It is a tragedy of Indian politics that the bullet train project from Ahmadabad to Mumbai that is expected to cost a massive Rs 1.10 lakh crore, is being hailed by both the government and Opposition as a great achievement. More surprising is the reaction of other political parties. Thus, Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress leader in Parliament, has hastened to clarify that the Congress is not against the project, but wants to draw the attention of the public to the motive of the inauguration on the eve of the Gujarat polls. To leave no one in doubt that the Congress is even more keen on the bullet train concept in the whole of India, he has openly welcomed the project and has emphasised that it was first conceived in 2005 and later in 2013 when the Congress was in power and that it was the Congress which had ordered a viability survey by the Japanese government and that the Congress is happy that the Japanese government has kept the schedule. Thus, the Congress has no objection to the project, rather it welcomes it.
The position of some other Opposition parties has equally not been clear excepting of the Socialist Party (India) whose president Dr Prem Singh has opposed the project in public. I have not seen any other Opposition party condemning the bullet train project; rather, I find that Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party has welcomed the idea of a bullet train, but is of the view that it should run between Delhi and Kolkata, passing through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, having the maximum number of unemployed and poor people. Is it not ironic that despite the existence of extreme poverty, there is no condemnation of the aristocratic bullet train concept? Rather, the grievance is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has favoured Gujarat, rather than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar!
It was reported in the press that Opposition parties were to meet at Jaipur on 14 September 2017 for the third edition of “Sanghi Virasat” (shared culture campaign to oppose the NDA government). Akhilesh Yadav was one of those who was to attend the meet, apart from leaders of CPM, Rashtriya Lok Dal and other parties. One has not heard of this group opposing the concept of bullet train. Does the Opposition have the same priority as the Modi government?
The bullet train is also expected to pass under sea. India has no experience of this kind of technology at all. Is our dependence on a foreign country for decades (however friendly it may be at this point in time) a wise decision tested on grounds of security and defence? Should this money not be spent on improving our existing railway infrastructure so as to stop the frequent rail accidents which have taken place in the recent past?
In fact, the proposed bullet train project also has had an impact. It is said that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, though of the BJP, was not inclined to allot land unless he extracted a promise that there will also be a bullet train from Mumbai to Nagpur (which is his home town). On paper, there is already a programme of bullet train from Delhi to Mumbai, notwithstanding protests by farmers whose lands will be acquired.
Even from a practical point of view, the concept of bullet train is problematic. Fares in the bullet train could be around twice the existing A/C first class fares or almost the same as airfare. The bullet train will need 100 trips daily to be financially viable and a study by IIM Ahmedabad has come to the conclusion that this project would run into losses.
Japan and its rail companies lobbied the United States for years to sell its bullet train technology, but found little success. To justify this, PM Modi has supposedly said that it will save the passenger trouble of going to the airport in a car, avoiding traffic and then waiting at the airport. But the poor in India do not own cars. In fact, figures of car registration in India averaged 108690.89 cars from 1991 till 2017.
According to a World Bank report, India has 224 million living below the international poverty line of around Rs 120 a day. PM Modi’s bullet train venture is a cruel joke and ridicules the poor of India because the one-way fare between Ahmedabad and Mumbai will not be less than Rs 3,000, which works our at 25 times the daily earning of millions in India.
The richest 1% of Indians own over 53% of India’s wealth. Further shameful inequality is reflected in the fact that 57 billionaires in India control 70% of India’s wealth.
After 70 years of Independence, the position in India is that about 48% of India’s urban population and 60% population in rural areas remain without access to toilets. It needs to be emphasised that building toilets in rural India was one of the major promises made by PM Modi.
There is another even more serious objection to the massive expense on the proposed bullet train project. Only 44% of rural households have access to electricity. These issues must be given priority.
The bullet train project is not expected to be completed before December 2023. We must wait and see what impact it has on the polity and economy of the country.
Justice Rajindar Sachar is a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi.