Risky route

Print edition : March 04, 2016

A file photo of the Shinkansen high-speed train as it heads for Tokyo. Photo: Shizuo KambayashiAP

The cost of land acquisition, loan repayment and subsidies could render the proposed bullet train project with Japanese cooperation a white elephant.

WHEN Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited India in December 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries to start a high-speed train service between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, covering a distance of 508 kilometres and running at a speed of 250 km per hour. Currently, the journey takes six hours by train and about 70 minutes by air. The estimated cost (taking into account inflation and interest) will be Rs.97,600 crore, and Japan will provide a soft loan of Rs.79,000 crore at less than 1 per cent interest, payable in instalments over 50 years, for the project. Work will start in about 18 months and, according to Railway Board Chairman A.K. Mittal, the project will take seven years to complete. He also stated that in due course, the four metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai would be connected by high-speed trains, both sideways and diagonally, with the total length adding up to 10,000 km. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector will cost Rs.180 crore per route km. The cost for 10,000 km works out to Rs.18 lakh crore, which is 9.5 times the Indian Railways’ earnings for 2015-16 (Rs.1,88,556 crore).

The civil construction for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector will cost about Rs.50,000 crore and is to be done by Indian companies. Equipment worth Rs.12,000 crore is expected to be imported from Japan and Japanese experts will have to be paid for their service.

There has been some debate in the media on the project, at times on partisan lines. Those who want to support the ruling party that had included the introduction of high-speed trains in its election manifesto have praised the project, while others who are opposed to the ruling party have criticised it. With a few exceptions, none of the commentators has appraised the project in a holistic manner.

To make a holistic assessment, we need to look at the project from many angles. Any project will have pros and cons. There can be a number of arguments for the project. The Japanese technology has had an accident-free record for 50 years. Other countries have high-speed rails and India has to make a start. The technology chosen is energy-efficient and eco-friendly and has a large carrying capacity. Critics who faulted India’s space programme when it began have been proved wrong.

Coming to arguments against it, we start by taking a critical look at the state of the Indian Railways. In terms of safety, India has the highest rate of accidents causing death and injury. China registered 132 deaths owing to rail accidents from 2000 to 2010. In contrast, as per official statistics given by the Indian Railways, in 2001-02 alone India’s toll was 326. Our record is appalling compared with China, leave alone advanced countries such as Japan and Germany.

On its website the Indian Railways has argued that the rate of accidents per million kilometres run has been coming down over the years, from 0.17 in 2009-10 to 0.10 in 2013-14. The argument is specious as the Railways does not include in its statistics the 15,000 Indians who get run over while crossing unmanned level crossings. For the Railways such deaths are not accidents but only “incidents”. Out of the 15,000, about 6,000 are in the Mumbai suburban sector.

A high-level panel on rail safety appointed in 2012, led by Dr Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, lamented that “no civilised society can accept such [a] massacre on the railway system”. The panel recommended the establishment of a separate Rail Safety Authority independent of the Railway Board. One might have expected the Railways to be keen on implementing the recommendations as rapidly as possible as it is a question of saving human lives. Alas, it has not shown any such keenness. On its website it says the cost of implementing the recommendations would be Rs.100,000 crore, a huge sum for the cash-starved Railways.

Suresh Prabhu, Minister for Railways, reportedly said that he would not have agreed to the bullet train project if the Railways had to bear the cost of building it. He must remember that the bullet train will turn out to be a white elephant as it will have to be subsidised, because the ticket price will otherwise be greater than the air fare. Oil prices are falling and the cost of aviation fuel and consequently airfare will likely come down.

We have seen Jesuitical arguments from economists who say that taking into account inflation, the amount to be repaid in real value will be much less than what was borrowed. They seem to ignore the fact that the rupee is getting progressively devalued and that the repayment will be in yen. Also, land acquisition is easier said than done for many big projects in the country, and the bullet train project will run into a host of problems, including litigation and agitation, and any delay will only push up the costs.

Gautam Chatterjee, Additional Chief Secretary of the Maharashtra government in charge of Transport and Ports, has said that an elevated corridor costing about Rs.10,000 crore will not need any land acquisition. Is he right? If a corridor has to go above somebody’s land, permission from the owner is required. He also said that the top speed on the elevated corridor can be 300 or 350 km per hour. This is confusing as the Railways says the speed will be 250 kmph.

It is part of good governance to come out with a White Paper whenever a big project is under discussion. It is the duty of the government in a democracy to make sure that the citizens have access to information about matters affecting them. Different bureaucrats should not be making contradictory statements episodically.

Incidentally, in April 2005, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made the same offer to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Railways endorsed it but a committee of secretaries studied the offer and came to the conclusion that India should decline it. The Government of India told Japan that it wanted to use the same funding for a Dedicated Freight Corridor between Delhi and Mumbai. Japan agreed. It will be interesting to know whether the Indian bureaucracy gives sound professional advice to the political masters or if it chooses to anticipate their wishes and adjusts its advice accordingly.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off a refurbished train called the Mahanama Express from Varanasi to Lucknow via Delhi. The train, according to the Press Information Bureau, is “superfast” and will cover the 800 km between Varanasi and Delhi in 14 hours. Varanasi is Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency but as Prime Minister the whole of India is his constituency. Therefore, we should urge him to get the priorities right.

First, stop “the massacre” as urged by the Kakodkar panel. Second, tell the Railways that when a human being dies, it is not an “incident”. Third, ask the Railways to have better coaches and better tracks. Fourth, instruct the Railways to come out with a White Paper on the bullet train project from Mumbai to Ahmedabad and the bigger project for linking the four metropolitan cities.

If Modi persists with the bullet train project, he will be making a luxurious penthouse at the top of a building with shaky foundations, not to speak of the other defects of the structure, aging and ailing. To err is human. It is equally human to correct one’s errors. As regards any possible embarrassment with Japan, India’s professional diplomats can take care of it. By starting a big project that might get stalled, the ruling party will only be providing the opposition with another issue it can use to score points during elections.

K.P. Fabian and Skand Tayal are former Indian ambassadors.