The Bandra-Worli sea link, which was opened with so much fanfare by none other than the Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself, has proved to be a dampener for the citizens in Mumbai. The way NCP chief Sharad Pawar has been trying to mollycoddle the Congress after the latter’s unexpected victory in the last Lok Sabha elections, speaks more about Pawar’s own existential issues than anything else. His idea of naming the bridge after Rajiv Gandhi smacked of the same kind of sycophancy that Congress revels in. The BJP’s suggestion of naming the bridge after freedom fighter Veer Savarkar (Savarkar used to stay in Dadar, close to the project) has met with a stunning silence as the Congress also realises the appropriateness of it.
The infrastructure development in the city has been all on stop-and-go mode for a long time. The project has been delayed at least by five years and the demand for roads and highways has exceeded the supply, or the projected new constructions. Other than the construction cost inflation which runs into hundreds of crores of rupees and the high toll charges that users have to pay, the bridge seems to have only added to the woes of this mega city that Congress wants to convert into another Singapore. The fate of a number of projects in Mumbai and elsewhere will face the fate of the Bandra-Worli sea link, simply because of the lack of foresight and handing over projects to private sector without encompassing a wholesome solution to urban infrastructure needs today.
In the suburban Mumbai, the situation on road traffic is going to get worse in places like Powai, where the MSRDC is building a six-lane-wide road after encroaching into the verdant IIT land. The problem is the same there too, at the Gandhi Nagar end as well as the L&T end, where the road gets narrow with no room for any widening. On the L&T end road-users get into traffic snarls every morning and evening. By widening the road partly the jams at both the ends will only get worse because of the bottlenecking.
The complete solution to growing traffic problems has to be met in two ways. One is that, road widening or building a bridge will not serve the purpose, as individual car-users are tempted to take their own cars on the road, adding to the existing chaos. On the other hand, as the roads are narrow at several patches the traffic jams can be prolonged and more frustrating than before. The second way of dealing with growing number of cars on the roads is to make the public transport comfortable and easy for everyone to travel, so that people do not have to take their individual cars to travel to work. As in Bengaluru, there has to be a new system where people have wall-to-work culture so that they save time on travelling and getting caught in traffic snarls, even while the environmental damage as well as the fuel cost burden get minimised. Some of the European cities have even imposed restrictions on movement of private cars inside city limits. The way Indian cities are growing, that solution does not look far-fetched.
Most cities in India have yet to comprehend the importance of public transport system. The metro work is yet to pick up pace in cities and most of them would overshoot their deadline as well as cost, which is very convenient to the developer. Many of the projects in various cities, even under the famed JNURM, have been faced with the same situation as the local authorities and the state governments have been playing their own political games, just as the Centre is not averse to earning its brownie points in such deals. Look at the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) newest problem in purchasing insurance protection for the Bandra-Worli sea link.
The terror pool, which is a virtual fund created by Indian insurers to meet any terror claims after 9/11, limits the total terror cover for the structure to Rs 500 crore against its construction cost of over Rs 1,600 crore. Also, a standard property insurance cover does not include design risks in the event of a cable snapping or a girder collapsing. MSRDC will also have to bear a high premium if it chooses to buy protection against pollution liability in the event of, say, a section of the bridge giving way. The corporation is to take a decision on covering these risks.
For public consumption Sonia Gandhi’s directive to Chief Minister of Maharashtra Ashok Chavan to complete the formalities to award the contract for Worli-Haji Ali link tract in about a week is well-intentioned. But the project delay starts after signing the construction contract with the developer. The state government then gets hand in glove with the construction company to delay the project and escalate costs. Even in case of the Bandra-Worli sea link, the government had faltered in payment which led to a dispute with Hindustan Construction Company, the builder of the sea link, and the delayed cost escalation is for all to see—from a mere Rs 350 crore to a whopping Rs 1,634 crore. That is approximately five times the original projection. The reason for foreign players in infrastructure building becoming suspicious of India is that pricing and costs are hugely unpredictable, there is political interference at every stage of the project, there is nepotism and favouritism in sub-contracting, and finally there is involvement of the underworld when it comes to clearing land for infrastructure projects, especially in places where there is minority community slums. Not a great deal on offer.