Suburban rail: caught in politics

With the rapid growth of industries in and around Bengaluru, particularly the Information Technology sector which employs more than a million people, the challenge of commuting in the city is becoming tougher by the day. The time-consuming, almost heroic efforts people are forced to make every day to reach their workplaces in the highly congested east and north-eastern parts of the city should have long ago moved the state government and the Centre to come up with solutions expeditiously. One such solution has been obvious for a long time a suburban rail system. Having dragged their feet over it for several years, the state and the Centre have suddenly started showing interest in taking up work on a full-fledged suburban rail network to decongest the city – just as assembly elections are around the corner. Except, they are moving on parallel tracks. For over a year, the Centre and the state government have had an agreement to jointly build such a network, but could not agree on the modalities, thanks to their political differences. In the February 1 Union Budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that the Centre had approved a Rs 17,000 crore suburban rail network for the city. But just the day before, the Siddaramaiah government had suddenly approved a 20% equity infusion into a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), to be formed with the Centre under an existing plan, to undertake the project. People are left wondering whether these announcements are only election gimmicks.

Urban experts say that a seamless circular suburban rail network - parts of which are already in existence - is a big part of the solution to traffic snarls in the city and to transport millions of people quickly to their destinations. But the question is, can the state and the Centre work together with a singular purpose and make the project a reality. Some of the works are already in progress. The launch of a 2,400 passenger-capacity Diesel Multiple Unit (DEMU) train between Baiyappanahalli and Whitefield has shown suburban rail's tremendous potential, but more DEMUs can be run only when there is a dedicated line. Similarly, the doubling of the Yeshwanthpur-Hosur route, which touches some key IT hotspots and is awaiting Railway Board approval, could benefit thousands of commuters.

The benefits of a full-fledged suburban rail system for Bengaluru are enormous. Consider this: the infrastructure upgrade could help make Bengaluru's IT sector, which contributed $62 billion or 38% of the country's total software-related exports during 2016-17, the world's largest technology cluster by 2022. Which is why, the Congress and the BJP must leave aside the politics of polls and credit-hogging and immediately put in place an SPV to make the suburban rail project a reality.

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