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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

Bullet Trains: A Costly Toy India Can Ill Afford

Saturday 26 December 2015, by Barun Das Gupta

As part of his overall policy to counter China in the Indian Ocean region, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widening and deepening Indo-Japanese cooperation. It spans a wide area, from defence to nuclear power generation; from high-speed rail corridors to information and communication technology and electronics. The first of the high-speed railway corridors that will come up will be from Ahmedabad to Mumbai—a distance of 505 kms. The bullet trains on this line are expected to run at an average speed of over 300 kmph and reduce travel time from the present six hours to just two hours.

So far so good. Let us now go into the costing of the project and the fare that will have to be charged to the passengers to make the project economically viable. The total project cost is estimated to be nearly Rs 1 lakh crore (ninetyeight thousand crores, to be precise). In terms of hard currency it will be over $ 15 billion. Work will begin in 2017 and is expected to be completed in 2023. Any time-overrun will naturally lead to a cost-overrun. Given the way the civil and rail bureaucracies work, it is doubtful if such a project can be completed in time. Legal complications in acquiring land may also cause delay. Japan has agreed to offer loans to finance eightyone per cent of the project cost at a nominal one per cent interest rate.

So far no estimates have been made about the fare for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai journey by the bullet train. Only the Economic Survey of the government has said high-tariff and high passenger volume will be necessary to justify investment in such a costly project. But it has given no idea of the fare structure. In July this year, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, himself both a mechanical engineer from IIT, Kharagpur, and a former member of the Indian Revenue Service, said that according to his calculation a one-way ticket between Ahmedabad and Mumbai would cost Rs 75,000. No Minister or official of the Railway Board is known to have contradicted him so far. How many of Narendra Modi’s own super-rich industrialist friends would feel like travelling in the bullet train when an air journey takes just a little over an hour from Mumbai to Ahmedabad (or vice versa) at a much less cost?

A cheap air ticket from Mumbai to Ahmedabad now costs a little over Rs 3200. Even if the actual train-fare turns out to be just one-fourth of the amount calculated by Kejriwal, it will be far cheaper to travel by air rather than by a bullet train. What possibility is there of the ‘high passenger volume’ being achieved to make the project sustainable? These questions are unavoidable because the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project will only be the first of its kind. Half-a-dozen more bullet-train corridors are being contemplated. The Indian Railways have already set up the High Speed Rail Corporation (HSRC) as a subsidiary of the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited for the specific purpose of building high-speed railway corridors that would allow passenger trains to run at speeds of up to 350 kmph.

What afflicts India is malnutrition, especially in children, hunger, infant mortality, diseases like cancer, TB, etc., illiteracy and poor quality of education and acute unemployment. Even a fraction of the money that is proposed to be spent on the bullet trains would go a long way to enable India to register creditable achievements in these fields. Modi’s costly bullet train will be a showpiece that people will see from a distance and marvel at. There will be little more than that for the common man or aam admi. The picture will be no different for the other bullet train projects as well.

The bullet trains are a part of the paradigm of corporate-friendly and investor-friendly develop-ment that the governments in the era of globali-sation and privatisation have set for themselves. There is no basic difference in this in the attitude of the UPA Government and the NDA Government. In fact the idea of introducing bullet trains in the country was conceived during the Manmohan Singh regime.

High energy consumption for sustaining industrial civilisation is threatening the world with climate change due to carbon emission that will make this planet unfit for life. The main source of energy—whether for power generation or as fuel for motor vehicles—is fossil fuels: coal and petroleum. What the need of the hour is to turn to alternative, renewable and non-polluting sources of power generation like the sun, the wind and the sea.

Today we are utilising an infinitesimally small amount of light energy of the sun to make electrical energy. Will it not be far far better to earmark the amount proposed to be spent on bullet trains for spending on research and development on inventing technology that can tap the inexhaustible source of energy called the sun to generate bulk electrical energy—not by setting up PVCs on rooftops which generate only a few kilowatts of power to meet domestic needs but generating thousands of megawatts to meet the needs of vast metropolises like Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata? It will go a long way to keep the earth habitable for humans for many more centuries. The obsession with bullet trains betrays a paranoid state of mind that cannot think rationally and fix priorities.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.