Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bangalore Metro - A project management disaster.

As a child, I used to accompany my father to market, holding his finger. Few hundred meters from my house there used to be a river known as "Nallah Mar." Nallah Mar was full of silt and the water moved at a snail's pace. As it passed through the heart of the city, there were bridges after every few hundred meters. The nearest bridge to my house was Saraf Kadal and we always used to cross Saraf Kadal on foot and buy bread and cakes from a bakery on the other side.

I must have been four or five, but I clearly remember the day when while walking across the bridge we saw people all along the side watching something with excitement. Though, we did not stop, I did have a glimpse. I saw cranes and dozers at a distance rolling loads of soil into the river, filling it up. For several months we did not pass that way. I was told that the bridge was gone and there was no way to cross over, besides the area had been sealed off. Then one day we went again and not over the bridge called "Saraf Kadal" on the river known as "Nallah Mar" but over the road known as "Nallah Mar Road" at a place known as "Saraf Kadal." The road was still not asphalted and was not open to traffic.

Because of my insistence out of my curiosity, my father walked me almost a kilometer up to the place where they had reached filling up and I could see the giant machines again. It was a painful sight because as a kid I did not give a damn to the roads. Rivers and houseboats in them were much preferred sight. It took many years after that for the full length of the road to complete and get ready for traffic. Entire length of the river from its origin in Dal Lake up to the point where it merged with River Jhelum was filled up and turned into this magnificent road.

Since the topic of filling up of the river was most happening topic of discussion those days, I must have heard dozens of times from my elders the stories of Nallah Mar. I learnt that just a decade before it was filled, that would be a few years before I was born, Nallah Mar used have to have crystal clear water flowing considerably fast. There used to be houseboats on both sides and boats all over. The main mode of transportation, particularly goods, used to be the rivers and Nallah Mar was the second most important after Jhelum. There used to be several varieties of fish in the river and in summer one could see children swimming and playing on the banks. Though all this made it an important river that should have been preserved, the most important is yet to come.

After Nallah Mar was turned into a road, the city had to face something new. Jhelum started flooding every year in rainy season and few areas including some uptown posh localities stayed submerged in water for several weeks, if not months, after floods. The floods were mainly because something that our great grandfathers had created to prevent them was removed. Let me rephrase it, "Some unnecessary and unwanted nonsense that our idiotic grandfathers had created, these geniuses got rid of that."

Jhelum originates almost a hundred kilometers from the city and by the time it enters city, in rainy season, it is swollen after it has collected rain water from thousands of square kilometers. Dal Lake, with its total area of 24 square kilometer and with a mountain range, Zabarwan Range, on one side also has a cashment area of several thousand square kilometers. When the waters of Dal Lake flow into Jhelum, floods are imminent. Nallah Mar was similar to the outer ring road. It used to drain the waters of Dal Lake and pour it into Jhelum after it had left the city. The point where the rivers merged was a big basin that could contain the water, thus saving the city from floods.

When we analyze what was achieved and compare it with the cost, the project seems to be a disaster. It was one of those projects which are designed to fail and due to the magnitude the failure could be catastrophic. The purpose of Nallah Mar Road was to gear the city up to accommodate the traffic growth of then and future. It miserably failed to do that. Since all the bridges on the river, which were there after every few hundred meter, were all main roads, the new road looked like millipede with hundreds of legs. There were intersections after every few hundred meters and there were countless unmanaged and unmanageable traffic signals. It did not ease the traffic, if at all it did not worsen it.

As project managers we learn that projects do not exist in isolation but are parts of larger systems. Just like a project is affected by a number of factors, it affects a number of things in addition to the main purpose of the project. The project has results, secondary results and tertiary results. While for small projects we only consider primary and probably secondary results, for large projects we have to consider several levels. Just as we consider political, economic, geographic, environmental, human, social, cultural and a number of other factors to influence our large projects, we have to consider the effects of the project on all the mentioned factors plus many more. The most challenging but most important aspect of large projects is to foresee the future and be able to figure out how the project would influence the future given that the entire environment too would have changed. A project manager needs to have a clear point of view on how the world is going to change without and with the project. To put it in simple words, let us consider the example of building a flyover that would take five years to build. To consider today's traffic conditions is only important to plan how to build, but whether the flyover is going to serve the purpose is not dependent on today's traffic. What if after five years couple of super highways are also going to come up in parallel and there is no need for this fly over. On the other hand, what if the situation was something like the Richmond road flyover, which looks more like a joke now. Probably it is the only flyover in the world that has a traffic signal on the top. It does not even serve half the purpose that it was intended for.

Richmond road flyover was quite fine when it was commissioned but just within a couple of years Richmond road as well as the Residency road were made one way for traffic. The authorities then overlooked the fact that sooner or later these two roads would have to be made one way. In fact making of the flyover was one of the reasons it had to be done so soon.

Bangalore metro is being built with the intention of providing faster and cheaper public transport that would ease traffic on the roads of Bangalore city. In next few years it will be ready and put to use. The traffic growth on the roads will not slowdown but would continue to grow at the same pace. Traffic jams would be so bad that many people would run away from the city. Even after that traffic would continue to grow. Building of flyovers and tunnels will be impossible on most of the high traffic routes because of the metro. Widening of roads will be difficult and building new roads will be too costly.

Long back I happened to watch an ad spot of "IBM - On Demand Business," which I must have mentioned at least in ten conferences, seminars or workshops. The ad starts with the outside view of an airplane and immediately the next shot is inside view. An old man, depicted as owner of the aircraft is shown in bed and there is chaos in the plane. A person comes to the old man and informs him that the plane was going down. Their subsequent conversation is as follows:
Old man: But why is the plane going down?
Person: Because an engine has failed.
Old man: Is there only one engine?
Person: No there are two.
Old man: Why don't they start another engine?
Person: The other engine is running but the plane is still going down. The plane is too heavy for a single engine.
Old man: Then why don't they make the plane lighter?
Person: How do they do that?
Old man: Perhaps they can throw out things like furniture.
Person: But the furniture is fixed.
Old man: Then throw out what is not fixed.
Person: Everything is fixed.

Similarly ten years from now they will say that nothing new can be built because everything is fixed. Bangalore metro will make Bangalore so rigid that Bangalore will go down.

I am not suggesting that the persons, particularly the project managers working on the project are not competent. Some people at the top of the hierarchy who have the power to override always mess up and that is not going to change.

Bangalore Metro might one day prove to be an engineering marvel but it is a project management disaster.