Sunday, October 02, 2011

Picking the Brickbats

This post is an attempt to collect & respond to feedback received on my OpEd article (Business Line 30 Sep., 2011), titled - "Where Delhi Metro Went Off-Track".

First of all, the caveats:
  1. I am just a curious fellow and not the 'ultimate authority on urban rail transport technology'.
  2. I am from IRMA and my main area of interest is Development - especially the use of technology for, and by the 'bottom billion';
  3. The article is an extract from my Master's thesis at University of Tsukuba, Japan (2009-2011), titled, "International Technology Transfers and the Role of Governments: A Study on Japanese Official Development Assistance for the Railway Sector in India". This document and can be accessed at the university library, and perhaps at the World Bank Library (the sabbatical was on a WB-GSP scholarship).
Now, to the brickbats:

"The article is an indirect criticism of Dr. Elattuvalapil Sreedharan and his work"

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. Sreedharan is one of the few people I admire in Indian public life, for what he has accomplished despite being swamped in a sea of mediocrity and cynicism. He is the unassuming nature-lover I often ran into at the Jahanpanah City Forest in Delhi, and a man, who, in Kipling's words, truly 'walks with kings without losing the common touch'.

In the comparison between the Delhi Metro and the Bullet-Train (Shinkansen) project, I had described the stellar role of Shinji Sogo, the president of JNR. Sogo's right-hand man was Hideo Shima, a brilliant Chief Engineer and Manager who was actually responsible for implementing the project. Dr. Sreedharan's role can be compared to that of Shima. What he lacked in the Indian context was the backing of an experienced statesman like Sogo, who looked beyond project deadlines, with a clear vision of long-term National Interest.

"Indigenous manufacturing of such complex infrastructure needs for railways, airlines etc is still at least 20 - 25 years away in India"
"The simple fact is Indian engineering is just not ready to offer world class products without significant external help."-- Venkat

Maybe it is 20-25 years away--  if we make a start now. The point I am trying to make is that unless we encourage the domestic manufacturing industry, we will get stuck with expensive imports. Have you noticed how, after buying a nifty printer at a bargain price, you are forced to pay through your nose for the cartridge refills? A metro may be no different.

"For DMRC the target was not the promotion of indigenous technology but providing masses friendly mass transit system....Sheer number of engineers and their talent does not deliver on R&D...R&D may be or should be the next level of evolution for DMRC once phase III is functional." - Diwaker Srivastava

I agree with the first two points but not the last one. R&D cannot start as an afterthought - it has to be based on a continuous learning strategy, right from the very beginning. I am not sure if RDSO or DMRC has such an institutional mechanism in place.

"The amount of Rs.1016 crore is a minuscule amount if you see the operational efficiencies and quality of coaches being used in DMRCL" - Vijay Nair

The current operating profit of DMRC is less than Rs. 350 Cr. Would you still say that the forex expenditure on contracts & consultancy fees (Rs. 1,1316 Cr. 2009-10), is a "minuscule amount"?

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