A former Union Finance Minister has dubbed the recently presented central budget as nothing but a vote-gathering exercise. While he may be influenced by political compulsions, this appears to be a logical inference. How else can we justify a whopping Rs 17,000 crores for a suburban and metro railway development scheme encompassing 160 km in Bengaluru whilst Chennai got nothing? Karnataka is shortly to face an Assembly election. The other beneficiary has been Mumbai, which has got Rs 10,000 crores. As compared to this, Chennai Metro got nothing. Is it our fault that despite the best opportunities, our politicians prevented mid-term elections to the Assembly?

Chennai Metro has been pleading for a couple years now that it be permitted to begin work on a second phase in its expansion. However, the detailed project report (DPR) when submitted to the Union Ministry for Housing and Urban Affairs was returned with the comment that the document did not give any justification for the poor patronage of the Metro despite it being operational over 50 per cent of the proposed 45 km network in phase 1. At present 30,000 people use the Metro each day. The DPR for phase 1 had apparently estimated that the full network of 45 km would carry around 7.7 lakh passengers a day. The Ministry has therefore said that the present 28 km ought to be catering to 4.5 lakh passengers at the minimum. With the present patronage being less than 10 per cent of what was estimated, the Ministry is questioning the viability of the entire service.

What follows is even more damning. The Ministry has said that the DPR for phase 2 is totally silent on alternative modes of transport such as bus and light rail; it makes no mention of last mile connectivity; and above all there is no thought given to public private partnerships. In short, the DPR is precisely what a group of bureaucrats seated in an ivory tower must have come up with. It is only with sorrow that we at Madras Musings would like to point out that these are precisely the lacunae that we have been highlighting all along in the first phase as well.

It is all very well to enthusiastically burrow under the ground, crack up heritage buildings above, swallow parks and open spaces and then report progress on the distance covered in terms of laying tracks. But public patronage is an altogether different exercise. No thought had been given to it when the Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) was planned, and we are more or less on the same track when it comes to the Metro. Which is a pity given that the idea is essentially a good one.

As of now therefore, our Metro is caught in a bind. Lack of funds means its proposed phase 2 and its planned linking up with the MRTS are not going to happen any time soon. Those two are vital for the viability of the service overall. Without them, we are India’s costliest Metro and perhaps the nation’s least used one as well. If matters are left this way, we will end up having two isolated and poorly used transport systems – the MRTS and the Metro, both built at enormous cost in terms of money and damage to environment.

Our political establishment appears to be blissfully unaware of all this. Not a reaction has been expressed to the virtual cutting off of all central support. May be our MPs need to take a leaf from the books of their colleagues from Andhra who are busy protesting outside Parliament about poor budgetary support to their State. Or they could engineer an election.