Even more than a year after it was flagged off, India’s Rs1.1-trillion ambitious high-speed bullet rain project is chugging along at a snail’s pace with shortage of funds and farmers’ protests now threatening to derail the country’s first cannonball express.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which has vowed to bankroll 80 percent – about Rs 880 billion – of the total cost has so far shelled out the first instalment of only Rs 55 billion even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned from the Land of the Rising Sun on October 29 after a desperate attempt to ensure the second tranche of the 50-year, 0.1-percent-interest soft loan.
Modi has been shouting from rooftops that the 750-seat, 10-coach, 350-km-an hour train linking India’s financial capital Mumbai in Maharashtra state with Ahmedabad, the largest city of his home state of Gujarat, will cover the 508-km elevated rail line in two hours flat even after halting at 12 stations and will benefit well-heeled textile traders, diamond merchants and other professionals shuttling between the two metros.
Yet, neither the federal Ministry of Railways nor the governments of the two neighboring states controlled by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have coughed up a single rupee for his 24-train dream project under which 18 low-noise, aerodynamically-designed trains based on the Shinkansen technology will be imported from Japan while he wants the remaining six trains manufactured under the Make-in-India program.
No wonder, though railway officials are sweating and slaving to complete the project before the 2023 deadline, they now feel that only a 200-km stretch would be made operational by then to keep the promise made to the people.
To add to their woes, Modi, in a bid to make political capital out of the faster and more comfortable high-tech train ahead of the crucial 2019 general elections, advanced the launch date by a year to have it coincide with 75 years of Indian independence on August 15, 2022, saying the crackerjack Indian engineers will pick up the gauntlet.
But then, the 8,000-odd angry farmers and landowners affected by the project have also put a spoke in the wheel of the train by refusing to sell their land, demanding a better compensation and complaining about human rights violation and environmental damage, and are bent on soon presenting their gravamina before JICA officials.
After all, the bullet train will pass through 1,400 hectares of land in 312 villages of Gujarat and Maharashtra, take over 866 hectares of fertile farmland, dissect multiple reserved forests, and cut down some 86,000 trees.
Not surprisingly, about 1,200 sons of the soil have submitted affidavits in the Gujarat High Court saying they do not intend to part with their land for the project. Not long ago, ryots from Surat, Valsad and Navsari districts in Gujarat filed 40 more petitions in the same court challenging the process of land acquisition.
What’s more, irate tribals, farmers and fishermen living in hamlets around Maharashtra’s Palghar town near Mumbai on October 28 held out a threat that officials attempting to enter their villages would be tied to trees, sending shivers down the spine of bureaucrats. The result is that the authorities have been able to acquire hardly one hectare of the 1,400 hectares required for the massive project.
While many say that the high-end train will be out of the reach of the masses and will isolate the middle class and poor sections of society, others pointed out that by snatching away prime fertile land, the Modi regime is compromising on the country’s food security.
Senior Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia told English Al Arabiya that instead of squandering Rs 1.1 trillion for providing comfort to 4,500 rich commuters, the government should invest the funds for offering better services to the 9,000 million ordinary passengers who travelled by trains every year, adding that evolving technology would cut travel time and obviate the need for acquiring new land.
“The Indian Railways are doing well by speeding up 400 trains in the last four years and converting 120 trains to superfast expresses. So, a bullet train is a wrong priority and a poor country like India does not need one,” he asserted.
Indeed, the growth in domestic air traffic, decrease in jet fuel and improvement in technology have already brought air fares down and the fares for a Mumbai-Ahmedabad flight may go down to below to Rs 3,000, which will be lower than or on a par with the proposed price of Rs 3,000 for the bullet train.
Radheshyam Goswami, a senior journalist and former member of a railway users’ consultative committee, opined that the bullet train was a total waste of money, arguing that by 2023 when the so-called supersonic train would be operational, people would prefer to travel by airplanes with less time and money.
In sum, the National Transport Development Policy Committee had recommended a semi-high speed rail (160-200 kmph) till the time the high-speed rail projects are found commercially justified, and scholars of Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad had concluded that 100 daily trips at full occupancy would be required with a fare of Rs 5,000 between Ahmedabad and Mumbai to make the bullet train financially viable.
But an arrogant Modi wanting to talk about the project till he hits the campaign trail next year has decided to wink at these two important suggestions.