Expectations about the Metro Express

Vigilance is of the utmost importance at all
stages of the project

 In his reply to a Private Notice Question by the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly last Tuesday, the Minister of Public Infrastructure began by stating that ‘The Metro Express project has been revived by this Government on the basis of a review exercise that has been conducted by the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise at the request of Government to cost optimize the project that was approved by the previous Labour-PMSD Government for a total cost of 850 million US Dollar which converted in Mauritian Rupees represent as at now about 31 billion rupees’.

After giving the breakdown of the capital cost, he emphasized that ‘the Government found that the project was economically, technically and financially viable’. However, ‘when this Government assumed office, it decided that the project as approved by the previous Government was not affordable for the country’ and ‘decided to request Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) to review the whole project with a view to making it more realistic and with an affordable budget’.

Following the submission of a cost optimized report by the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise the estimated project cost is Rs17.7 billion, and Government has therefore decided to go ahead with the project. Further, ‘the financial model for this project is based on an average daily ridership of 80,000 passengers in each direction’.He also added that the Government of India has provided a grant of 275 million US dollars, equivalent to Mauritian 9.9 billion rupees. That means there is a shortfall of 7.8 billion rupees, and a variety of options are being considered.

Significantly, the Minister stressed that ‘it is totally false to say that banks have been contacted and have refused to finance its implementation. On the contrary, they are eagerly awaiting for Government proposal once the contract has been awarded’.

What is of more direct interest to the potential metro travellers is the fare, and this is what the Minster said about the proposed fare, ‘According to the Feasibility Study, the proposed fares will be aligned on the prevailing bus fares… As at now, it has already been decided that the train ticket will be the same as that of the prevailing bus fare’. (italics added)

And he concluded by affirming ‘that this Government is totally committed to implement this project and no undue pressure will deter us in this endeavour’.

It is normal for the government of the day to show that it is doing things in a better way than its predecessor, but in so doing it must reassure the public that their safety is not being compromised. In the case of the Metro Express, given the large disparity between the estimated project costs (Rs 31 billion v/s Rs 17.8 billion), wouldn’t it be better to lay out for the public a detailed comparison of the project with the previous one, so as to show to the public where, if any, the costs were inflated in the previous estimate? Otherwise, this will raise queries about whether some features are being eliminated so as to cut costs, and which may possibly endanger safety. If that is indeed so, then the public has a right to know isn’t it?

As the ‘devil is in the details’, a further point is about the fare, and here the operative words are: ‘as at now’ in the reply. Is it implied here that by the time the Metro Express is operational the fare may well be revised- and this will surely be upwards? As it is, it has been the country’s experience that all projects eventually go into substantial cost overruns, which are paid with taxpayers’ money, and the costs are passed on to the public. They therefore expect more clarity on this score, and this should be provided.

Another important aspect is the compulsory takeover of private property to make way for the Metro Express tracks. Besides the compensation that must be fair and reflect the market value of whatever is acquired compulsorily, there is also space for revisiting the takeovers on a case-to-case basis. For example, there are some people who are already apprehensive about where they will go. One such person who is in her sixties said that the house she is occupying has been built bit by bit on land given by her father. And now, at this age, government just comes and says get out, you will be compensated, and she has a month to do so! With no help from anyone, where does she go?

Displacement is a very harsh thing to happen to anybody, especially when they have reached a certain age when adaptation is so difficult for many reasons, failing health being a major one. There is clearly need for a more humane treatment of those that are going to be forced out, and besides the monetary compensation, there is an important time factor that has to be considered, besides other support that vulnerable persons may justifiably require.

As regards the technical aspects of the project, and the feasibility of an alternative such as bus corridor, this paper has given sufficient coverage in the past to the issues that arise. Nevertheless, if the Government has taken its decision to go ahead, so be it – but it must do so with eyes wide open and anticipate difficulties that may lie ahead. This is not Melrose prison where a dysfunction here and another there does not change the fundamentals, as may happen with a new means of transport. Vigilance is therefore of the utmost importance at all stages of the project.

Finally, in a project of such magnitude and importance, in which the country has no experience at all, the crucial factor in implementation is that, once a contractor is selected, the execution of the project will have to be overseen by a no-nonsense driver and leader – someone of the calibre of Elattuvalapil Sreedharan who saw through the ‘build-from-scratch’ metro line in New Delhi to a fault, and delivered it to the national authority before the deadline.

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