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  India   All India  25 Sep 2017  High-speed rail travel: The criticism is never-ending

High-speed rail travel: The criticism is never-ending

THE ASIAN AGE. | T S RAMAKRISHNAN
Published : Sep 25, 2017, 6:10 am IST
Updated : Sep 25, 2017, 6:11 am IST

India had good relations with Japan for decades, and Japan gave liberal financial assistance to India on many infrastructure and social projects.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at Ground Breaking ceremony of Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project, in Ahmedabad on September 14. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at Ground Breaking ceremony of Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project, in Ahmedabad on September 14. (Photo: PTI)

It is true that the questions on high-speed rail (HSR) will end, only when it becomes operational and starts getting more than enough patronage from the public and becomes financially viable, making others to clamour for HSR in their regions too. Even by the earliest deadline, this will take six to seven years to realise and it will be too late if the answers are not told now.

The first is the politics of HSR. Any big idea from the conceptualisation to actualisation, whether it is GST or HSR, cannot happen in five, or even 10 years. Like the Goods and Services Tax, the contribution of the UPA government was substantial in the HSR project. It was conceived in the Railway budget of 2007, presented by Lalu Prasad Yada, the first pre-feasibility study of Ahmedabad-Mumbai-Pune by Systra, RITES and Italfer consortium was prepared in 2009. After being in cold storage for about four years, UPA-II asked Japan to prepare a detailed feasibility study for Ahmedabad-Mumbai in January 2014 leaving Mumbai-Pune, as it was estimated that the cost will be exorbitant given the topography of the route. By the time the feasibility report was submitted in June 2015, Narendra Modi was in power. Within six months, Mr Modi ensured commitment on the part of Japan to generously lend for the first HSR project.

Between December 2015 and September 2017, the detailed project report (DPR) was prepared and an exclusive agency, National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited — a joint venture of the Government of India and governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra for implementing high-speed rail projects to carry out the HSR project — was established and the preliminary work for the execution of the project, like land acquisition was initiated. Like the GST, the UPA failed to claim credit for the preliminary work it did between 2007 and 2014 and accused Mr Modi of expediting the project.

As a shrewd politician, Mr Modi took the brickbats thrown at him and made it a bouquet. The present government is in a mission to complete the HSR project and commission it by 2022. It would be too late for the Congress and UPA, if they seek some claim in 2022, as they have voluntarily given all the credit to Mr Modi.

India had good relations with Japan for decades, and Japan gave liberal financial assistance to India on many infrastructure and social projects, Delhi Metro and many other metros, Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, to name a few. Had Mr Modi not been in power, then too the HSR with the financial assistance of Japan would have come to India. The credit for Mr Modi is expediting the deal and getting extremely favourable loan conditions for this project, so that the first HSR project gets commissioned during his tenure. Even if the present government does not come to power in 2019 elections, the HSR project will continue, as India and Japan have all-weather relationship.

Another criticism is: HSR means nothing for 95 per cent of the commuters of Indian Railways. In 2003, domestic and international air passengers were 15.68 million and 4.50 million against the population of 1,108 million in the same year. The domestic and international passengers put together counted for only 1.82 per cent of India’s population in 2003. But that did not deter the then Central and respective state governments to facilitate the development of Greenfield international airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi and Hyderabad on public-private partnership between 2003 and 2012. The result is there to see.

The domestic and international passengers in 2016 were 99.45 million and 20.12 million respectively against the population of 1,324 million in the same year. India witnessed 15.27 per cent and 12.21 per cent of domestic and international air passengers CAGR between 2003 and 2016, which is unparalleled in comparison to the growth rate of road and railways in India for the same period.

The domestic and international passengers put together counted for 9.03 per cent of India’s population in 2016. How did this miracle happen? This was not only due to the arrival of low cost carriers, but mainly due to the development of at least five world class airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi and Hyderabad.

In 2017, the total investment made on developing these five airports and increasing the fleet size will be much more than the cost of construction of the first HSR project.

However, the government invested some equity to have a skin in the game, both the airports and HSR project is not completely developed from taxpayers’ money. The demand for transport infrastructure is evident from the fact that these five airports are reaching saturation in utilisation by 2020 within 10 to 15 years of being commissioned.

Had the government not facilitated the development of airports from 2003 onwards, claiming it will benefit only 1.82 per cent of the population, India’s domestic air travel would have never increased to 9.03 per cent in 2016. It was a pent-up demand for faster and comfortable travel at reasonable prices and when it was offered with the development of airport infrastructure, passengers merrily used the same.

Yes, in 2017, the HSR may look like a distant dream for 95 per cent of the population. As per the PhD thesis that estimated the passenger forecast for Ahmedabad-Mumbai HSR corridor, when the HSR project completes its ramp-up period of three years in 2025, one among the four travels between any origin-destination pairs of Ahmedabad and Mumbai originating in this zone, will be done by HSR, which means HSR travel won’t be a distant dream for 75 per cent of the population.

In 2035, every alternate travel between any origin-destination pairs of Ahmedabad and Mumbai will be done by HSR, which means HSR travel won’t be a distant dream for 50 per cent of the population. The airport development experience shows us the HSR will be more inclusive unlike what some predict it as elite in 2017.

Moreover, it is the responsibility of the government to develop mass transport systems depending on the need and not on how much the Indian population would benefit by the system. With Japanese aid and with the financial support of the Centre and Delhi government, about 210 km of Delhi Metro was constructed and is in operation, and 270 km of Delhi Metro line will be developed by 2022, totalling to 480 km of the Delhi Metro. The average construction cost of a metro system is about Rs 300 crores in current prices, totalling the investment cost in the Delhi Metro to Rs 1.44 lakh crores, even higher than the HSR project. The Delhi Metro, even when expanded to 480 km, will benefit only about three crore population of National Capital Territory, which is not even three per cent of India’s population. Had Delhi not developed its world class metro and diverted a portion of its traffic from roads, it would have suffered more seriously with air pollution problems that it is now and resulted in huge economic and social losses for Delhiites.

India planned for about 10,000 km of on lines of Golden Quadrilateral and North-South and East-West corridors of National Highway Development Programme of erstwhile Atal Behari Vajpayee government and many feasibility studies have already been carried out. All of them are planned to be developed either with liberal financial assistance from multilateral agencies or by PPP, where the passenger will boot the fare and not splurging taxpayer’s money.

Facilitating economic development, specially through infrastructure projects, is the primary duty of any government. There is no growth without creating infrastructure and India has been suffering from serious infrastructure deficit, specially in the transport sector, both on passenger and freight segments. Projects like HSR and Dedicated Freight Corridor will ease India’s transport infrastructure deficit problems and will benefit one and all in time to come.

The writer is an independent consultant and can be reached at ramakrishnan@iima.ac.in

Tags: narendra modi, delhi metro, high-speed rail