough to anticipate these issues: it is, after all, just a modern replica of a century old transport model carried out under the guidance of a smart and efficient yet aging man. What is surprising, however, is that nobody in Delhi seems to have realised that the Metro, in its current avatar, is only repeating old mistakes and so seems to be going well down the way of becoming an embarrassing liability for the city. Indeed, had even a fraction of the will and money spent in erecting the humongous Metro network been spent on refurbishing roads and revamping the bus system the need for the Metro would never have arisen and the transport problem solved without so much exertion. The very induction of air-conditioned buses in the DTC’s fleet, which will make available to the common citizen a facility till now the Metro’s complete monopoly, coupled with the increase in road space and, so, vehicular traffic raises serious question marks over the very existence of the project as some of its basic objectives get gradually defeated.

All of this is not to say that I am against the Metro. No, like all Delhities, I too have more or less enjoyed the Metro experience and do sincerely believe that by setting enviable professional standards it has brought about a sea change in and contributed immensely to the evolution of public attitudes and consciousness, creating, in fact, a whole new ‘Metro culture’ of discipline, responsibility and patience. Nevertheless the Metro is no holy cow and, more now than ever before, we need to evaluate the whole project in a radical, all-encompassing manner and ascertain its viability for the moderately long-term. That alone will be beneficial for the city.

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