Bullet train project is financially unviable: Standing Committee on Railways in 2014-15 report

Rohit Prajapati and Krishnakant* 

Farmers, families, villagers, and many others rightfully protest land acquisition for and raise some valid questions about the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train Project. Interestingly, earlier, the Indian government’s committee too had raised some questions and deemed the project financially unviable. In simple terms, it is a very costly and a loss-making proposition. The committees instead stated that the funds being earmarked for this “unviable” project should be used judiciously for long pending railway projects .

Dinesh Trivedi, the chairperson, Standing Committee on Railways (2014-15), of Ministry of Railways (Railway Board) of 16th Lok Sabha, on December 17, 2014 clearly states in the report on high speed trains:

“The Committee learns that the Railways have proposed to introduce bullet train on the already identified Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector… The Ministry has justified this project even though it is financially unviable stating that as compared to other big railway projects, bullet train project has additional unique feature contributing to improved economic rate of return in terms of value of time saved of passengers, environmental benefits, appreciation in real estate value and residual value of infrastructure, besides enhancing the country’s prestige internationally.
“The committee is not fully convinced with the above justifications given by the Ministry. The Committee feel that if the amount equivalent to that proposed to expanded for bullet train is used for execution of the long pending railway projects, the benefits to the general public would be much more. The Committee, therefore, desire that before going ahead with the bullet train project, the Ministry should conduct a coast benefit analysis for the project vis-à-vis other pending railway projects so that the scarce resource of the Railways are utilized optimally and judiciously.

Incidentally, this very report, for reasons best known to them, also contradicts itself:

“However, the proposal for introduction of the high-speed train on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector is laudable.”
It is apparent that the government chose to focus on only some of the positive points of the report and not on its drawbacks that outweigh the assumed benefits. Who demanded the bullet train in first place? What are the government compulsions to continue to opt for and insist on an unviable project? The Indian citizen and taxpayer deserve immediate and complete clarification.
The statements of the committee for Bullet Train Project – “…though it is financially unviable… the Committee feel that if the amount equivalent to that proposed to expanded for bullet train is used for execution of the long pending railway projects, the benefits to the general public would be much more… the scarce resource of the Railways are utilized optimally and judiciously” – need full explanations and disclosure from the Government of India.

The people have a right to know the reasons why the government undermines the clearly spelt out observation of a committee it set up. Does the taxpayer assume that this all party committee were either “browbeaten” or “convinced” to pitch in a few positive points to contradict its own observations?

The Bullet Train Project, in its very conception, ignores the crucial issues like financial viability and prudence, judicious prioritising of India’s resources, and democratic consensus for a public project.

Are we suffering from a misplaced inferiority complex, and is that why the Government wants to show off to the world that we do have a Bullet Train? Does the Bullet Train represent the symbol of ideal Development? What type of Development and accompanying false sense of pride or ego does it satisfy? At what and whose cost? For whom?

If this project satisfies sense of pride or ego, why not nurture it with more positive international examples that adapt better technological and scientific advances and also promote regenerative models of development?

It is time that we all raise pertinent questions and work towards wiser and viable alternatives for public transportation and all kinds of so-called “development” projects in India.

*Environmental activists, Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Vadodara, Gujarat