Kochi Metro to start next week: challenges in the journey so far
Ernakulam: When Kochi Metro, the Rs5,181 crore metro service for Kerala, takes its 13-km ride on 17 June as part of its first phase of operation, it will become the fastest operational metro service of its kind in India.
The ride, which will span 11 stations across Kochi, will set it apart from the rest of the metro services in the country.
When the project was considered a decade ago, the state’s commercial hub and port city Kochi, also known as Ernakulam, did not meet the 10 lakh population criterion that was needed to sanction a metro, and the civic planners had to circumvent the law by factoring in the floating population that arrives in Kochi and extend the services to nearby city Aluva.
Once the construction began in 2012, disputes cropped up one after another. Construction work choked the city’s congested lanes, with the situation worsening during monsoons.
Also, for almost a year and a half during its construction, there was no land acquisition act. The 120-year old Land Acquisition Act was amended by the Centre in 2013 but the state drafted the relevant rules only in 2015. As a result, the district collector had to interact with each land owner whose land had to be acquired for the metro and negotiate, said Elias George, managing director of Kochi Metro Rail Ltd (KMRL), the agency tasked with building the metro. Also, Kerala is known for going tough on big projects, with even government projects struggling for single-window clearances and timely approval, he added.
“It is 100% true that building anything in Kerala is much more difficult than rest of the country,” said George, who has become the face of the project.
“You have to be absolutely transparent like a glass bowl here. I kept telling my people even if you don’t do something, it is okay. But don’t do anything which will make people suspicious of Kochi Metro,” he said.
The idea of having a metro itself was criticized, with a section pointing out that most of the metros across the globe are simply bleeding money. “The public had to be apprised that it is about bringing investment, changing the livelihood patterns, altogether raising the city to a whole new level, and so on,” said George.
To convince people, the Metro needed to be more than just an engineering project. “We wanted to be a metro with a conscience,” said George.
The Kochi Metro marks many firsts.
KMRL entrusted a bulk of both technical and non-technical works to Kudumbashree, an umbrella organisation of women that has a membership network of almost 4 million, instead of outsourcing the work to private companies like other metros do. This will raise the female ratio employed in running of the Kochi Metro compared to other metros. “Once completed, 80% of the entire metro operation will be run by women,” said George.
It is also hiring 60 persons from the transgender community for operations ranging from ticketing to maintenance. Already, 23 people have been hired such operations.
“It is for the first time that a government-owned company in the state is providing bulk employment to members of the third gender,” said George.
“A lot of them are engineering graduates, a lot of them have MBAs, that also speaks about the tragedy of education and employment in Kerala,” said George.
About 25% of the energy needs of the metro will be met from solar, another first among India’s metros. Plans are also underway to take that number to 50%.
“Every sixth pillar is also going to have a vertical garden which will use recycled municipal waste to give the whole project a green touch,” added George.
It may have helped that George wasn’t a complete outsider to the city. In his earlier stint as commissioner of Kochi Corporation, he gave the city a colour code of blue and white that almost resembled the Argentinian flag. The idea was to resonate the blueness of the sea, along with the whiteness representing the purity of the land. The symbolism worked, so much so that later the state government took it up as the official colour code of all government institutions.
“KMRL has got a very youthful, pan-India profile. Some of the best ideas have come from the younger generation,” he said.
“And everybody in the city was determined to realise this. The land losers were saying okay, I may be facing some difficulties but my children may have a better future when this comes. This was the single most important factor, there was a collective will of a population,” said George.
But how will the metro make a profit?
“There are some metros which make a profit, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok etcetera. Otherwise, most of the metros are bleeding money. You can’t discount it completely,” he said.
“Unless the entire network gets completed we don’t expect great usage. It will take time, but I guess users will come in. And in the meanwhile, we have extensive advertising on our stations, even the station naming is up for corporate sponsoring (one station has been already taken by a company for Rs6.5 crore per year). Then we are doing property development on an 18-acre land that the government has given, among other things,” he said.