Thursday, September 29, 2011

Where Delhi Metro went off track

 Article published in the Business Line OpEd. (Friday, 30 Sep., 2011)
Business Line : Opinion : Where Delhi Metro went off track

We need to take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency.
We need to take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency. 

Delhi Metro preferred to put its faith in foreign consultants, unlike Japan which encouraged its own rail companies.

29 September, 2011

It is now almost a decade since the Delhi Metro commenced its operations in the National Capital Region. A project substantially financed by Japanese soft-loans has grown with time to become a ‘lifeline' for the people of Delhi. Yet, the entire network continues to be heavily reliant on imported equipment and spares.
While there cannot be too many doubts regarding the utility and efficiency of Delhi Metro's services, or even the project execution standards laid by it, the question is: Have we been effective in leveraging this project to create a vibrant domestic manufacturing industry in urban railways? Has it facilitated domestic Research and Development (R&D) and innovations to suit the diverse working conditions across India?
From Delhi Metro Rail Corporation's (DMRC) own annual reports, progress in this field has been peripheral, at best. Manufacturing is limited to coach shells and bogies being built by Bombardier-India and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML). 

Under the head ‘Technology Absorption', the 2009-10 report mentions fire retardant low-smoke zero-halogen, low-voltage cables, fire pumps and 25kV rigid overhead electrical systems and “other items which were imported in Phase-I (and) have since been developed by Indian industries and supplied in Phase-II”. But the core technologies — electrical traction systems, rolling stock and signalling — remain firmly under the control of foreign companies.

All this is reflected in the huge forex outflows towards expenditure for contracts and consultancy fees (Rs 1,316 crore in 2009-10). The strategic and financial implications of this kind of dependency cannot be ignored.


In this context, perhaps we might take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency. Take Japan's famous ‘Bullet Trains' (Shinkansen), which actually emerged from a World Bank-aided programme in the 1960s. For that time, the Shinkansen concept, which was not just new but also revolutionary, introduced innovations that are standard features for all high-speed rail networks.
These innovations came when Japan was still under a US-led occupation through General Douglas MacArthur's Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP). In the late 1950s, a team of visionary leaders emerged in Japan National Railways (JNR). Foremost among them was Shinji Sogo, a former director of the South Manchuria Railways (Mantetsu), which had, for more than half a century, been funnelling out raw materials from China for imperial Japan's war efforts.

Following Japan's surrender in 1945, the SCAP imposed measures to ensure effective de-militarisation of the country. The aeronautics industry, responsible for creating legendary fighting machines like such as the ‘Zeros' (Mitsubishi fighter planes), was dismantled. Rendered jobless, a large number of aeronautical engineers and designers moved into the railway sector. Next to the military, the railways now had the largest number of engineers.

By the early 1950s, the main Tokaido line, connecting Tokyo to Osaka, was getting congested. Although it represented only three per cent of the railway system by length, it carried 24 per cent of JNR's traffic and 23 per cent of its freight. The highways, too, were congested, while the existing narrow gauge railway was already operating at full capacity.


The stage was then set for building the Shinkansen. Under Sogo's leadership, JNR and the Railway Technical Research Institute (RTRI) prepared a feasibility study. The government was persuaded to fund the project through a WB loan. When ‘experts' from the Bank recorded their reservations on the ambitious project, Sogo stood firmly by his own engineers' side and reiterated his confidence in the technical capabilities of RTRI. 

The Bank ultimately agreed to furnish a loan of $80 million, which was more than a quarter of the project cost.When it was finally unveiled in 1964 — well in time for the Tokyo Olympics — the new railway system symbolised the coming-of-age of Japan's technical prowess and self-reliance. The project's success also boosted the confidence of RTRI as an institution and it went on to be a global leader in rail innovation & technology. Three technology elements were critical to the success of the Shinkansen project, all of which came from RTRI: Dedicated high-quality tracks, minimal curves along the route, and the special rolling stock. The tracks were composed of long-welded rails, each measuring approximately a mile in length, and linked together by expansion joints, with double elastic fastenings on pre-stressed concrete ties. The track curves were designed to be gentle, permitting the maintenance of higher speeds. 

Unlike conventional railways, the Shinkansen did not have dedicated engines — they relied on ‘distributed power' with motors and axles all along the train, rather than having them concentrated at either end. This reduced track wear and tear, improved braking and reliability.

RTRI-JNR also conducted extensive research to create light-weight bogies. Bodies were made of aluminium rather than steel; special welding techniques were used to dispense with heavy fillers in the body shell; and the axles strengthened by metallurgical elements to avoid the need for extra weight. Several prototypes were designed and tested for coming up with the best possible equipment for the local running conditions, which, of course, included measures against earthquakes and high-speed winds. It is worth noting that none of the R&D and testing involved any of the leading Western railroad companies.


In India, the equivalent of Japan's RTRI is the Railway Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO). However, as the title suggests, its emphasis has been more on testing and approval of standards than in any breakthrough innovations. RDSO's limited role in urban transport systems is apparent from the fact that the chaotic construction of Kolkata Metro in the 1970s yielded few lessons. More than two decades later, Delhi Metro preferred to start on a clean slate, putting its faith in foreign consultants rather than RDSO or building local institutional capabilities.

Unlike India, Japan, from the very outset, encouraged its own rail companies. The Shinkansen project involved five of them — Nippon Sharyo, Hitachi, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Kiki Sharyo and Tokyu Car Corp. A healthy competition within the private sector ensured that innovative ideas emerging from the national labs were quickly adopted, leading to a continuous improvement of Japan's railway infrastructure.
The absence of close collaboration between public R&D and the private sector has been India's Achilles Heel. Unless local manufacturers are encouraged to participate and compete in the railway sector, our dependence on foreign equipment suppliers, their expensive spares and consultancy services will only grow.

Update - 30Mar15 - ToI - Make in India: Most Metro trains are desi --

Friday, September 23, 2011

Delhi: The More Things Change...

South Extension - a park has been replaced by a parking-lot

Ricks at Futt-fattia's in Noida

Clunky coolers in chains..

A horse stalls at Triveni Gallery

CP aka Rajiv Chowk

A few years ago a bomb exploded in a dustbin. Since then all the dustbins have either been removed (!) or turned up-side-down. Feel free to litter...

Metro terminal at Gurgaon

Chandni Chowk

Waiting for a bus - a Q of shadows

Pavement Artists :)

Sikandar Lodhi's Tomb, Lodhi Gardens

Red Fort & Barricade

 Haus Khaz and Tuglak's tombs

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Opium Wars & The River of Smoke

In the history of International Relations, the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) marks a watershed in world history. Signed at the end of the First Opium War (1839–42) between representatives of Britain and the Qing Dynasty of China, it was the first of what came to be known as the unequal treaties

 A Chinese professor at Tsukuba-U often pointed out that Western academicians often suffer a blind spot, a certain unexplained reluctance when it comes to research on the socio-economic events and circumstances that led up to the Opium Wars.

Now we have an acclaimed writer, Amitav Ghosh, turning his attention on this touchy subject and bringing it to life in  the "The River of Smoke", a book which is also the second part of his Ibis Trilogy.

The book is set in Canton (now Guandong) of the 1830's, a decade when the Qing rulers decided to take firm action against Western traders (and their Parsi cat's paws), to try and prevent them from smuggling in opium and turning China into a country of drug addicts (and draining its coffers), in the name of "Free Trade".  Here are some snippets which illustrate the condescending mindset which brought matters to a head:
M. Slade (a British Trader) thundered...'After two centuries of commerce, it is impossible that we should abandon our factories and retreat from Canton. It is here that we must make our stand; we must show that if they attempt to curtail foreign trade they will find their boasted power shaken to pieces. Is it not time to ask what may be the consequences to this empire of the ignorance and obstinacy of its rulers? Ignorance of everything beyond China, obstinate adherence to their own dogmas of government? The answers are clear: we must remain here, if for no other reason than to protect the Chinese from themselves (!!). I do not doubt that it will soon become necessary for the British government to intervene here as it has elsewhere, merely in order to quell civil commotion.'

....Burnham sank back into his chair...and said calmly. 'An open threat has been issued against us: our lives, our property, our liberty are in jeopardy. Yet the only offense cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade - and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of these laws than to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God's commandments.'

'Oh come now, Mr. Burnham,' said Charles King. 'God has scarcely asked you to send vast shipments of opium into this country, against the declared wishes of its government and in contravention of its laws?'

'Oh please, Mr. King,' snapped Mr. Slade, 'need I remind you that the force of law obtains only between civilized nations?' And the (Chinese) Commissioner's actions of today prove, if proof were needed, that this country cannot be included in that number?'

'Are you of the opinion then,' said King, 'that no civilized country would seek to ban opium? That is contrary to fact, sir, as we know from the practices of our own governments.'
The River of Smoke is great piece of work. Its the sort of book that makes wonder about the life and times of  people in distant lands who had a role to play in just about everything that you take for granted -  everything ranging from the flowers that decorate your garden and in the lopsided laws that govern international commerce (think WTO & TRIPS) today.

It had taken Ghosh almost three years to publish this book. If the next book is going to dwell deeper into the Opium Wars, I wouldn't mind waiting another three years for the concluding Part-III of the Ibis Trilogy!  :-)

The 13 Hongs (Pics: Wikipedia Commons)

  • Amitav Ghosh Website -
  • Pearl River Delta on Wikimapia:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wasps and Waistlines

Why do wasps - especially Mud Daubers -   have such elongated waists?

What is the evolutionary advantage of having an abdomen located so far away from the thorax? Does it serve as a rudder during flight?


For A Driver's License

My driving license expired in 2010, while I was in Japan. Since I could not renew the Delhi-issue licence from Tsukuba my application for a Japanese Unten-Menkyo (driving license) was jeopardized and my trips to the issuing centre at Tsuchiura ended on a disappointing note.

The Test Course at Tsuchiura, Japan

The experience, however, gave me the opportunity to understand the protocols in the Japanese system; the seriousness with which DL applications are screened and the manner in which tests are conducted. The effectiveness of such a system are more than apparent in the extremely low incidence of traffic accidents in Japan.

Now, back in India, I found myself going through the motions of getting my licence renewed. It was no simple matter. Despite all the computer networking in India, a driving licence issued in Delhi could not be renewed in Kerala unless you produce an NOC (no objection certificate) from the Delhi RTO (even if you produce one it has to be cross-checked manually, over snail-mails). Its a strange rule because if I intended to go to Delhi for the NOC, I could get the licence renewed there itself! So the only alternative was to go through the motions of applying for a fresh licence.

At the Thiruvananthapuram RTO, the DL process involved the following steps:
  1. Applying for a Learner's Licence qualifying test (45 days waiting time)
  2. Qualifying the LL test and getting a date for the Driving Test (64 days later)
  3. Qualifying the Driving Test & the Road Test (half-day 8:30AM - 12:30PM)
  4. Qualifying the Road Test
  5. Obtaining the Driving Licence by registered post (10 days)
The whole process was painful and frustrating. At the same time, it was a study of contrasts and a great lesson on how a government department can manage a complex exercise in standard-setting with the absolute bare minimum in terms of manpower and investments.

In Japan the Unten-Menkyo centre had a large facility of its own - buildings with waiting areas and vending machines; test-vehicles in all categories; a custom-built ground for testing the candidates, qualified personnel and an arrangement with the bus companies to ferry applicants. On the other hand, in Kerala the onus rests entirely on the driving schools. The test facility at Shangumugham is just an open ground that belongs to another government department. A few shacks on its periphery provide refreshments and a semblance of shelter from the rain under tarpaulin sheets.

The RTO officers arrive after 8:30 AM in a single official vehicle and from then on, everything is "taken care of" by the 20 odd driving schools who flood the ground with about 200 applicants everyday. The officers sit on furniture brought in by one school; they sit in vehicles provided by another for observing the applicants as they go through their H's and 8's; they sip on refreshments others buy for them, and finally, the road-tests are conducted in vehicles provided by the schools.

Test Course at Shankumugham, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

Is there a conflict of interest here? Of course. However, I could find no serious evidence of any deviation from the RTO's ultimate objective: to ensure that well trained drivers are issued licenses. For a state government that tops in financial mismanagement, its RTO seems to be doing excellent work with the bare minimum of resources and infrastructure. With just a handful of officers it is able to manage a large volume of applicants with the help of all the registered driving schools in the city.

Unlike in some other states, where you can easily get a driving licence in exchange for a few of bottles of rum, the system here seems to have got completely transformed over the past few years. Touts offering to "fix" things for you without a real test, have completely disappeared. The driving schools do all the running around but the fact that there are so many small players seems to ensure a system with its own checks and balances. The chances of an undeserving candidate clearing the tests are very low indeed.

There is, of course, a lot of scope of improvement. For starters, the RTO could at least construct some waiting sheds for the applicants; it could invite local vendors to set up regular refreshment stalls. In the test procedures it could do away with the test for archaic "hand-signals" which have long been replaced by electronic indicators in all vehicles.