Recently I participated in a seminar on infrastructure law in India and made a presentation on the costs and benefits of the Chennai metro rail project. The seminar, hosted by the Centre for Law and Development at National University of Advance Legal studies, included discussions on public transportation projects being undertaken in different cities in the country. In July 2010 Parisar, an NGO in Pune, had also organised a national round table on “The City and the Metro” in which several issues were raised about the ineffectiveness of the metro rail as a mass public transit system. Constructing metro rail systems entail large expenditures that many critics argue are not offset by the envisaged gains and non-economic costs such as environmental degradation, social costs including exclusion of low-income neighbourhoods, and even threats to heritage properties, such as in the case of the Chennai project. Metro rail projects have also been observed to intensify pressure on the real estate along the corridors. So far, only Kolkata and Delhi had a metro system, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai are building theirs and Hyderabad has approved the project. However, twelve Tier II cities, including Kochi, are slated to join this ‘elite’ list! 
Despite, the central government guidelines for metro rail systems state that only cities with populations of more than three million and a potential ridership is at least one million when the metro is operational would be eligible for metro rail systems, Kochi with a population of six lakhs and the urban agglomeration has about 21 lakh has got approval! Mr Sohan, a former mayor of Kochi and an active opponent of the Kochi metro project, shared arguments highlighting the pitfalls of a metro system in the city. He said that instead of reviving its ferry and bus networks, the Government of Kerala was pushing for it despite the city not meeting even the inadequate requirements. The metro rail project is estimated to cost more than Rs.5400 crore compared to Rs.100 crore required to revive the ferry system! Another blatant violation of the guidelines is that the project has been exempt from an Environment Impact Assessment, raising concerns about adequate attention and protection of the city’s large green cover. The recent victory of the Congress party in the state is seen to be pivotal to getting the central government, which was earlier reluctant, to commit 20 percent equity to the state-centre partnership. The state government will contribute 30 percent and the remaining will be taken as a loan from Japanese International Cooperation Agency.
The need for the Kochi metro rail project was identified in a study by RITES limited and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) which has been hailed a success has been a consultant for this project. Ironically, the DMRC has been criticised for not meeting its projected ridership targets despite cancellation of 120 competing bus routes and a 130 percent increase in bus fares! Unfortunately, many local and state governments fail to take cognizance of the fact that there are effective, sustainable and financially viable transportation alternatives to metro rail systems – pedestrian and cycling being the most notable. What Indian cities need is a comprehensive outlook towards public transportation, one that focuses on moving people, not cars, trains and corporations!