It has been more than ten years since I first set my eyes on Kochi. A young exchange student with Pune University, I recall quickly noting the effortless social interactions between people on the streets, the significant literacy levels (three newspapers is standard journal reading on a quotidian basis!) and of course the luxurious natural environment, which were all part of a beautiful urban experience. Walking around the streets of Ernakulum and Fort Kochi makes you realize how the harbor city has grown as an important gateway connecting the outside world to the villages in the region through a sophisticated network of canals. But one could also easily witness the ongoing consequences of the increasing urban sprawl and rising of private vehicles, slowly gnawing the social and economic ecosystem on which the city used to thrive.
When I returned to india as a young professional at the French Development Agency few years later, I was very happy to get involved in the development of a metro project, which, progressively integrated in a comprehensive urban mobility scheme, would lead to the promising urban transformation of a city anchored in its history.
From the beginning of my assignment, I was fascinated by how KMRL insisted on the need to build a metro system aligned with the aspirations of Kochi residents. The transparency with media, the countless interactions and consultations with the general public, the call of project towards local architects to adapt the design of standardized metro stations and the push for constructing green buildings- each of these ingredients contributed to the building of a shared vision for such large public investment in the heart of the city. In my view, there are numerous prudent and important decisions that go into making a successful project.
However, this early conviction that the Kochi metro would be much more than an engineering project laid the groundwork for sound decision-making. This, I truly believe, has led today to one of the most progressive initiatives by public authority to partner with women self-group and hire ‘hijra’ ( hindi word used for transgender communities in India) to operate the trains or metro stations. I hope that this courageous decision will contribute to improve women safety in urban transports, but most importantly, will change the public perception of vulnerable groups, giving them an opportunity to be part of the city’s most inspirational project.
AFD being one of the partner institutions with the Kochi metro also allowed me to witness the KMRL capacity to sustain a dynamic cohesion between partners and team members. KMRL managers succeeded in something that is often the bane of fast growing companies – building and nourishing a climate of confidence with all actors. For example, the land acquisition process, a perilous exercise in India and even more in Kerala, was carried out in an efficient yet fair and transparent manner. In the fastest growing market for metro in the world, the procurement process was addressed with a high sense of public responsibility, enabling KMRL to purchase world class equipment at a very reasonable price. Not to forget, the work in progress in a very congested area of the city never led to major strikes or conflicts with the residents, all equally concerned by the advancement rate of the project.
Finally, the mutual trust between our institutions helped to successfully roll out a technical cooperation program with French urban planners and mobility experts. It is based on these fruitful exchanges that the Kochi Metro also turned into an opportunity to transform the urban experience of the city. The pledge to pedestrianize a section of MG road in the coming years would reclaim this historical axis from noisy and cumbersome vehicles as well as restore the public spaces for the benefits of Kochi residents and travelers. One would also hope the progressive integration of urban transport modes, including water transport and cycling, will make the whole city accessible to all.
At this time of the first metro line inauguration, I am happy to recall how my experience of working with KMRL helped me to build my vision on urban development. If anything else, this large infrastructure project showed once more that smart cities are sometimes more about collaborative management rather than technology innovation. These visionary initiatives undertaken by KMRL are mostly the product of the leadership and professionalism of its management team, who knew how to build on the strengths of every partner, always keeping the priority of public interest. They highly valued the potential urban and social impacts of large infrastructure projects and allowed each team member including young professional to feel implicated.