About a year-and-a-half ago, we had called for a review of the ‘Bullet train’ project connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad, in these columns.
Happily, some sense has dawned over the months and the newly sworn in Maharashtra Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray, told reporters on Sunday that he had called for a review of the Rs 1.1 lakh crore project. He, however, clarified he was not ‘staying’ work on it.
Thackeray’s NCP colleague and minister Jayant Patil, who has been the state’s finance minister in the previous governments, has questioned whether the Bullet train was a ‘critical’ project the state could afford. Maharashtra is servicing a debt of Rs 4.71 lakh crore, and an additional Rs 2 lakh crore is committed to ongoing projects.
The land acquisition to create the 508-kilometre corridor for the high-speed train has become a bone of contention among farmers and tribal people, especially in the agriculturally productive Palghar-Dahanu coastal belt.
With Shiv Sena winning handsomely in this region in the recent assembly elections on an anti-Bullet train plank, Thackeray is hard-pressed to have another look at the project.The target for completion was set for August 15, 2022, India’s 75th year of Independence. But the project is way behind. So far, just about 705 hectares of the required 1,340 hectares of land has been acquired.
The main problem seems to be Maharashtra’s coastal belt. Of the 431 hectares required in this stretch, only 81 acres is in government hands. Ground resistance against acquisition has been pronounced.
Protests include erasing the marking of the rail alignment by villagers, and chasing away government officials who come for measurement. Though fair compensation is being offered, the fear of losing good agricultural revenue without an alternative source of permanent income is fuelling protests.
The Bullet train is largely a Central project, with 81 per cent of its $17 billion infusion coming from a soft, 20-year loan from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. Maharashtra and Gujarat are not investing directly, but both have 25 per cent equity in the project, via their contribution of land.
Earlier, the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis government had given top priority to this project. However, if the state now goes slow on land acquisition, there is a danger of work getting stalled.
Besides these questions, will the Bullet train provide necessary services; or is it largely a prestige project? Viability studies show that fares will have to be pegged at Rs 4,000-5,000 per passenger with a ridership of 1 lakh a day for the project to break even.
Air fares are cheaper, and it will therefore, even with subsidies, largely serve the rich and well-heeled in Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
The international experience is: High-Speed Rail is expensive; it hardly ever breaks even and requires huge ridership to achieve viability. The Tokyo-Osaka ‘Shinkasen’ bullet train, the technology India is relying on, has a ridership of over 150 million annually or around 400,000 daily; and it caters to nearly 50 per cent of the population that lives and works in that industrial belt.
Argentina gave up on the high-speed technology as it was too expensive and instead opted for upgrading its railway system to medium-speed levels. China is the only successful developing country with a high-speed network of 20,000 km, but it is heavily subsidised with debt running to $300 billion. Can India afford such an option?
Moreover, can spending 8-10 times more on this high-speed technology compared to conventional technology be justified?
A retired railway engineer, Alok Kumar Verma, associated with R&D for High Speed Rail systems, has pointed out that the Bullet train technology for the 500-kilometre line costs around Rs 205 crore per kilometre, as compared to a conventional high-speed line that costs only Rs 25-30 crore per km or Rs 16,000 crore for the whole route.
Second, does a time-save of less than an hour justify such a huge additional cost? While the Bullet trains will cover the 508-km distance in 2 hours and 8 minutes, the journey can be completed on a conventional high-speed line in 2 hours and 50 minutes, Verma points out.
The big question really is: should Rs 1 lakh crore be spent on a show-piece instead of attending to the existing, creaking Indian railway system? It carries 25 million people a day, and is still the country’s main transporter.
Or, sample this: Mumbai has 40 lakh slum dwellers or 8 lakh families without a pucca roof over their heads. To build a 500 square feet unit at Rs 2,500 a sq ft costs Rs 12.5 lakh; 8 lakh homes will cost Rs 1 lakh crore. Over the next 4-5 years, the ‘Bullet train’ investment can clear Mumbai of slums and win 40 lakh smiles!
So what’s our priority?