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Is India ready for bullet trains?

A Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo station. Since the introduction of the first Shinkansen—Japanese for ‘new main line’—in Japan in 1964, high-speed trains have proven to be an undeniable technological, commercial and popular success.  (AFP)Premium
A Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo station. Since the introduction of the first Shinkansen—Japanese for ‘new main line’—in Japan in 1964, high-speed trains have proven to be an undeniable technological, commercial and popular success.  (AFP)

  • Despite  construction  delays,  the  govt  is  pushing  ahead  with plans  to  build  more  corridors.  Will  they  see  the  light  of  day?

New Delhi: In 2022, as India marks its 75th year of independence, a few lucky Indians were expected to experience the thrill of a bullet train ride. But with the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high speed rail project mired in land acquisition battles and construction delays, the likely date for that joy ride has been pushed back by several years—to 2026 perhaps, as railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw remarked at a recent event.

Crucially, by 2026, only a 50km stretch between Surat and Bilimora in Gujarat—a mere 10% of the overall 508-km corridor—is expected to be up and running. Pilot runs would commence on this stretch, with the train clocking a speed of 300km per hour; much faster than any train currently operational in India, but far slower than the global benchmark for high-speed trains.

With progress slow and patchy on the project, which has a price tag of 1.1 trillion, niggling doubts have inevitably begun to surface. Is India actually ready for a network of high-speed rail corridors?

However, boulder sized trouble hasn’t yet dampened official enthusiasm for the project. The Union budget 2022-23 may announce a New Delhi to Varanasi high-speed rail corridor, Mint reported last month. A Mumbai-Nagpur corridor is also likely, depending on clarity with regard to funding. Meanwhile, the National High Speed Rail Corp. Ltd (NHSRCL) is in the process of preparing detailed project reports for at least five more proposed corridors: Delhi-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Amritsar, Mumbai-Hyderabad, Chennai-Mysore, and Varanasi-Howrah.

“The bullet train is not just an engineering feat or a technological leap in transportation. It’s also about the nation’s ego," said a former Railway Board chairman, who requested anonymity since he is not authorized to speak to the press. “We want to showcase a marvel that becomes (the) envy of the world."

The first and only approved bullet train till now will connect Gujarat’s capital with India’s financial capital, Mumbai. It will pass through three districts in Maharashtra, eight in Gujarat and will cut through Dadra and Nagar Haveli. So far, NHSRCL has completed the final location survey and geotechnical investigation and has obtained the statutory clearances.

Land acquisition has also been completed in most stretches that fall within Gujarat, but the rail corporation is facing significant challenges in acquiring land in Maharashtra, especially in Palghar district, where villagers have mobilized to protest the acquisition of a large parcel of land (roughly 286 hectares).

“The entire area is scheduled and tribal land," said Sunil Parhad, an activist with the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, a grassroots organization that primarily works in western India. Under the fifth schedule of the Constitution, tribal areas have certain special protections. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, further protects the Adivasi community’s access to land and resources. Land acquisition, whether for a public or a private purpose, often requires prior community consent via the Gram Sabha.

“We have been protesting against this (bullet train project) since 2014. The government has been forcefully asking (the) Gram Sabha to sit and intervene but people have refused to attend," Parhad said. “Representatives from the government are trying to lure people individually, with benefits and compensation," he added. At least a few villages on the bullet train’s path—such as Chandranagar and Hanuman Nagar in Palghar—have already suffered displacement once in living memory when the Dhamni dam came up 30 years ago, which only complicates matters further.

Bite the bullet
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Bite the bullet

Even as the land acquisition battle rages on, NHSRCL also has to tackle significant engineering challenges, particularly in the final leg of the corridor which will enter Mumbai from under the sea. Given all these constraints, will the inaugural high-speed train ride happen in 2026?

Shinkansen’s success

Since the introduction of the first Shinkansen (literally meaning ‘new main line’) in Japan in 1964, high-speed trains have proven to be an undeniable technological, commercial and popular success. Many countries like UK, France, Germany, Spain, China and, most recently, the US have adopted the technology.

In India, trains have played a significant role in shaping the growth of the domestic economy since the late-1800s. Currently, Indian Railways operates one of the largest rail networks in the world—transporting more than 22 million passengers a day and moving more than 1.2 billion tonnes of goods every year.

The high-speed rail network, once in place, is expected to further catalyse India’s economic growth and act as a stimulus for the development of satellite towns.

Achal Khare, former chairperson of NHSRCL, calls the bullet train project the second transport revolution—after Metro.

According to a study conducted by the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Hamburg in 2008, cities that are connected to HSR systems tend to witness a rise in their gross domestic product (GDP) by at least 2.7 percentage points compared to their neighbours that do not have an HSR station. The reason for the differential was improved market access.

“These kinds of project always have an economic multiplier effect. So, yes, we are obviously looking at a large economic multiplier when this project is built up," said Kushal Kumar Singh, partner, Deloitte.

In order to ensure that the economic benefit reaches the widest possible section, the fare for the journey between Ahmedabad and Mumbai would be about 3,000-4,000. The actual fare would depend on when the project becomes operational and the cost overruns associated with delays.

“The fare will be slightly lower than the (prevailing) airfare," said Khare.

There might not be a direct link between the construction cost and the eventual fare in any case, said Vaibhav Dange, an independent infrastructure analyst. “Fares are normally charged on a competitive basis… based on the cost of travelling on those routes (through other modes)."

The plan for MAHSR (Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail ) corridor was first set into motion in 2013 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Japan. In 2014, a study was commissioned and the final report was submitted in July 2015 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The Japanese government also agreed to fund the project via loans offered at concessional rates. The Union cabinet approved the project in December 2015. But soon after, stiff opposition began to surface.

The challenges

In Maharashtra’s Palghar and Thane districts, many Gram Sabhas have passed resolutions opposing the takeover of land for the HSR project. The villagers fear displacement and financial insecurity. An estimated 14,884 households stand to lose their land and over 37,000 trees are slated to be cut down.

In Palghar, the project requires 286 hectares of land. By deploying inducements such as better village-level health facilities and more local area development funds, in addition to the compensation package, the government has managed to acquire 31 of the required 286 hectares until now. But the process of convincing the villagers to part with their land in exchange for future benefit has been fraught with troubles.

“Jal-Jangal-Jamin (water-forest-land) is not just an asset for the Adivasi community, it is their identity and culture. Policymakers and administration must understand the importance of this land," said Sachin Satvi of Adivasi Yuva Shakti (AYUSH), a Palghar-based grassroots organization. “Instead of imposing imported foreign models of development onto this community which results in them losing their land, they (policymakers) should give priority to systematic sustainable development work. We expect the urban population to understand the root cause of the issue and support the Adivasis in their struggle for existence."

“No one here is in favour of the bullet train project," Satvi said, adding: “There is huge pressure from middlemen (acting at the behest of the administration) who want us to give up the land in exchange for commissions."

The land acquisition process has been far smoother in Gujarat, especially after the state’s high court dismissed a string of petitions filed by farmers and upheld the validity of the state’s newly amended land acquisition act (amended in 2016).

“In a linear project, the biggest impediment is always land acquisition," said Deloitte’s Singh.

“State governments should be actively involved in this process to get clearances faster. I think with (a) better understanding of the facilities that infrastructure development would bring, (the) land acquisition process could be smoothened," he added.

But even as India’s first HSR projects get bogged down with issues that tend to affect most large-scale infrastructure projects in the country, the Union government has pushed ahead with crafting plans for several new corridors. Will this divert attention and resources and slow things down further?

“The execution of the first high-speed rail project and the need for more high-speed projects are unrelated," said Vinayak Chatterjee, a non-executive chairman of the Feedback Infra Group and the chairman of Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII’s) National Council on Infrastructure.

“The only issue is the acquisition of land, which is 100% acquired in Gujarat and Dadra Nagar Haveli. There is a problem on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, where acquisition is (at) 40%. This an unexpected problem in a development project. This issue is also on its way to getting resolved," Chatterjee added.

“With the kind of (infrastructure) gaps we have, we cannot afford to stop just because there are challenges," added Dange, the infrastructure analyst.

The technology

The other big challenge, apart from the pitched battles over land, is technological. The high-speed rail corridor will pass via Thane creek in Mumbai, which is a protected sanctuary housing mangroves and a population of flamingos. In order to avoid disturbing this habitat, the rail corridor will have to traverse through a 21km tunnel, of which 7km will be under the sea. Several new technologies are expected to be used for the first time in India to surmount this construction challenge.

Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology will also be deployed for the first time in a railway project in India. LiDAR uses a combination of laser and GPS to generate accurate survey data, which can then be used to precisely design the alignment of the rail corridor.

Ultimately, once the trains start operating, not just the passengers but even the string of cities that dot the bullet train’s route are expected to potentially experience a jump in their socio-economic status. All the 12 stations of the project—BKC, Thane, Virar, Boisar, Vapi, Bilimora, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad and Sabarmati—are expected to gain big time. This will help in the revitalization of smaller towns and cities by opening up avenues for mixed land use, tourism and business.

But those benefits lay in the distant future. For now, dissenters like Sunil Parhad of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad have more immediate concerns regarding land and livelihood. “We have been told that this is the prime minister’s pet project. But will they give land in return for the land they want to acquire from the tribals?" Parhad asked.


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