India has a long history of development of railways. Over the past 180 years, a huge network of rail lines and stations have been developed. Rail networks were brought into the centre of cities and as a result, the city centres further got intensified and cities spread outward. Over the decades, rail stations emerged as significant urban nodes with commercial developments all around, attracting heavy traffic congestion and strained infrastructure. Even so, these centrally located areas, owing to their intrinsic characteristics, have also become expensive locations. Large tracts of land acquired by the railways in the yesteryears for operational, residential and other purposes have now become prime real estate. Buildings have either become obsolete, derelict or even abandoned. Currently, Indian railways has a portfolio of around 43,000 hectares of land and is perhaps the largest land holder in the country.
Rail land redevelopment
The Rail Land Development Authority (RLDA) was set up in 2007 for the development of vacant railway land for commercial use for the purpose of generating revenue by non-tariff measures. Land, which is not required for operational purposes in the foreseeable future, would be identified by the zonal railways and the details advised to the Railway Board. Such plots of land would then be handed over to the RLDA by the Railway Board in phases for commercial development. The first batch of 13 sites was entrusted to the RLDA for commercial development by the Ministry of Railways in February 2007. Till date, around 100 plots of land have been entrusted to the RLDA by the ministry. A variety of commercially viable mechanisms, including public-private partnerships, would be employed by the RLDA to get these lands developed on commercial lines so as to generate maximum revenue. While the city gets more built space and old/ outdated properties get redeveloped, the railways would be in a position to increase their internal revenue generation for deployment in other operational areas. A win-win for several stakeholders is envisaged.
Rail station redevelopment
While on the one hand, an initiative has been taken to utilise the vacant lands/ redevelop lands where dilapidated buildings exist, the rail stations themselves are also in for a major revamp. The Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation (IRSDC) was set up in 2012 with the objective of developing/ redeveloping the existing/ new railway station(s) including upgrading passenger amenities by new constructions/ renovations and re-development of the station buildings, platform surfaces, circulating area, etc, to better standards for serving the need of the passengers. A total of 12 projects have already been initiated up by the IRSDC. An international design competition has also been floated recently for the stations of Gwalior, Nagpur and Bengaluru (Byappanahalli). Further, an ideas competition called SRIJAN (Station Rejuvenation Initiative by Joint Action) for 635 railway stations has also been initiated.
The setting up of RLDA and IRSDC has brought about fresh thinking, innovation and market-driven concepts into the age-old railways. Nevertheless, many challenges persist and need urgent attention.
– Rail station heritage: While railway quarters and other buildings surrounding railway stations are either in an abandoned state or dilapidated and ready for redevelopment, many stations themselves are pieces of valuable architectural heritage which merit conservation. In fact, as per the Heritage Inventory of the Indian Railways, there are over 70 buildings/stations of the railways in the heritage category. It is a good idea to modernise the physical infrastructure of the railway stations and provide for more space and better amenities, but at the same time, there is an urgent need to also conserve the heritage buildings and precincts. The challenge is not mere restoration but long-term maintenance of these as also to integrate new buildings and facilities with the old.
– Informal sector in the precincts: Almost all railway station precincts are highly crowded, congested and intensely developed. Invariably, the stations attract huge numbers of daily wage labourer, poor migrants, informal sector vendors and a wide variety of transportation modes. Frustrating traffic snarls around railway stations are a common occurrence. Railway stations are generators of huge economic momentum and have many forward and backward economic linkages. Tackling the livelihoods of the poor population living off the railway stations is a major challenge to be addressed. This can neither be simply wished away nor wiped away.
– Surrounding infrastructure plug-in: Seamless entry and exit of freight, passengers and a wide variety of vehicles are essential for the success of the functional performance of railway stations. Further, with redevelopment, the surrounding densities are bound to rise manifold. Rail land development/redevelopment as well as station development/redevelopment calls for a careful plug-in and integration of people, vehicles and land uses. In many cases, the conflicts between motorised and non-motorised modes of transport causes a spiral of problems; the mix of buses, taxis, tempos, cars, scooters, rickshaws, carts, cycles and pedestrians all go to create a complex web. Also, integration of the local metro train, the suburban local train and the long-distance train is also a challenge. Long-term and short-term parking and drop-offs are also another part of the problem that needs resolution.
– Real estate industry issues: For a variety of reasons, the real estate industry in the country has been in the doldrums for long. Enactment of the Real Estate Regulatory Act and the introduction of the GST regime is yet to fully bring about the transparency required in operations. Added is the high risk weightage attached to the real estate industry for raising capital. Further, the policy of the Railways to only lease out property and not to sell out on a freehold ownership basis has its own implications.
– Approval glitches: The system of approvals for real estate projects in the country is quite a maze. Lack of clarity, delays, going round from pillar to post to various departments and lack of certainty makes the entire process cumbersome and can easily throw the financials into a quandary. ‘Ease of Doing Business’ has to further improve.
– Market viability beyond arithmetic: It is good to undertake financial market viability studies and assessments in advance. However, the market reality could always be different as real estate markets are known to be defiant, particularly in recent times. When markets do not respond to the offerings the way they were envisaged, the spiral of delays, overruns and financial upset can take place. Therefore, while the initial arithmetic can be fine, the reality could be risky.
– Personnel issues: The RLDA and IRSDC initiatives of the Government of India can be seen as bold and disruptive policy departures. The implementation calls for market-savvy commercial approaches and not the conservative and conventional bureaucratic mindset. Running these organisations with conventional railway staff on deputation for a short period would not take them far. Appropriate personnel and compensation packages need to be developed to attract and retain the right kind of technical, financial and managerial drivers to steer the organisations towards their desired goals.
Towards smart urban rail nodes: Need for integration
Rail lands and stations are an integral part of the city. There is a strong interdependence and correlation between the city systems and the rail properties. They have historically so far been working mostly in isolation of each other and therefore, remotely connected. Further, redevelopment has to be seen beyond architecture and urban planning. There is also a need for integration of policies across ministries; railways, urban affairs, tourism, culture, commerce and finance. There is enormous economic potential in the development of smart urban rail nodes which can contribute to employment, civic development, urban aesthetics, municipal health and wealth creation. Therefore, there is an urgent need to integrate policies, institutions, professions and instruments so as to tap this potential for wholesome national development.