For the past several years, Mumbai has largely looked “under-construction”. There were several mega infrastructure projects being implemented simultaneously, with a majority of them moving at snail’s pace, be it the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road, the city’s first Metro, the monorail and various key flyovers. Almost every time a project failed to achieve a targeted milestone or missed a completion deadline, officials would attribute the delays to the lack of clearances from some or other government agency.
In a city that sprawls over 600 sq km, there are multiple agencies planning and executing development works. While the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is the civic body, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), essentially a planning body, looks at large transport infrastructure works. The Central and Western railways administer the city’s lifeline, the suburban railway network, while the state’s Public Works Department (PWD) and the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) also build roads and infrastructure projects within Mumbai as in the rest of Maharashtra.
With so many agencies involved, any successful completion of a project is hailed as a feat. Most recently, at the inauguration of the showpiece Eastern Freeway on Monday, officials were at pains to highlight how the 17-km road was built after coordinating with 10 different agencies.
Often, these agencies have been accused of working at cross-purposes, like in 2012, when the MSRDC decided to build a flyover from Bandra Terminus to Kherwadi even as the MMRDA was contemplating building three underground tunnels to improve the flow of traffic in that area.
“Executing any major infrastructure project in Mumbai is like performing surgery on a running man. While trying to set one thing right, one encounters several problems that crop up elsewhere. When different agencies own different stretches of roads, it becomes difficult to coordinate. More money than what is actually needed is spent and the work completion and quality suffers,” said S V R Srinivas, additional municipal commissioner.
Caught in a time warp
Over the last century, Mumbai’s population soared by 983 per cent, having grown at a rate that is twice that of Maharashtra’s population growth rate and 2.5 times of the country’s. Over the last 60 years, the road length in the city grew from 777 kms to just 2,000 kms. It has taken nearly 161 years for India’s financial capital to get an alternate passenger transport system to the suburban railways, which has been primary mode of public transport since 1853.
While there is an urgent need for upgrading infrastructure in the city, many believe, and rightly so, that besides the lack of political will, the absence of coordination between agencies governing the various aspects of Mumbai is seriously hampering the city’s infrastructure development. There have been many such examples.
The Santacruz-Chembur Link Road
The 6.45-km road is notorious for delay, having taken nearly a decade to be completed. The east-west connector was finally opened to traffic in April this year, having seen its cost escalating to thrice the original estimate. One of the many reasons for delay was the time taken in securing permission from the Central Railway to take the road over the suburban railway tracks. Engineers who worked on the project say the CR approved the final drawings and the scheme only in May 2013, almost eight years after the MMRDA had first approached it for a clearance. Traffic blocks to actually carry out the construction were given much later in November 2013.
An official involved in the project said, “Every time there was a new person at the helm of affairs at the railway, he would ask for some change in the design.”
In the original design of the link road, there was no provision for an arm towards Tilak Nagar and Lokmanya Tilak Terminus. It was added in 2008, nearly five years after work on the road began, at the behest of the railways. Further, the designs of the 50.9-metre bridge over the main line and 39-metre viaduct over the harbour line were altered at least five times. Originally, the bridges were to be made with concrete slabs. However, in 2011, railway authorities recommended a steel bridge. Later, a second design change was suggested to increase the span or the distance between two pillars. After that, the bone of contention was the position of one pier.
Later, there was another change suggested with regards to the position of the pile cap on which the contentious pier stands.
Further, even after the much-needed connector was completed and opened for public use, it failed to provide the kind of respite from traffic that people had expected it to. Of the 6.45 kilometres, commuters are able to zip past a stretch of only about 3.5 kilometres. There are several encumbrances on the remaining three kilometres to the Kalina junction exit to Western Express Highway. The BMC was to widen the road at certain places, while encroachments along the Kurla-Kalina stretch also had to be removed.
The BMC was also to widen the Vakola bridge for smooth traffic dispersal from the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road. A civic official said the BMC had taken up the widening of the Vakola bridge in three phases, but were unable to make much progress as a small patch of land belonging to the Ministry of Defence has been holding up the reconstruction of the bridge.
The Mumbai monsoon
Road maintenance and pothole repairs form crucial aspects in monsoon preparedness. Of the 2,000 kms of Mumbai’s road network, about 1,950 kms is in the care of the BMC, while responsibility for the rest 50 kms lies with other agencies. Nearly every year, agencies point fingers at each other over the city’s general ill-preparedness to tackle the Mumbai rains, which are notorious for bringing the city to a standstill.
There have been blame games between the MMRDA and the BMC over how the former has not maintained roads that it has taken under its care for projects such as the Metro and Monorail. Similarly, the civic body has also been vociferously demanding control of the Eastern and Western Express Highways which are currently under PWD.
During the monsoons in 2013, 38,500 pothole complaints were reported to the BMC. The civic body claims that the maximum unattended complaints related to roads under other agencies. However, on the receiving end of public ire, the BMC has repeatedly sought to extend its jurisdiction over these stretches so as to take up a unified approach to repairing all potholes in Mumbai.
Last year, the Bombay High Court rapped the state government, and particularly the BMC, for the deplorable condition of the roads during the monsoon. Hence, the civic body, as part of its pre-monsoon preparedness this year, has taken up inspections of roads belonging to other agencies and notified them of cracks and depressions on the stretches that may be susceptible to pothole formations.
“We have given all the government agencies, controlling any Mumbai roads, the facility to log into our pothole-tracking website to receive information about pothole complaints reported for roads in their care. However, the agencies must be forthcoming in using this, we cannot force them,” Srinivas said.
Road maintenance aside, the city faces a similar problem when it comes to tree-pruning. This is a serious hazard as accidents caused by falling trees can even be fatal. While the BMC began the exercise of trimming trees in its jurisdiction in January, current civic procedure mandate that other agencies must seek permission before carrying out this work in its own premises. Since the start of June, the city has already witnessed close to 20 tree-falling incidents, one of which left a passerby grievously injured.
“The recent spate of tree collapses has been taking place in areas under the jurisdiction of other agencies such as the Railways. The problem can be solved once all roads are brought under BMC’s jurisdiction, as automatically the trees aligning these roads will also be brought under our care. The transfer of authority would give the civic body the liberty to carry out pre-monsoon tree-pruning in all parts of Mumbai well in advance,” Srinivas said.
So far, the BMC has only resorted to writing frequent letters to other agencies requesting them to carry out the preventive pre-monsoon work ahead of the onset of the rains, while a thorough inspection of these areas is still pending.
Until 2013, pre-monsoon de-silting of the Mithi River was another reason for conflict between the BMC and the MMRDA. The two agencies, since the deluge of 2005, have sparred over the de-silting of a six-km-stretch in the 17.9 km-long Mithi river, which falls under the care of the MMRDA. While the BMC says the area under MMRDA’s jurisdiction should be desilted by MMRDA itself, the agency refused to carry out the work on the grounds that “de-silting” is the responsibility of the BMC. This stand-off inevitably delayed the job for years, leaving the MMRDA with hardly any time to reluctantly carry out the desilting.
Finally, in 2013, Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte, who is also the chairman of the Greater Mumbai Disaster Management Authority (GMDMA), invoked the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, to order the civic body into carrying out the work at its own cost. This appears to have had a positive impact on pre-monsoon preparedness as the Mithi desilting work began in April, well before the start of the monsoons.
“If the BMC-MMRDA impasse had not ended, it could have led to the Mithi flooding again causing great inconvenience and danger for the city in the rains,” a senior civic official said.
CCTVs across Mumbai
After the 26/11 terror attacks, the Maharashtra government had planned an ambitious project of installing close to 6,000 CCTV cameras across the city. However, among the myriad reasons holding up the project is the BMC’s reluctance to waive “trenching” charges, over Rs 100 crore in all, for giving the right of way and digging permissions to install the surveillance cameras and the underlying wires for the said project. Interested bidders have said that waiving this charge would make the project more economically viable.
The state government has maintained that the project is meant for the safety of the city and agencies like the BMC should not be making money out of a project that is so vital for the city. Even in Pune, the Pune Municipal Corporation had waived its charges for the cities CCTV project. The project has undergone three failed rounds of tendering.
The stringent bidding conditions where a company needs to have a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore and the insistence of the BMC in recovering its fees is putting off many bidders.
The government had planned to install around 6,000 CCTV cameras across 1,500 identified locations with an average of 14 cameras per sq km. The project will also include 12 patrolling vans with mounted cameras and 1,000 police vans with GPS.
BMC’s Srinivas said, “If roads are going to be dug up for cables to be laid, someone has to pay for it. About six months ago, we wrote a letter to the state government agreeing to a 50 per cent concession in the costs for trenching and laying cables, keeping in mind that this is a public security project. After that, it went for tendering but from what we have been told, they did not receive a positive response in the bidding. We had even asked the MMRDA to tell us the amount they needed a waiver for, but they never got back to us.”
Officials have often said this and the same is manifested in the ridership figures that the 8.8-km Chembur-Wadala monorail is not of much use to commuters without the project’s second phase – the Wadala-Jacob Circle corridor. While the construction of both these lines was started at roughly the same time in early 2009, the Wadala-Jacob circle monorail is still lagging far behind with even the structural work not yet complete. The MMRDA is yet to acquire land at a lot of places to set up the requisite supporting infrastructure for the project such as staircases, elevators, sub-stations and so on. The development authority is also yet to secure permission from the Central Railway to take the monorail over the suburban railway tracks at Wadala and Currey Road.
The project is now suffering due to a major communication gap between the MMRDA and railway authorities.
Although the MMRDA has been pushing for the clearances since 2011, it has recently come to light that the designs that the development authority had prepared and submitted do not take into consideration the planned fifth and sixth lines of the railways at Currey Road.
“They have now asked us to come and make a presentation, which we will be doing soon,” said Dilip Kawathkar, MMRDA spokesperson.
Moreover, with land acquisition still a problem at certain places, the development authority is forced to redesign certain elements of the project, making it more time and cost-intensive. “For instance, there was this one sub-station we had proposed at Lower Parel for which we required land form the BMC. However, since it was proving to be difficult, we had to alter the design. It has increased the cost of constructing that particular sub-station. It is very difficult to get land from the municipal corporation or any government body for that matter,” a senior MMRDA official said.
Why the gap? the way forward While it is often the case that different agencies don’t come together easily due to different priorities, there is also an underlying political reason for the discord. While the MMRDA is controlled by the Congress with the chief minister as its chairman, the BMC is ruled by the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. The relations have now greatly improved, but tiffs between the two bodies were very common during the early 2000s.
A senior bureaucrat said, “When the MMRDA was constituted, it was not given any execution powers within the Mumbai city, where it was restricted to be a planning authority. In 2003, the Act was amended to give these powers to the development authority. If one agency is already in charge of execution of development works and then someone else comes, there is bound to be friction.”
Much later, the authority took a decision to undertake only mega infrastructure works in Mumbai such as Metro rails and elevated roads. This considerably eased matters between the two agencies, the official said.
Likewise, rifts between the allies Congress and NCP have also slowed down infrastructure development works in the city. Showpiece projects like the Sewri-Nhava Mumbai Trans Harbour Link, the water transport networks, the western freeway and expansion of the Thane creek bridge have all been hit due to scraps between the NCP-controlled MSRDC and the chief minister-led MMRDA.
Rahul Asthana, former MMRDA commissioner, said, “The existing system is not perfect, but we can still make do with it if we have a strong political driving force who makes all agencies sit down and get the job done. I think if the chief minister or a strong minister decides and coordinates with all these various departments, work in Mumbai will get completed a lot quicker. Sadly, this is not happening.”
Officials say when it comes to pursuing clearances with central government agencies, their officers behave like a law unto themselves.
“We have been requesting the Centre that while they should post people from the state in organizations of central government in the state. Many of the officers posted in organizations like Mumbai Port Trust, Railways have almost no interest in the improvement of the city and they act accordingly,” a senior bureaucrat said.
Officials also believe that giving more teeth to an existing body – the chief secretary-led Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority – and undertaking planning of projects largely at this level can bring cohesiveness in the work of various agencies. This authority was established in 2008 and has representatives of multiple agencies on board.
Other bureaucrats say that having a dedicated CEO for Mumbai would help the city. “There is a need for having a special post created of a CEO for Mumbai who will work exclusively for city, coordinate with the various agencies and report directly to the chief minister,” said former chief secretary Jayant Banthia said.