Mumbai Metro Fare Row: Government Should Foster innovation, relinquish control

The Mumbai Metro from Versova to Ghatkpoar, the first 11 km leg of  Bombay’s much needed Metro began yesterday. The reports are impressive, both in media, social media and on this remarkable infrastructure discussion forum .  A quibble remains.

Reliance, the company response for building and operating the metro has notified the fares to be Rs 10, 20, 30 and 40. The Government wants the metro to be priced much lower at Rs 9, 11 and 13. Legally, Reliance, being the majority stakeholder is free to set the fares. Perturbed, the Government has moved the court.

On the surface the Reliance metro fare seems very high. Especially the latter two slabs (Rs 30 for 8 ams, and Rs 40 for 10 kms) seem rather unaffordable. Yet, I am not convinced that the fares need to be drastically reduced or regulated by the government.

Currently Reliance has announced a flat (anywhere to anywhere) promotional fare of Rs 10 , which will prevail for a month.A  smart move.  In that time, they would announce monthly and other season (quarterly) and tourist (weekly, three day and one day) passes , which would presumably work out to much lower than the existing Rs 40 for a single ride, for a medium to heavy user. Further they could introduce lower weekend rates or differentiate between peak/off-peak rates. In other words, there are ways in which Reliance cold make the metro affordable for a regular user but keep the charges high for an occasional user. This is how most systems in the world operate.(For instance in Chicago you pay $2.5 for a single ride on the subway, but $10 for unlimited rides a day, $28 for a week and $100 for a month.)

In sum, I believe that Reliance needs to keep an innovative fare structure that lets the occasional commuter subsidize the regular user. The fares proposed by the Government could make it difficult to maintain the system, and would dissuade the operator from running the service with the needed efficiency and upkeep.

For now, the Government needs to step back, relax and watch if Metro become a long overdue  comfortable means of transit for a section of Bombay. And expedite lines 2 and 3!

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Let taxpayers pay for ‘our’ treatment abroad – And let them rot in Government Hospitals

The Government of India has recently gifted itself a privilege. The state will reimburse the total cost of medical treatment for the three highest civil services officers (yes the IAS, IPS and IFS). And this entitlement is not limited to procedures that cannot be carried out in India. As this newspaper reports , these officers can decide to go abroad for even now routine procedures such as bypass surgeries. A privilege that is rather unfair, undemocratic and borders on institutionalized corruption. Here’s why.

First, the most obvious argument pointed out in the newspaper article itself, is the huge expenditure to the exchequer. However that to me is the beginning of why this is problematic. The following two concerns are perhaps more grave.

The first argument is that such an entitlement cannot be limited to the officers of the three Elite services.  Let me explain. India has a socialist public health system. In other words, our public hospitals treat every citizen according to their income. The poor are charged the least and so on. (Certain government jobs entitle all employees to treatment at government expenses). The network consists of primary health centers, district and state hospitals and more specialized referral hospitals  such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at New Delhi. Every patient irrespective of social or economic status can be referred upto AIIMS for treatment. So if treatment abroad has to be on government expense, why should it not extend to all beneficiaries of the Public Health system? Should it be based on your status in the government or on the complexity of your illness?  Readers familiar with Animal Farm may remember what the pigs did for themselves.

The second argument is that such policies will only lead to further degradation of the Public Health Infrastructure. I recently had written about how a state hospital was unable to treat a case of hydrocephalus, a rather common condition among infants and elderly. The IAS run our health ministry and hence ensure the functioning of this system. If they are allowed to avoid and escape the system for their own use, they will never empathize with the concerns of the infirm common man. An analogy can be found in public transport. India’s public transport is pathetic because those who oversee its smooth functioning are not its users. They ride chauffeur driven cars, which contribute to their apathy at the plight of those who ride trains and buses. Likewise for primary education and the state of government run schools.

This law needs to be immediately challenged in the courts. Beyond the most direct arguments of an expenditure the government should not incur, there are other grave concerns.

Such policies are based on flawed principles! I am willing to work with any individual or organization that wants to file a PIL, organize a protest and represent against this decision. Please email me/ comment here and I will be all ears.

Metro Cannot Substitute Commuter Rail: Indiscriminate extension of Delhi Metro to Satellite Cities is a bad idea!

Dear Section Editor,

Thank you for soliciting comments of viewers.

Part – I of your special story talks about the current and prospective network of the Delhi Metro. It is impressive by all means. Yet there are many problems with the metro currently such as feeder transport for last mile connectivity being just one of them that gets the most attention, perhaps rightly deserved. I will talk about a related yet highly under reported issue – the lack of vision in developing a regional commuter rail network.

Metro is great for the city, however, one problematic aspect of metro’s expansion is the rampant increase in the length of existing lines – for instance the extension of the CS – Badarpur line to Faridabad (recently reported by your newspaper to be the longest line of Delhi) or the further extension of the Gurgaon line to Manesar. These are fairly nonviable because the time taken to travel mitigates the benefit for most commuters. For instance, consider the present Dwarka – CP line, it takes 1 hr to reach CP and perhaps 2 hrs to reach Noida. If that line was to go Greater Noida also that would mean perhaps 2.5 hrs to go from somewhere in Dwarka to somewhere in Greater Nodia. Add to that the 15 minute last miles on each side. 3 hrs. Shared taxis, car pools can both achieve this in much shorter time ( perhaps 1.5 – 2 hrs). The only people who would use the Metro are people who cannot afford anything more than the buses currently to travel these long distances. And perhaps not, because they are unable to afford the metro either! The private transport users shall not switch for such distances. And what makes us think that in 2021, even Rohtak, Sonepat and Mathura may demand extensions of metro all the way to them. And our powers to be may just yield for vote banks!

The solution, instead of making the metro lines insufferably long, is to capitalize on and upgrade the existing commuter rail network. Let me give you two examples from the existing networks in the Delhi-NCR region.

First , there is some talk of building a high speed line from Gurgaon to Airport. With the rather tepid response to the current Airport line, not sure how feasible that one is. Currently both our airports, Domestic and International have a railway line running very close to them ( Palam and Shahabad Mohammadpur are the two stations. respectively) This railway line goes further to Gurgaon, and inside many parts of inner Delhi on the other side, where it originates from. With the available railway land, why can an additional pair of railway lines, not be laid alongside this route to run commuter trains. And there can be shuttles or even an airport train from the terminals to these existing stations.

Similarly, while we are enthusiastically talking about taking the metro into Faridabad, this alignment is almost parallel to the existing Indian Railway alignment between Okhla and Palwal. I agree that that is a busy route with freight and passenger traffic from long distance trains, but an additional pair of lines with upgraded rakes can provide a fabulous service right upto Mathura, not just Delhi and Faridabad. Already the 20 odd local services that run between Faridabad and Nizamuddin are quite full. There are more such existing rail alignments in Delhi to the entire NCR (Sonepat in the North, Rohtak in the NorthWest) that can be upgraded to provide excellent commuter rail service. Even from a social perspective, these alignments are embedded in the daily lives of people which can drive usage.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that while metro is essential for the city, making the metro lines longer and longer is an unsustainable and inefficient public transport provision. The focus should be on capitalizing on existing commuter rail alignments. London, Chicago, New York all have such arrangements too, for those of you not satisfied without some western parallels

I understand that the letter is rather long for including as such as a viewer comment in the section, but perhaps you can provide a link to it while it stays elsewhere on the web!

Thank you,

We don’t pay taxes to sustain Mallu Porn at 35,000 ft: Kingfisher needs no bailout

So Kingfisher airlines has made losses yet again. Whats new, they have been bettering their own record since 2005, the year they started. But this time, they want us taxpayers to bail them out! So that a handful can continue to enjoy their hedonistic inflight experiences!

They want this money to bailout an airline that gobbled Air Deccan the only true low cost carrier that the country ever had. They did this not because they wanted to enter low cost aviation , but get additional flying slots and fly internationally sooner. What benefit has Kingfisher done for the country? Created new celebrities such as Poonam Pandey. Organized extensive photo shoots to churn out crass calenders that a handful of Indians can Facebook, tweet and do more with!

Yes I am angry, and consider this my rant. But a government that hasn’t figured out its act with Air India for some decades now, has no business to try and decide anything for Kingfisher. And it is not that the whole business is suffering, there are players out there who are successfully braving the times.

Finally it is a question of priorities. Perhaps all state road transport corporations can be modernized and upgraded if we decide to forgo one kingfisher. But the ministers and bureaucrats don’t travel in those. They fly Kingfisher to drool at the air hostess whose makeups remind me of Mallu Pornstars, while they contemplate on the prescriptions Economists from MIT, Harvard and Chicago have for eliminating poverty in India!

When Brands Fail Their Loyalists : Dilemmas of a Delhi Metro ‘fan’

Aren’t we taught in marketing classes the importance of customer loyalty, a sort of holy grail for brand managers. And yes I firmly to believe that many brands have loyalists who are not only regular users but sort of evangelists. However ever wonders what happens if this brand betrays this very ardent fan!

I recently took a flight into delhi with a connecting train, A timely arrival and a 4 hrs:15 mins gap between the two prompted me to steal a quick meeting with a friend. The friend offered to pick me up and offered to drop me to a metro station in Gurgaon from where I would take the newly started service all the way to the railway station. An ardent believer that we all should travel by the metro due to all the usual benefits ( both tangible – speed, comfort, certainity and the emotional ones – public transit, non polluting etc), I was thrilled at the idea of travelling by the much awaited service between central delhi and Gurgaon – two days after its commencement.

A good lunch meeting and my friend dropped me at the Gurgaon Station. Train started promptly and reached made its way into south delhi and was headed to get me to the railway station 25 mins ahead of my train’s departure. Suddenly at Udyog Bhavan – some 3 stops before my destination – came an announcement of a short delay in service – usually such delays are 2-3 mins, However for the next 15 mins every 2 mins a ‘short’ delay was announced. Later they announced ‘that’ a technical failure had occured and we should wait to hear further information. By then it was too late to catch my train and hence I ended up missing it.

I got out of the station dejected and asked a staff member if I could file a complaint to claim compensation for the inconvenience caused – as my train ticket was wasted and I needed to plan an alternative journey. He provided me the complaint book after some ado. Now the next step was to go the bus stand and take a bus to my final destination. I thought to myself, the fastest way to reach the ISBT ( bus stand) was by the metro as well. By then the service had somewhat resumed.

But I was so disgusted that I got out called a relative and asked them to arrange a car to drop me to the bus terminus. When they said ‘metro is the best way to get there’ I said “I know, but right now I feel betrayed by the Delhi Metro, They made me miss a train/plane for the first time in life. I no longer can belong to the exclusive club of people who have never missed a train or a flight. ”

I confess I am still a Delhi Metro ‘fan’ but can I recommend it with the same conviction to people now that I always did. The heart says yes of course, the mind says Don’t be stupid. Mr Brand Manager are you listening!

Inverse Snobbery Revisited : A midnight Rumination!

Is advocating the use of campus shuttles and shunning SafeRide at northwestern my way of being an inverse snob?

To believe that I am really burning midnight oil, I sometimes make use of the library late at night. Cold October nights at Chicago coupled with the infamous reputation created by the local crime charts, walking back a mile at 2:30 am is not advisable. No prizes for guessing that owning cars is a luxury few graduate students afford. Agreed, second hand cars are cheap so is gas, but overheads like a parking permit (even on campus) and insurance make this an unaffordable luxury for most of us.

Our university understands the need to ship us safely in and around campus late at night, and runs two services. First of these is the public transport option, a plain Jane campus shuttle which runs at designated timings and is free for university fraternity. However there is another option called SafeRide, a privately run fleet of cars, by the university which work like dial a cab, but for free. It is then a no-brainer that saferide is surely the option, as it is ‘on demand’ and also ‘point to point’. No need to walk the last 100 metres or synchronize with the shuttle timings. Not for me, though.

The reliance on private transport, which has led to decline in public transport quality in most cities, is one area where I don’t agree with Americans. And precisely for the same reason I do not use SafeRide, when good public transport(bus) is available why encourage taxis, so what if they are both free. And hence I scoff at most grad students, who in my (voiced) opinion, abuse safride.

I may be correct in theory, but thinking about it in practice, not necessarily so. Firstly both services are hired vehicles that are run by the university. The shuttle is often empty with 4-5 people ( on many occasions I am the only one riding it, of course all others are comfortable in their taxis). So now a 50 seater bus which runs a long distance, for just 1-2 people does not fit within my public transport advocacy framework. A 4 seater cab which operates when called into service, and is often utilised to 50% capacity, is perhaps a better idea.

Despite this, I would still stand by the bus that runs with 1 person, and continue to label SafeRide as an undeserved luxury offered by a rich private university! Am I being an inverse snob, after all ?