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Stalled projects: Baffle with bullshit, the SOP in Mumbai

By Sujit Kelkar

A renowned 20th century American comedian's advice seems to have become an abiding inspiration for the city's planners, especially those involved in the implementation of big ticket infrastructure projects in Mumbai and its satellite cities.

William Claude Duckenfield, better known as WC Fields, is once supposed to have said, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit." Senior officials from most agencies—particularly, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) and the Public Works' Department (PWD)—appear to have made this their Standard Operating Procedure to avoid too many uncomfortable and probing questions concerning projects from pesky reporters, politicians, citizens and even some Right to Information activists.

Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai. Reuters

Barely seven years ago, this was far from the truth. In fact, with many exciting new projects being announced with international funding and Delhi's backing, there was genuine hope among citizens that things will change for the better in couple of years. Pathetic planning, lack of co-ordination and understanding between several government agencies and the regime of clearances seems to have all but derailed implementation of many projects.

Let's consider five such major infrastructure projects which do not seem to be getting as much attention from Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan as the Metro and Mono rail projects probably do.

The Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL): Proposed to be the India's longest Expressway sea link at 22 kms with a six-lane dual carriageway road bridge connecting Sewri on Mumbai side to Nhava on Navi Mumbai side, the prestigious project seems to be perpetually stuck in the planning stage with talk of obtaining some or the other clearance in the background. The planning authority, MMRDA, frequently announces modifications to the project plans and adds to the confusion about the nature of the project. For instance, it recently cancelled the crucial Metro rail link which was also a part of the sea link. Suddenly realising that the Metro link is not feasible, it simply went ahead with scrapping the idea. To add to this, a petition has been accepted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the green clearance to the project and the planning body has been ordered to not proceed with implementation before resolving the tribunal petition.

Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS): This is one of the biggest mysteries in the annals of failed project implementation. After spending crores on international consultants for 'studying' the project prior to its implementation—one estimate puts the figure at Rs 27 crore—and finalising a draft detailed project report which put the project cost for running the system on Mumbai's two expressways, Western and Eastern, at a mere Rs 120 crore, the project is yet to see the light of day. Transport activists blame the 'contractor raj' which has allegedly hijacked city's infrastructure projects which prefers big ticket projects involving thousands of crores of rupees and does not find such a small project attractive enough.

Peddar Road flyover: Perhaps one of the most celebrated cases of failed implementation. Being discussed for over a decade but does not seem to be moving seriously beyond that. In the meantime, opposition from local residents to the project has become fodder for local politicians who lack any genuine vision for Mumbai and, well, the media which relishes the high-profile controversies about the project. Meanwhile, the MSRDC has said, the green nod for the project has got the backing of the MoEF and it is likely to be received soon from the state coastal authority.

Sea Links: Even before taking an official call on whether to build a costal road or sea link from Worli to Haji Ali, the planning agencies have taken up their favourite "feasibility studies" for the next planned extension from Haji Ali to Nariman Point. How should one look at it? Does this show the genuine determination of the planners to see the project through by being prepared in advance or, perhaps, a show of (inconsequential) work? Meanwhile, the CM is more keen on coastal roads which will run into green clearance hurdles as MoEF wants them on stilts and this is not the preferred choice for planners. Meanwhile, naysayers have already begun to point out the "futility" of such sea links as the existing Bandra-Worli stretch has failed to get good response from city motorists.

Santacruz-Chembur Link Road (SCLR): Lack of smooth co-ordination between the Central Railway (CR) and the MSRDC has delayed the crucial east-west road connectivity project. Since it works on a standardised set of engineering norms which the state planning agencies do not follow, there has been a consistent friction between the railways and state agencies. Unsatisfied with the safety aspect of the existing design of a bridge above rail tracks near Kurla, the CR engineers sought a design change for the fifth time in six years. The result: December 2012 deadline pushed further ahead to March 2013. Though slated to be finished originally in 2006, the SCLR has seen several deadline revisions and cost escalation from Rs. 115 crores to Rs. 255 crores as a consequence.

Considering their persistent inability to deliver the promised projects, perhaps Mumbaikars should hurl another of WC Fields' advices at, at least some of these non-performing babus: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point being a damn fool about it."

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