It is heartening to note that the present regime in our State has taken up the task of getting on with the completion and enlargement of the city’s Metro rail network in right earnest. This contrast with the complete lack of interest it displayed towards the project for unknown reasons five years ago. The present sense of urgency augurs well and may mean that we will have an operational system sooner than we think. At the same time, the project is likely to run into some rough weather, chiefly because the principal stakeholders, namely the Centre and State, are having some differences of opinion on accountability and consequent cost apportionment.
A few years ago, the very likelihood of the powers-that-be inaugurating the first section of our Metro rail appeared remote. The tracks and rolling stock had been tested and waited for months on end before the flagging off actually took place amidst much fanfare. It was then said that the party in power was not so keen on seeing the project come to fruition chiefly because the idea of a Metro service for Chennai was that of a political rival that had previously been in office. Now, however, sentiments appear to have done an about turn. The ongoing Assembly session witnessed heated exchanges between the two principal parties, each one claiming credit for the Metro rail. While we applaud this eagerness, we would like to sound a word of caution – the currently operational section is a mere fraction of what has been planned and the eventual success or failure of the Metro service depends on effective and speedy execution of the remaining portions. It would be wise to recall here that the much older MRTS is still a relatively poor performer, chiefly because of great delays in its execution leading to cost escalations and also because of very poor last mile connectivity’.
It would also appear that the State Government is having some concerns regarding the liability it faces on account of the Metro rail. It has demanded that the Memorandum of Understanding on the Metro rail signed in 2011 between the State and the Centre needs a relook on certain clauses. The first of these concerns land acquisition. This is present to be borne entirely by the State. In addition, acquiring of any land owned by the State for the Metro is to be free of cost while if any space belonging to the Centre is to be taken over, compensation at market rates has to be paid. This the State Government feels will skew its debt. Likewise, all escalation in cost of executions and the burden of any exchange rate fluctuations are to be borne by the State Government. Cash losses in operations are also to be the State’s burden.
On the other hand, as and when Chennai Metrorail makes a profit, the Centre will be entitled to a dividend. Moreover, the railways have retained surface rights on all land they have leased to Metro Rail for underground work. The lease, which is for 35 years, is at market value. The State has questioned the logic behind this, arguing that if surface rights were retained, the lease ought to be at nominal rates.
It must be pointed out here that the MOU was signed between the Centre and the State in 2010, when the present regime’s rival was in power. While the present demand for revision of the MOU may be to settle political scores, it cannot be denied that the points set forth are logical. The Centre is yet to respond. An impasse over this could lead to delay in completion of the Metro. Are we to wait forever for a reliable and well planned public transport system?