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Growthwatch letter regarding the Bengaluru Metro Rail Airport Line (Phase 2A & 2B)

Mr. Woochong Um

Managing Director General

Asian Development Bank

Mr. Kaoru Kasahara

Senior Transport Specialist South Asia Department

Asian Development Bank

Mr. Saugata Dasgupta

Project Management Specialist

Asian Development Bank

Mr. Ashwin Hosur Viswanath

Senior Project Officer (Urban) India Resident Mission Asian Development Bank

Mr. Pradeep Kumar Pandey

Associate Operations Analyst India Resident Mission Asian Development Bank

Subject: Postpone implementation of new Bengaluru Metro Rail Airport Line (Phase 2A & 2B) amidst a humanitarian crisis

Ref: Project Number 53326-001

Sir,

I write to you as a resident of Outer Ring Road (ORR), Bangalore, therefore one of the intended beneficiaries of the Bengaluru Metro Rail Phase 2A and 2B from Silk Board to KR Puram and then onto the Airport, as and when it is operational. However, when the Central Government approval of the project made headlines in all national dailies amidst a raging pandemic on 21st April 2021, I was baffled and disappointed at the misplaced priorities of the Centre and State Governments alike. As on April 21, 2021, the second wave of the pandemic was on a sharp rise with 23,558 new cases in Karnataka of which 13,640 cases were from Bangalore city and daily reported deaths were 116 and 70 respectively.

A CITY IN DISTRESS

As I write this, there is immeasurable grief, pain and suffering surrounding us.

  • India’s daily coronavirus cases rose by 263,533, while deaths are still high with 4,329 deaths in the last 24 hours. India’s total infections have now crossed 25 million, while total fatalities have reached a sad figure of 2,78,719.

  • While the pandemic is raging and ravaging this country, Bangalore is at the epicenter. It has been referred to as the COVID capital with 9,83,519 infections and 8,690 deaths.

  • In addition, the Department of Computational and Data Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has predicted that by June 11, the death toll in Bengaluru could climb up to 14,220.

  • And now a rare but serious fungal infection, Black fungus, is rising among Covid patients in Bengaluru.

In addition, there is a severe shortage of testing kits, hospital ICUs are overcrowded, there is shortage of oxygen with people gasping and struggling to stay alive. Families are running from hospital to hospital to find ICU beds and ventilators; very often to lose their loved ones in the end. There are long winding queues at the crematoriums with dead bodies lined up one after another.

VACCINATION SHORTAGE As per BBMP (Bangalore Municipality), Bangalore has a serious vaccine shortage that is hindering efforts to inoculate its residents against Covid-19. There is fear and panic as people scramble to get themselves vaccinated with limited slots that open up on the government's online registration platform; they get filled within seconds. Even the most educated with the capacity to pay for their vaccines are unable to get themselves vaccinated for lack of slots. The poor with no access to the website are another matter altogether. For them the cost of vaccination is beyond monetary, it is the struggle to figure out the process and system. On May 7 2021, the State of Karnataka decided to utilize their complete supply of vaccines from GOI, for vaccination of only persons above 45+ years (second dose).


Further to that on 12th May 2021, they once again decided that the vaccines procured for 18-44 years will be used only for beneficiaries over 45 who are due for their second dose6. In light of the above facts and statistics, it is only prudent that the Government in a democratic nation and a welfare State prioritises “welfare”. Life is more precious than transport infrastructure; prioritising a metro project by tree felling over public health sends a wrong message to the citizens who are already in severe distress.

CHRONOLOGY The chronology below is a testimonial to the apparent desensitization by numbers. While we are still seeing severe impact of the virus, this choice of action is preposterous in terms of priority.

23/04/2021: Karnataka imposes weekend curfew and night curfew until May 4 starting 9 PM with a semi lockdown on weekdays. The government urged people to stay home.

30/04/2021: Notice released by Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) inviting objections to the removal of trees in the Bangalore Metro Rail Project, Phase 2A, Package 2, that eventually links to the Airport. The notification provided 10 days for the public to send in their comments and objections to this removal of 1026 trees which would be 10/05/2021.

10/05/2021: 14 day “stricter lockdown” comes into effect in Bangalore - “As Covid-19 cases are surging in the state, corona curfew was not successful. A complete lockdown will be imposed from 6 am on 10 May till 6 am on 24,” says CM Yediyurappa

10/05/2021: The last day to file objections to the tree removal, a day that saw 490 deaths and 47,930 fresh infections. On this very day our government and leaders were busy fixing deadlines for the Metro projects - 2A and 2B, and the newspapers reported that a work order was likely to be released the very next week.

We are appalled at the priority of the government, lending and executing agencies responsible for large infrastructure projects such as the metro. What is the urgency to commence the metro project in the midst of a pandemic?

Bangalore has been under a curfew since April 23, 2021, then a lockdown since April 30, 2021 and as we write this note, the citizens are homebound until May 24 2021 with yet another extension very likely. Meanwhile, the CM of Karnataka directed that officials prepare for the third wave that is expected to hit in a few months’ time. It’s been more than a year since the pandemic and lockdowns were enforced. Our roads have been quite desolate ever since.

LOW TRAFFIC VOLUME: In November 2020, BMRCL acknowledged the low traffic in the city and subsequent difficulty in assessing ridership volumes.

  • The government-owned consultancy firm RITES Ltd. that had been appointed to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) for Bengaluru Metro’s Phase III project was facing difficulties in the preparation of the DPR as the volume of traffic was considerably lower than the Pre-Covid days. “We had allotted the work about three months back. In view of low traffic due to the pandemic, traffic and ridership assessment has been found to be difficult,” Ajay Seth, BMRCL Managing Director, told Bangalore Mirror.

Presently, it is but obvious that the ridership assessments of the past will not be a true reflection of the ridership of the future. Current ridership is of no relevance as the operational lines are either shut due to lockdown or working on limited ridership with social distancing.

  • BMRCL has suffered losses of 74 Crores in fare and non-fare revenue during the lockdown in April and May 2020. BMRCL’s disclosure to National Stock Exchange notes that:

    • Revenue generation would be difficult due to the strict social distancing measures even after starting the operations fully.

    • Covid would impact the revenues of BMRCL in the present financial year not just due to revenue losses due to lockdown but also because of the difficulty of operating costs recovery in the near future.

BMRCL is running into losses that are being offset/supported by taxpayers money. For 2019- 2020, the government is expected to fund BMRCL upto Rs. 40 Crores.

WORK FROM HOME The Bengaluru Metro Rail Project 2A and 2B Airport line was conceived, presented and heavily supported in the pre-pandemic era. And hence all the traffic demand analysis, modeling and forecasting are from a time and lifestyle that we cannot hope to go back to. Moreover, it's from a time when Work From Home (WFH) in IT capital Bangalore was bound by government restrictions and company policies. In November 2020, the Government of India (GoI) removed all constraints and compliances for the tech industry to work from home (WFH). The PM himself stated - “These steps will further flexibility and productivity.”


In addition, The Ministry of Commerce and Industry is likely to take a call on permanent WFH for IT SEZs by end May 2021. NASSCOM (trade body of the Tech Industry), has been seeking a permanent work from anywhere arrangement for units within SEZs, from where nearly 60% of IT services are exported. The industry is seeking relaxations and clarity on the SEZ rules and related tax procedures so that it can implement a long-term blended work model with remote working as a key component, especially due to the second Covid-19 wave now on in the country.

In such a scenario, heads of IT organizations are struggling to adjust and re-adjust with As Sundar Pichai, CEO Google said in his email communication to his employees - The future of work is “flexibility”.

Going forward, many IT companies would allow, even encourage a large section of its employees to WFH while some others may bring in their employees on a rotational basis. These options would point to a blended working model for the IT industry, which requires flexibility in approach. Many of the large companies on the ORR stretch have already made changes to their WFH policy. Microsoft, Cisco, Dell are some examples of those who have already expanded their WFH and made it permanent for staff.


Outer Ring Road during Lockdown in 2020

(Source:https://theprint.in/opinion/lesson-india-covid-crisis-how-to-build-real-smart-city/398771/)

Hence, the ridership estimates of the Bangalore Metro in this stretch will be severely impacted, making this quantum of investment into the project indefensible in a time of acute crisis.


We therefore urge you to:

  1. Maintain status quo on the Bengaluru Metro project for Phase 2 A & 2 B until the pandemic subsides.

  2. Prepare a fresh DPR by appointing competent independent experts

  3. Conduct a new Comprehensive Traffic Assessment vis-a-vis the current policy of IT companies to encourage Work-From-Home.

While there is poor or no ridership for the Bangalore Metro on even its other lines, why this rush to hustle the project along in these times of great distress?! For those still reeling from the calamitous impact of the pandemic, and with respect for those who lie beneath the undying embers of the burning pyres in Bangalore, please pause the project. Divert each and every effort, resource, material and human resource to bolster and enhance the health infrastructure for the country to emerge out of this colossal humanitarian crisis.

Till then let us prioritise people over projects and profits.


Regards, Sandhya Balasubramanian

Growthwatch

India

 

Download PDF version here.

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