K Vijaya Lakshmi, Additional Chief (Metro, Monorail and UMMTA), MMRDA
Twenty-five years of experience in traffic and transportation planning and engineering have put her on the fast track to success. K Vijaya Lakshmi, a graduate in civil engineering and a masters in transportation engineering, is an expert planner and strategist in transport infrastructure and has been associated with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) since 1991. Today, she holds the position of Additional Chief (Metro, Monorail and UMMTA). Her accomplishments include the planning and implementation of Mumbai's first metro rail project along the Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar corridor and India's first monorail project along Jacob Circle-Wadala-Chembur in Mumbai. She is also involved in preparing the Comprehensive Transportation Plan for the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). Soft-spoken yet confident, she shares her journey in conversation with SHRIYAL SETHUMADHAVAN.
Please take us through your professional journey.
I am a civil engineer from Hyderabad and probably amongst the first women to enter the field of Transportation Engineering in India. After my post-graduation, I came to Mumbai and had an opportunity to serve the Traffic Department of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. Initially, I worked on Mumbai traffic analysis, appraisal of flyover projects, traffic simulations and junction improvements. Then, I joined MMRDA in 1991. During 1992-94, we carried out a Comprehensive Transportation Study (CTS) through World Bank assistance and prepared a plan that became the basis for Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). Till 2002, according to the MMRDA mandate we were mainly involved in planning, coordinating and financing infrastructure projects within MMR. In 2003, when the role of MMRDA was amended to include execution as well, we started off Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project (MUIP), with a focus mainly on road-based projects. The planning and implementation of Mumbai metro project and subsequently India's first monorail project followed this.People are apprehensive about the chaos Mumbai metro and monorail projects will add to, once they are operational. Hence, our focus now is on smooth, safe and efficient dispersal of commuters from various stations through multi-modal integration plans and integrated ticketing system amongst various modes. Also, we are working towards providing hurdle-free corridors, with improved footpaths and junctions for enhanced safety and accessibility.
Have you faced any challenges?
Every day has been a challenge, especially when our role shifted towards execution. But we took it as an opportunity, taking approvals from traffic police, preparing diversion plans and then dealing with so many authorities, agencies and utilities. There is no standard procedure to deal with every situation; it has to be done strategically.
What prompted you to get into Transportation Engineering?
My father V Venkata Chary, a civil engineer, who was involved in the construction of Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in Andhra Pradesh, motivated me to opt for civil engineering during my graduation. On a technical tour to Singapore in 1982, I was fascinated by the well-planned, high-rise structures. I too wanted to build such structures. However, I ended up in my post-graduation in Transportation Engineering of REC Warangal. It was here I met my mentor Prof S Raghava Chary, a pioneer in Transportation Engineering, a great teacher and a source of inspiration.
The Mumbai metro is on its way to be operational...
Yes indeed. For the first corridor, Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar, the mode adopted for implementation was PPP, for which there were no model documents available. Hence, we had to plan comprehensively and prepare all the documents. This took almost a year before we started the bidding process. In 2004, the state cabinet approved the project and when we bid, we received a good response and the consortium led by Reliance Infrastructure was chosen. In June 2006, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for the first corridor of the Mumbai metro. According to the Concession Agreement, the project was to be completed by March 2012. However, we have already exceeded this timeline by a year and are expecting a final wait of six more months.
Can we talk of the delay
One of the main reasons for delay was the bridge across the Western Railway tracks at Andheri. On railways' approval, the bridge could be erected only recently. Procuring power, traffic blocks and erecting prefabricated structure during limited working hours in the night posed great challenges. Besides, shifting/diversion of underground utilities, removal of encroachments, acquiring few buildings, construction on a narrow right of way along JP Road and Golibar Road were few challenges. Further, constructing a cable-stayed bridge of 83 m span across the Western Express Highway above Andheri-Jogeshwari flyover at a height of 21 m, without disturbing the traffic at road level, was yet another great challenge. Seeking approvals from MCGM for providing escalators, staircases on metro stations to facilitate commuter movement was another task. Fortunately, all issues are resolved and we can look forward for the commissioning of the project soon.
Coming to the city's monorail, the recent test drive was a bumpy one...
The monorail, a 20-km stretch, is divided into two phases: Wadala-Chembur and Wadala-Jacob Circle. It has the ability to go through steeper gradients and negotiate sharper curves. In Mumbai, it traverses through areas where the suburban rail or metro can't reach and it will act as a feeder service to these systems. However, the planned corridor has several curves. In our first trial, from Wadala to Chembur, there were indeed some bumps, which are being rectified.
One of your biggest upcoming strategies involves transforming MMR.
A comprehensive transportation study on MMR, "TRANSFORM", was launched in 2005 and completed in 2008. MMRDA appointed LEA Associates, Canada as consultants, which appointed 500 enumerators to collect socio-economic and travel data by interviewing a demographic of 3 lakh people. At present, we have more than 12 million trips during peak period. These trips will double by 2031 when the MMR population is expected to increase from 21 to 34 million. Based on the forecasted travel demand, we designed the required network. The comprehensive transport plan recommends around 450 km of metro network, around 200 km additional suburban tracks and around 1,400 km of high-order road network.
What is the vision here?
MMR should have different business destinations than just Nariman Point or Bandra-Kurla Complex. Hence, we should have different growth centres that are self-contained and the travel time within the MMR should not exceed one hour. Moreover, policies and strategies should be formulated in a way that the need for travel should reduce and public transport should be given a priority.
What is the estimated completion date and funding pattern for this plan?
The plan is prepared for 2031, to be implemented in three phases, and the estimated expenditure will be more than Rs 250,000 crore. Phase-I has been prepared for 2016, Phase-II for 2021 and Phase-III for 2031. However, to build such a huge infrastructure, we also require an institutional mechanism and a dedicated infrastructure fund and a full-fledged authority is required with appropriate legal framework. Worldwide experience indicates that the transport infrastructure is provided by the federal government, state government and local bodies; everybody should have some share of funding in the project. Hence, such mechanisms need to be evolved.
In your career, have you ever witnessed gender bias?
I never felt gender bias during my entire professional career. However, I felt it has been a real challenge to work in this rare field for the last 25 years, to be the only girl student in my class or the only woman transportation engineer when I joined BMC or MMRDA. I had a good working relationship with my colleagues, though at times I had to deal with the egos of different people. Dealing with different kinds of people at different stages eventually became a learning process. Today, I consider it as a great opportunity to serve the society in providing comfortable and efficient public transport infrastructure. So, thinking positively, it has been a wonderful experience.
Has it been hard to create a balance between your work and personal life?
This is definitely challenging. I was the first lady to start working in my family. Initially it was tough, but my husband and family and the work team have always extended support and showed confidence in me. Also, women are very sincere and passionate about fulfilling their roles, whether at home or professionally. So, though it was certainly tough to manage both roles, I have sailed smoothly.
What is your message to women aspiring to be transportation engineers?
India is going through great transformation requiring extensive infrastructure development and there is a huge demand for transportation engineers. My message for any aspiring Transportation Engineer would be that there are exciting and challenging opportunities in this sector and the confidence, commitment, quality of work and team spirit would lead them to a successful career. They should prove themselves aiming at professional growth and never let gender come in their way.
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