Will CUMTA finally get going with a push from the World Bank partnership?

Why is CUMTA, the unified agency expected to improve mobility in Chennai, still not functional? And will the World Bank partnership finally make it happen?

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in 2010 passed the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act with the intention to oversee and coordinate the activities of the various agencies involved in the planning and operation of the transportation system in the city. However, a decade since the Act was passed, the much talked about nodal body is yet to get off the mark and remains largely on paper.

Chennai city is famous for its multiple modes of public transport in the form of suburban trains and the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) operated by the Southern Railways, the Metro operated by the Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL), the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) which is in charge of the city’s public buses and so on. However, these agencies are not integrated and work as stand alone bodies. The aim of CUMTA is to bridge the gap between these agencies and bring them all under one roof for better utility and improved operations of the city’s transportation and mobility system.

More than ten years after the Act was passed, there finally seem to be some signs of the unified transport authority getting a push, with the World Bank announcing a $150-million programme to assist the Tamil Nadu government in its vision of transforming Chennai into a world-class city.

Read more: What the World Bank’s Chennai City Partnership project aims to achieve

One of the objectives of the Chennai City Partnership (CCP) programme of the World Bank is to establish and strengthen the CUMTA as the key coordinating agency for the delivery of urban mobility services across providers of bus, metro, rail, road, and pedestrian services and infrastructure. But would operationalising CUMTA aid the fulfilment of the state government’s vision of turning Chennai into a world-class city?

Why CUMTA is critical

Despite the presence of various modes of public transport like the MRTS, metro or the public buses, commuters and the residents in the city still face various challenges in the form of traffic congestion, lack of last mile connectivity or even inadequate coverage of these modes of transport. This is where the presence of CUMTA, according to officials, comes into play. 

Raj Cherubal, CEO of Chennai Smart City Limited, explains this by citing the example of a junction prone to traffic congestion. He cites the example of congested junctions, where the decisions are either taken by the Highways authority or the Corporation, who are usually in charge of the roads and junctions. But what decisions can they make?

“The highways authority or the Corporation immediately suggests or plans for a flyover or road widening or removal of footpaths to make way for cars to pass by, as a solution. Beyond this, they cannot do much; they cannot, for example, ask the Metro Rail to do something about this or ask MTC to add more buses. So in short, we usually come up with inefficient solutions or solutions that are not permanent. We are just moving the congestion from one junction to another,” says Cherubal.

traffic congestion in Chennai city
In a first world country, an authority like CUMTA would look into the issue of congestion and ask, “How did that congestion happen in the first place?” Pic:  Design for Health/Flickr (CC BY:SA 2.0)

However, he says that in a first world country, where mobility planning is integrated and efficient, a body like CUMTA would look into the issue of congestion and ask, “How did that congestion happen in the first place?”. According to Cherubal, one of the major reasons for the regular congestion in busy areas like the Tidal Park road in Chennai is because of too many cars. Private vehicles carry a single person and yet occupy a disproportionate amount of road space.

“In a world-class city, an authority like CUMTA would instruct the Metro to ensure a line that serves this area, so that people can avail that service; they would also ask the MTC buses to add more buses in that area depending on the demands and requirements of the commuters of that area, so that instead of people taking out their own cars, they would use these services, freeing up road space,” says Cherubal.

He also adds that in advanced cities, most of the projects are planned in such a way that it keeps in mind how it’s going to affect existing services like a metro rail or the bus services.

Read more: Chennai’s new parking policy aims to boost shared transport, control congestion

Something like this in Chennai would, of course, require the involvement of various agencies like the CMRL, MTC, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and so on and this is where a unified authority like CUMTA would make the process a lot easier.

The basic idea behind such a body is that wherever there is need for strategic planning among these agencies, CUMTA will lead the project and that money has to flow through CUMTA. According to current plans, the authority will look into the planning of common projects and also decide on the funds allocated and divided for that project, so that there won’t be any differences or conflict among the various transport agencies regarding the amount of expenses each has to incur.

Members of CUMTA

The CUMTA Act of 2010 stated that the Minister in charge of Transport will be the chairman of the authority. However, it was amended in September 2020 and the Chief Minister was decided to be placed as the Chairman, since the authority may need to involve various departments like Finance, Housing, Water etc. and not just Transport.

The Chief Secretary to the state government shall be the Vice Chairman, and the authority will also have member representation from the transport, finance, housing and urban development, municipal administration and water supply departments as well as from the Chennai city police, GCC, CMDA, MTC, CMRL and so on.

Reasons behind the delay in operationalisation

The CUMTA Act which was passed by the TN government in 2010 was notified in 2019. As something which, according to most, has the potential to bring about radical change in the city’s transportation system, it took nine years for official notification and even after that, CUMTA is yet to hold its first meeting. And why is that?

“To be very honest, only the government knows what’s the status of CUMTA and why it’s taking so long,” says VS Jayaraman, the President of T Nagar Residents Welfare Association, “Something like CUMTA requires the suggestions and inputs from the people of the city as well, who have been kept in the dark about the project so far.” Jayaraman, along with various other residents feel that the intentions behind an idea like CUMTA is good, but the prolonged delay creates doubts in citizens about the feasibility and realisation of such a unified body.

In a report by The Newsminute, a CMDA official is reported to have said that the reasons for the delay are many. He says that one of the reasons is that the various departments are not willing to give up their power. Till date, each exercised sole authority when it came to the planning and operations of projects. The official had told reporters that once CUMTA comes in, the individual departments would lose their autonomous power to plan and approve. They would have to abide by what the CUMTA, as a body, asks them to do, which they perceived as a huge step-down, and hence, the resistance.

However, Sivasubramaniam Jayaraman, Manager of Transport Systems, Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) denies any such non-cooperation by the various transport agencies.

“Firstly, this cannot be called a delay. This is a new institutional arrangement that’s been worked upon and this is something that has not been tried anywhere in the country before. And secondly, all agencies involved want the issues to be solved and the system to get better. For example, the Chennai Metro wants the MTC buses to act as a feeder for last mile connectivity and the MTC will also be needing the help from other agencies like GCC for the setting up of more bus shelters and bus stops for commuters, etc.,” says the ITDP manager.

Sivasubramaniam’s opinion was also echoed by Cherubal. “All secretaries of the individual agencies are involved with the CUMTA, so it’s not like CUMTA is an alien agency,” says Cherubal, also adding that it takes a gentle push for new projects to get going and with the multi million dollar from World Bank, officials are getting serious with the project.

The World Bank push

According to a government order of the State Government dated September 16, 2021, the CCP is being developed with the World Bank as well as other multilateral/bi-lateral development partners like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Counterpart funding shall be provided by the TN Government. One of the objectives of the project is to operationalise CUMTA along with providing it with control for budget allocation for various projects in the urban mobility sector in Chennai city.

“For CUMTA, priorities include the recruitment of needed technical staff, the adoption of a citizen centric strategic vision plan (i.e., the Comprehensive Mobility Plan), and securing authority for budgetary allocation and oversight of urban mobility investments,” reads the government order.

The amount allocated by the World Bank and AIIB for operationalising CUMTA is $8 million while the amount allocated by the state government for the same is $3 million.

“Government of Tamil Nadu is now in the process of operationalising CUMTA, which means that they are organising board meetings, hiring staff and consultants, allocation of budgets, preparing strategy and plans and so on,” says Cherubal.

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