The launch of the metro railway service in Mumbai, which has enhanced public transport options in the teeming city, would have normally called for unqualified appreciation. However, the row over fares between the State government and Reliance Infrastructure, the latter holding the majority share in this public-private partnership project, has dampened the enthusiasm and in fact raised serious concerns. The outcome of this dispute, which the courts will determine, could affect the future functioning of the project and have a significant bearing on other metro rail schemes that seek private funding and participation. The 11.4-km elevated Mumbai Metro line has improved connectivity and reduced travel time for thousands of passengers. Just before the service was launched, Reliance Infrastructure steeply revised the fares and increased the range of fares, originally fixed at Rs.9 to Rs.13, to Rs.10 to Rs.40. The government has opposed this since it is higher than the pre-agreed fare and decided without any consultation. Reliance Infrastructure has defended the action, stating that under the Metro Railways Act it has the authority to fix fares. The increase in the project cost from Rs.2,356 crore to Rs.4,321 crore and higher operational costs had warranted the change, it asserted.
Almost every metro rail project in the country has overshot the projected cost. Companies often tend to underestimate the cost and inflate user-figures to convince funding agencies that travel by metro rail would be relatively inexpensive. Later, they complain of cost overruns and demand higher allocations. Ticket prices are then raised and the travelling public bears the burden of such poor planning. Fares should be affordable, particularly to the large number of lower-income group users, and should factor in the less visible benefits that accrue from the service. Increasing the use of public transport relieves road congestion, reduces pollution and cuts fuel consumption. Realising this, cities such as Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, have made public travel free for its citizens. Even if Mumbai and other Indian cities do not want to take such a radical route, and decide periodically to review fares, the process should be transparent and fair — more so when the private sector operates public transport. Striving to balance subsidy and revenue is understandable, but high prices should not affect transport choices. Alternative financing options must be explored. Many countries have mobilised funds by imposing additional charges for using private cars, which pollute more and occupy road space disproportionately. The urban future lies in promoting good public transport, and its success depends on fair pricing and quality service.