Sucheta Dalal :Inspiration for all those trying to make India a better place (29 Dec 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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Inspiration for all those trying to make India a better place (29 Dec 2003)  

Dear Governor Fazal, congratulations Sir, for doing what few Governors have dared to do. You went to Goa, checked out the Skybus prototype yourself and then came out strongly in support of a project that promises an inexpensive, air-conditioned commuting system to ordinary citizens.

Some would say that you are needlessly sticking your neck to support a technology that hasn’t yet been tested. And that the Skybus is just an ambitious, 15-year old dream of Konkan Railway Corporation’s (KRC) talented managing director, B. Rajaram. He hopes to revolutionise urban mass transport through a bus network suspended on concrete piers. It will have air-conditioned coaches with four-metre sliding doors, international level entry and exit facilities and an automated, smart card-based ticketing system. The Skybus, as you have found out yourself, isn’t such a pie-in-the-sky. The project already has a handful of technology patents and although it is being put together for the first time in the world, every significant bit of its technology has been previously used and tested somewhere in the world. But will it all hold together and perform as promised by Rajaram when it is tested at the end March 2004?

Maybe it will, or maybe it will face some teething problems—but those will simply be resolved to make it work. Clearly, your visit to Goa was meant to assure yourself that this was a dream worthy of your backing. Last month, a dozen of us, bought ourselves a ticket on the Konkan Railway and went to Madgaon to do exactly that. Many of us are already big supporters of the Skybus project, but we wanted to see the prototype and be better informed. The group had half a dozen IIT engineers including a couple of eminent professors and experts. At Madgaon, we discovered a highly dedicated KRC team, which is determined to succeed, and many others who had put money and effort behind their belief.

The first of these is Goa’s IIT-educated Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. He gave land for the testing facility, committed seed capital to get it going and persuaded the Prime Minister to see the prototype and pledge his support. At Rs 50 crore per km, it is much cheaper than other modes of commuting and it promises more efficient passenger clearance as well as air-conditioned comfort. Since KRC is headquartered in Mumbai, the testing facility ought to have been set up here. Linking the domestic and international airports in Mumbai or connecting the posh, new Bandra-Kurla Complex to a major artery could have been an ideal test track for the project. But Mumbai’s planners weren’t interested and its politicians did not grasp its importance. That is nothing new. Didn’t Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu grab the prestigious International School of Business, set up in collaboration with the renowned Wharton and Kellogg Business Schools, because Maharashtrian politicians were much too short sighted?

Had you not intervened, the Skybus too would have been eliminated from the race to provide urban transport to Mumbai. Our planners would have hurriedly chosen another option before March 2004, without waiting to see if the Skybus’ 1.6 km test run at Madgaon is successful. At the recent meeting called by Your Excellency at the Raj Bhavan, an eminent babu is reported to have said that the State is not against the Skybus project, but it doesn’t want to be a ‘guinea pig’ for the project. Fair enough, one would say, but it must be pointed out that Maharashtra’s previous experience with being a guinea pig has paid off handsomely. I refer to the setting up of the National Stock Exchange (NSE), which is today acknowledged as one of the best run bourses in the world and is the third biggest in terms of trading turnover. Of course, Maharashtra’s bureaucrats had nothing to do with setting up the NSE or they would have rejected the experiment. The NSE was aiming to simultaneously hook up brokers around the country on to a single trading screen and a fully automated system, when telecommunications in India were notoriously poor. It circumvented the problem by opting for a VSAT based system, linking individual antennas for every trading member instead of the usual telephone network. A VSAT-based trading system was being tried for the first time in the world, and a bourse, created by a team of development bankers was seen as a one-way ticket to failure. The NSE team was determined to succeed and it went on to create history.

But in its first few months, there wasn’t a day when it was rumoured to be on the verge of a disaster. The Skybus team, as you would have noticed, is no less committed and passionate about the project. It is not merely Rajaram’s dream, but a team project. The Prime Minister’s words—Yeh to hona hi hai— are the motto at Madgaon. And 35 odd companies have donated time and equipment worth Rs 3.5 crore to make the test run happen. These include, Larsen & Toubro, Fedders Lloyd, Bharat Earth Movers, Bajaj Electricals, Zygox Software, Kineco and even Kajaria tiles, who are all drawn by the challenge of participating in a unique experiment. Prof S.C. Lakkad of IIT Mumbai, who did the structural design of the coach, continues to work at improving it. ‘‘The Skybus you saw at Goa is nothing’’, he says, ‘‘the one used on the actual test run will be much better’’. Apart from the excitement of a global first, the Skybus is a 100 per cent indigenous project. And that alone makes it worth supporting. After all, if our financial institutions could be persuaded to invest in Iridium, the expensive satellite phone experiment by Motorola Corporation of the US, and lose several hundred crore rupees in the process, then why should we hold up an Indian dream of a dedicated and highly competent team to so much more scrutiny and skepticism? Especially when it is far less risky, less expensive, and will benefit over 80 per cent of Mumbaikars, who are among the world’s biggest users of mass Public Transport.

Thank you, Your Excellency. Like President Abdul Kalam’s initiatives, your bold move to cut through a sclerotic bureaucracy and a deadened political class is an inspiration for all those trying to make India a better place

-- Sucheta Dalal