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What does Kochi Metro mean for Kerala?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-06-2017 Nidheesh M.K.

Bengaluru: Antony Kureethara, a former municipal councillor in Kerala’s Kochi city, is busy. He is planning to take 200 men along with him to see Kerala’s first metro train service, Kochi Metro, for its inauguration on Saturday. The metro will make its first 13-km run in the first phase of the project.

The journey will involve cruising over the sea in a boat for about 20 minutes for Kureethara and others, to reach the mainland from their water-bound Fort Kochi region. And then taking a bus to reach the metro station. Why the trouble? “It’s the fruition of a dream project for us. We want to be there,” he said over the phone from Kerala.

Keralites like Kureethara are agog with excitement over the launch of the Kochi metro. Regional newspapers are writing pages and pages of news about it and local television channels are running special programmes with titles like “Face Change for Kerala.”

People even in other districts are packing their bags to travel to Kochi and see the metro. Schools are thinking of making the metro one of the destinations for upcoming children’s excursions.

It’s almost like a celebration, despite the fact that the metro, by its own admission, is going to bleed public money for a long time to come, as Elias George, managing director of Kochi Metro Rail Ltd (KMRL), the agency tasked with building the metro, told Mint in an interview.

He counted public support as the single biggest factor behind the shortest (45 months) commissioning schedule for Kochi Metro compared to any other Indian metros.

“Everybody in the city was determined to realise this (project),” George said. “The land losers were saying okay, I may be facing some difficulties but my children may have a better future when this (metro) comes. This was the single most important factor, there was a collective will of a population,” he said.

How to make sense of this public support?

After all, the Kochi Metro may not have much impact in reducing traffic congestion in the city in its initial run. Over 80% of the people in Kochi city depend upon buses for transportation, as per an earlier study by consulting firm RITES Ltd, and the region where the metro is going to operate in its initial phase has one of the largest density of buses.

About 650 buses ply in the region at a cost of less than half the price of a metro ticket, and it may be a hard task getting commuters to instead use the metro service on a regular basis.

The answer then may lie in the iconic status achieved by the project, far beyond its utility as a simple transport project.

“Malayalis have always had a fascination for the grandiose. Some fail—like FC Kochi, the first joint-stock football club. Some succeed, like Nedumbassery (airport). Some gestate—like Vallarpadam (international container terminal) and international (sports) stadium,” said writer and former civil service officer N.S. Madhavan.

The metro has also come to stand for the Malayalees’ capability of undertaking such large feats of engineering, picking their way through byzantine intrigues, hurdles, and vested interests, quite unusual for a state where strikes and shutdowns, often called for by political parties to protest against something or the other, are a regular affair.

“I thought the work may take years to complete, and I may get to travel in it only just before my death” said actor Ajay Kumar, also known as “Guinness Pakru”, to the regional newspaper Malayala Manorama. “But they beat my expectations,” he added.

Perhaps, even more than any of these, like Anita Nair pointed out on Twitter on 13 June, there may be another aspect that could explain the celebratory atmosphere; Kochi Metro has come to realise the aspirations of the average Keralite who may go outside the state to work in cities like Dubai which has a metro, but lacks one in his own home state.

Well, his home now has one.

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