Bullet Train Running Late to Mumbai

India’s first and much-vaunted bullet train project, which is expected to streak between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in just about two hours, has lost steam in Maharashtra. All the while, it is picking up pace in neighbouring Gujarat. Five years after the Government of India sanctioned the 508-km long Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Corridor, only 22% land has been acquired in Maharashtra, with no contract awarded in the state as yet. Even the stretch connecting Thane and Virar that requires zero land acquisition — since it is a 21-km tunnel, part of which is under sea — is stuck due to a legal battle over the chopping of mangrove forests.

The high-speed rail — which will cover 348 km in Gujarat, 156 km in Maharashtra and a short 4-km stretch in Dadra & Nagar Haveli — is believed to be a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who laid the foundation stone in Ahmedabad in September 2017 with the then prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. The project was expected to be completed by December 2023 — but that looks impossible now.

While negotiations to acquire land, particularly in the tribal belt of Palghar in Maharashtra, have been difficult from day one in the face of mounting protests from political parties and civil society organisations, a new government in the state has only exacerbated the situation, slamming the brakes on the project.

The Shiv Sena, which wrested power in Maharashtra in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress in 2019, was clear from the beginning that the bullet train was not its priority even though it has not opposed the rail corridor. The Maharashtra government has not contributed a single rupee so far to the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd, the special purpose vehicle, which is executing the project with a ₹20,000 crore equity fund (50% of which will come from the Railways and 25% each from the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments). Another ₹88,000 crore is given as soft loan by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with a repayment schedule of 50 years, a moratorium on repayment for 15 years and a meagre interest rate of 0.1%.

The Shiv Sena’s anxieties are understandable. It fears that its ally-turned opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules both the Centre and Gujarat, may usurp the entire credit for the iconic rail project and get political mileage out of it ahead of the 2024 general elections.

“We need to understand what should be the priority for the country versus what’s turning out to be a vanity project for the PM. In a Covid scenario where we have been cutting down on expenses, should the bullet train be the most important project?” asks Priyanka Chaturvedi, Shiv Sena’s deputy leader in Rajya Sabha, adding that the farmers who have given up their land are not getting adequate compensation.

Chaturvedi’s comment sums up the Sena’s stand on the issue — a lack of enthusiasm for the project but not an open opposition to it. The problem is Sena rules the state through which 30% of the project is intended to pass. More significantly, it houses India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, which happens to be the big reason for the project’s viability.

Former Maharashtra CM and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis alleges that the Sena is delaying the project, depriving the state of mammoth investments. “High speed rail corridor will bring in an investment of about ₹50,000 crore to Maharashtra alone. Despite this, the present (state) government has intentionally slowed down the land acquisition process for petty political reasons. If they behave like this, why will the Centre sanction another corridor, say, from Mumbai to Nagpur?” asks Fadnavis.

Look at the contrasting progress report from Gujarat. As much as 85% land (820 of 965 hectares) has been acquired. With a ₹24,985 crore contract for the design and construction of a 237 km line between Vapi and Vadodara already awarded to Larsen and Toubro, the Gujarat section could well be ready in three years’ time. The state has also started contributing to the equity fund by paying ₹105 crore to the kitty, something that symbolises the state owning the project.

The question is simple, although the answer is complex: what happens if the Gujarat portion gets ready and Maharashtra continues to be several years behind schedule? Keeping aside politics and bottlenecks associated with land acquisition, there is one more problem in completing the Maharashtra section even in the next five years. The technical challenges of building an undersea tunnel — the contract for which has yet to be awarded — are such that it could take five and a half years or more to complete, say two railway ministry officials who do not wish to be named.

Does this mean the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train will end up running between Ahmedabad and Surat in Gujarat, at least for a few years, till the issues are sorted out in Maharashtra? If the project is looked at through a political lens, it makes immense sense for the BJP to run the bullet train ahead of the 2024 general elections, showcasing the party’s achievement of a key goal.

Achal Khare, MD of NHSRCL, clarifies: “We have not taken a call as yet on whether we should operate the high-speed rail in phases (for instance, Surat-Ahmedabad). The project is Mumbai-Ahmedabad, and we would like to build the entire portion from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. It’s still not out of control. It can be done.” He, however, concedes that Gujarat has moved much faster than Maharashtra, adding that tenders in Maharashtra will be floated only after 70% of land is acquired, up from the current 22%. A total of 432 hectares need to be acquired in the state.

While the troubles related to land acquisition may persist, there is some relief for the NHSRCL and the Railway Board working on the project. The National Board of Wildlife has approved proposals to divert land in and around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary — all located in Maharashtra — for the project.

According to the Railways, the ₹1,08,000 crore project will build infrastructure to run trains with a maximum speed of 350 kmph (operating speed will be 320 kmph), facilitating commute between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in just two hours. The journey at present takes six-seven hours. Initially, 10-car trains with 750 seats each will be introduced though the blueprint has a provision to acquire 16-car trains with 1,250 seats each at a later stage. The precise time-line of the project will be clear only after the tender for rolling stock or railway vehicles is invited.

It’s an irony that a high-speed project is losing speed. Unless some loose ends in Maharashtra are tied up urgently, the bullet train may end up arriving very late in Mumbai.

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