Pune Metro: An Opinion (one more!)

Much has already been said about #PuneMetro. In fact, so much has been said and debated upon that Pune citizens are quite frankly tired of all naysayers & doubting Harry’s and carry a hope now that the #PuneMetro will actually see the light of day…and possibly in record time! We see Dr Brijesh Dixit and his team at #MahaMetro working full steam ahead. The required sanctions are in, most of the geo-technical survey is done and the good news is that Pune has a solid bedrock which will make foundations fast & easy to construct.

So most of the common people are left wondering, what has happened now that was not there 10 years ago, when the Metro should have actually arrived in Pune? My opinion on this is as follows:

Any infrastructure project is proposed by the government. It is the responsibility of the government to prepare all the reports/ studies etc that credibly show that such a project is necessary and the government has the right intentions and the technical backing to undertake this. When the first Feasibility Report for #PuneMetro was published by #PuneMunicipalCorporation and #DMRC, sometime in 2006, the report carried many anomalies. Now, based on these anomalies, the first dissent began. Usually, this dissent is typically from a small group of self professed urban intellectuals, undertaking advocacy work in the city of Pune through small NGO outfits. This small group of people is actually a very small section of the society. Their arguments are not incorrect, but often I find most of them, heavily biased against or for something, without technical analysis. So in all fairness, this group really represents only an ‘Opinion’ and not technical expertise. Once this movement of dissent begins in this small group, like minded individuals join forces to make this look like a ‘representative’ movement of the people. Media joins forces to often portray these ‘opinions’ and ends up raising so many questions that there is a general feeling that the government is unsure, has less information and absolutely no sound technical knowledge on the issue. This further fuels more and more citizens to join such dissenting movements.

I feel that this is the time and the opportunity for the government and its elected representatives to step in. When dissent begins. This is the time to interact with these groups and possibly clarify the government’s stand and/or seek adequate technical clarifications from technical experts/consultants. This is the time to hold public meetings, use social media and print media to aggressively dispel myths and possibly strengthen technical reports. This is also the right time to look at options – like changing route or opting for alternative technologies.

In Pune, the arrogance of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government, lost this opportunity. #NCP leadership in Pune did not pay any heed to the growing dissent against PuneMetro and allowed the dissenting movement to spiral into a confusion of myths, wrong perceptions, wrong technical information and thus widely ranging unreasonable arguments. Also, the conflicting signal was that the #NCP government was proposing the Metro, while its most prominent Pune leader, Vandana Chavan was seen supporting the dissenting group. In fact, I feel that for the last 10 years, this strategy of the #NCP is evident in almost all major and important infrastructure projects in Pune. Be it the BDP or Flyover projects, we see the #NCP proposing them, while Vandana Chavan, siding with the dissenting groups for these projects.

So now in 2017, some of the technical anomalies that were pointed out by the dissenting groups still remain. However, what has changed is the approach of the government – both at the State and at the Centre. The State Government knows that the opportunity of making substantial changes was lost previously. Realistically, for such large infrastructure projects, to begin once again at the state of Feasibility reports will mean another minimum 5 years of discussions & debates. Every proposal undergoes a round of Suggestions & Objections under the Law and this takes considerable time and effort and money as well. Every proposal will have compromises, and while one group may dissent on one aspect of that proposal, another group may dissent on an aspect that is diametrically opposite to it. While citizen groups and NGOs can have their own spheres of work, the government, necessarily has to finally develop infrastructure to benefit millions of citizens despite opposition. The government, after the due process of seeking inputs from the citizens, has to finally make a decision and move ahead. The reason why in 2014, the entire country chose to overthrow the Congress led government was exactly against this ‘Policy Paralysis’. And I think, citizens need to understand this reality of a democratic setup before dissenting and expressing opinions widely.

I would like to highlight some of the compelling dissent arguments and express how each argument conveniently disregards or ignores another compelling argument.

1. Argument 1 – Pune does not need a Metro. Buses will be adequate. Why spend so much?
People making this argument needs to understand that #PuneMetro is essentially a long term project. When most of us get frustrated with unplanned cities and projects around us, we often rant, “why doesn’t the government plan for growth?”. Well, #PuneMetro is one such project that can be termed as a project ‘planned for growth’. It is a project that will see its true potential possibly 20 years from now. So lets all chuck this argument in the bin. Most of us visit countries abroad and marvel at their infrastructure and how the government is proactive in putting it up before it is actually needed. But we fail to support such infrastructure at home.Why?

2. Argument 2 – The Routes are improper.
Yes. Possibly. Also, there may be 10 different ways in which routes can be aligned. However, this is the one that seemed both feasible, reasonable and least disruptive and hence a decision was made to go ahead with this route. There may be thousands of areas that remain outside these Routes. But, if we have one route, most others will follow to meet the demand of citizens later. Debating endlessly on route alignment with flawed data is a waste of time for everyone. We have to understand, that while data and data projections give us a suitable direction, it may not be the only consideration in making a route decision.

3. Argument 3 – The Metro will lead to a massive environmental damage, due to loss of trees
Yes, I agree that full grown mature trees are precious. But then, we have to also consider that all of us seeking to protect trees (an icon of environment), are using our cars and two wheelers to generate much more pollution and cause much more environmental damage than cutting a tree. So, while being iconic, although a Tree-Chipko movement sounds like the ‘in thing’, our everyday commute is actually stressing the environment much more. So we need a rational mid way, try and protect as many trees as possible and compensate for the loss by planting 10 times more trees.

4. Argument 4 – Metro will damage river ecosystem and reduce its flood carrying capacity
This is the simplest of all arguments. There are so many bridges across so many rivers all across the world and this technology has been accepted as a requirement to cross /access a river. So in terms of flood carrying capacity, the pylons or piers that the Metro will require, are negligible in volume considering the overall flood carrying capacity of the river. There just doesn’t seem any merit in this, really.

5. Argument 5 – The Elevated Metro will cause a loss of Urban Aesthetics
Sure. A layer of infrastructure will get added to the city and it will look very much different that what it looks today. But remember, that change cannot be always equated to bad. Some years ago, I had architects argue against the solar panels because they looked ‘bad’ on a building. That argument has pretty much gone for a toss as #RenewableEnergy has become a requirement that’s and building aesthetics were modulated around this requirement eventually. Also, the rules of aesthetics undergo a shift. Today, the younger generation, more accustomed to seeing solar panels, will not find these ugly on a building. So the urban aesthetics can and should change to accommodate newer things.

6. Argument 6 – Underground Metro is better than Elevated Metro, so what the cost?
So while a small section of citizens makes an argument of why spend so much on a Metro (See Argument 1 above), there is another section of citizens that promptly jumps into the fray and proclaims – “If you want to do the Metro, go full out and spend but build an Underground Metro”. Most of the time, I have found that most citizens demanding Underground Metro have a wrong perception that an underground system will have no or less disruption on ground. This will thus, save the inconveniences faced by people due to an Elevated Metro construction. If these people delve a bit deeper, they will realize that Underground Metro will actually require huge portions of roads and parts of the city to be completely cordoned off and dug up to allow of large equipment to operate on an underground tunnel. This, at the moment, looks impossible in Pune at most locations.

Further, the operation of TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine) that will have to be employed for the Deccan Basalt under #Pune will be a humongous operation, requiring the stone to be converted into a slurry. This slurry will need to be dried on site and then transported to a quarry somewhere outside the city. Technologically, everything can be done. But whether to do it and at what cost, is the question? All this effort of operation will not be required in an Elevated metro.

Proponents of Underground Metro are also proclaiming it to be a more eco friendly option. Consider this. While the Elevated Metro may require cutting down of trees, Underground Metro will alter the underground natural aquifers and natural groundwater systems of the city forever. Trees can possibly be replaced through plantation, aquifer systems can never to replaced or repaired. To circumvent the riverside alignment, some citizens are suggesting the Underground Metro option, forgetting that the riverine system is not just about the flood carrying capacity that we see above ground, but it is a complex system of underground aquifers and water flows. So while arguing for protection of a River, they are actually suggesting an option that may cause irreversible damage to the riverine system itself.

In all these arguments, there seems to be no thought given to future environmental impacts and projections of pollution due to vehicles on the roads. #CarbonFootprint of cities, a major contributor to #ClimateChange is being completely ignored for short term arguments of environmental damage. Investments in systems like the Metro will curb carbon emissions and move us towards #SustainableUrbanism.

So here you see, all the Arguments against the #PuneMetro have taken their own sweet time and path to mature themselves into pathetic chaos and confusion. Pune citizens are at a crossroad. Data and analysis will always be lacking and projections can always be questioned. But, if we feel that our city needs to plan for future growth, it needs to take the plunge for large infrastructure projects like #PuneMetro. Period.

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