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Rail ministry eyes East-West exit

The railway ministry wants to exit the East-West Metro project in Calcutta that has been running several years behind schedule, a move many see as part of a plan to wash its hands of the other incomplete Metro routes too.

“We want the (East-West) project to be transferred. All urban transportation projects in India are handled by the urban development ministry and they have the expertise to do,” railway minister Sadananda Gowda told Metro from Delhi.

A senior railway official wrote to his counterpart in the Union urban development ministry recently, stating that the East-West Metro project should be handled by it.

The stakeholding pattern is yet to be decided but sources said the urban development ministry had already asked the Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation to enquire whether the Bengal government was interested in taking back the 50 per cent stake it once held.

“Since the project is in Bengal, the state government should ideally become a stakeholder. If the state doesn’t agree, then we have to look at some other arrangement,” a source in the urban development ministry said.

The topic is likely to be discussed by the Union cabinet soon, according to a railway ministry official. “It’s under our consideration. We are reviewing the transfer of stake,” he said.

If the switch happens, it will be the second in two years for the East-West Metro project on which hinges Calcutta’s escape from some of its commuting woes.

“We are giving thought to transferring the other four Metro projects as well. Ideally, these should be under one agency for better coordination,” the official said.

The other four projects are the New Garia-Airport, Joka-BBD Bag, Noapara-Barrackpore and Noapara-Airport-Barasat links. They are all currently under the railways, having been sanctioned when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress was a partner in the erstwhile UPA government and held the railway ministry.

The existing north-south route from New Garia (Kavi Subhash) to Noapara is the only Metro link in the country to be run by the railways.

The state government and the Union urban development ministry had been equal stakeholders in the East-West project until Mamata initiated the move to transfer Bengal’s stake to the railways during her tenure as rail minister. The handover was decided late in 2012 at a meeting between the Union and state governments in Delhi. The transfer took place in end-2012.

Under the present arrangement, the railways owns 76 per cent of the project and the urban development ministry has a 24 per cent stake.

There was talk about the railways losing interest in the project in the aftermath of the Trinamul Congress pulling out of the UPA II government at the Centre. The letter from the railway ministry almost two years later has formalised what was in the realm of speculation.

From Delhi to Bangalore, Mumbai to Chennai, every other Metro link has been an urban development ministry project involving the state government and, in some cases, private players. “The railways has expertise in inter-city rail connection. It hardly handles urban transport projects,” an official said.

He said the urban development ministry and the state government were the right agencies to handle Metro projects involving a lengthy and often complicated process of land acquisition along with traffic diversion.

Although railway minister Gowda has earmarked Rs 900 crore for the East-West Metro in his first budget, officials said it was a commitment the cash-strapped ministry would find difficult to keep.

Former railway minister Pawan Bansal had committed Rs 100 crore to the project in his budget for 2013-14, an allocation seen to be on the lower side and blamed for the slow pace of work over the past year.

The railways’ dwindling interest in the project first became apparent when it reconstituted the KMRC board. Three of the seven board members were appointed on a part-time basis, including managing director A.K. Jha.

Jha remains the principal chief engineer of Eastern Railway, apart from officiating as the managing director in the absence of a full-time incumbent.

A section of railway officials said the completion of the project would be delayed further if the project changed hands for the second time. “The board has to be reconstituted. The last time they did so, the process took months and that hampered the progress of the project,” an official said.

Work on the 14.67km Metro link started in April 2009 but the project remains stuck at two points — Bowbazar and BBD Bag— because of encroachments the government seems loath to remove.

The alignment of the tracks between Central and Howrah Maidan hasn’t been finalised either as the state is yet to hand over land at Bowbazar to the KMRC. At Duttabad in Salt Lake, work resumed recently after being stuck in a land knot for more than two years.

CHANGE OF TRACK

Metro projects in Calcutta

  • East-West (Sector V to Howrah Maidan)
  • New Garia-Airport
  • Joka-BBD Bag
  • Noapara-Baranagar-Barrackpore
  • Noapara-Airport-Barasat

What is the plan?

Railway ministry to transfer its stake in East-West to Union urban development ministry

What happens to the existing Metro link?

Noapara-New Garia (Kavi Subhas) will remain under Metro Railway