If all goes well a technological marvel, bullet train, with 750 passengers on board will zoom out of Sabarmati station on 15th Aug 2022. And Mr. Narendra Modi would have kept his tryst with Indian history.
But not without a whiff of wry irony! A hundred years ago, Bapu at this very place, wheeled a puny, stodgy charkha to spin the yarn of freedom from elegant cotton mills of Manchester and assert sovereignty rights in all political and economic spheres, a credo best encapsulated in the mantra 'Swadeshi'. In the 75th year of independence would he go hung-ho seeing bullet trains made with money and technology from a foreign nation whizzing past from his backyard? Likely, no! He refused to even celebrate Independence in 1947, as it had come at too high a price.
So, is the bullet trains coming at an affordable price? The issue has two dimensions - the financial one of commercial viability and economic feasibility, and secondly, the ethical one of social and moral equity.
Take the financial one. The project cost is Rs. 1.08 lakh crores, of which Rs. 88000 crore will be funded by yen loan at 0.1% per annum interest repayable in 50 years including an initial moratorium of 15 years. So, (how sorely we miss the days of rupee trade with USSR) exchange rate that factors in inflation differentials must be accounted for.
Presuming present differentials (Japan 0%, India 3%), Rs. may depreciate at 3% pa vis a vis yen. Hence interest in Rs. terms would be 3.1% per annum. Accordingly, a back of the envelop calculation puts total interest accrued at Rs. 36,600 crore till the 15th year and total liability at Rs. 124,600 crore repayable over next 35 years.
To make things simple, ignore everything else for the next 35 years. That makes for a repayment obligation of Rs. 3560 crore per annum. At utmost, operational efficiency the bullet train is expected to ferry 36,000 passengers daily, each paying Rs. 3000, generating an annual revenue of mere Rs. 3942 crore with which to meet operational and maintenance costs besides repayment of loan.
Obviously, the project is a potential financial hole, justifiable only on grounds of collateral benefits including intangibles and imponderables like skill and technology acquisition, savings in carbon footprints (assuming airlines will cease flights on this route) and diplomacy imperatives. And for these supposed notional gains, the well-off who 'bite the bullet' will be subsidised as fares can't, conceivably, meet costs and repayments. Maybe routes with maximum traffic congestion like Delhi-Mumbai or Delhi-Kolkata would have been profitable. BJP's LS poll plank spoke of a 'Diamond Quadrilateral' of bullet trains connecting Delhi-Kolkata-Mumbai-Chennai. Somehow, Ahmedabad wriggled its way in, nudging out more deserving.
That returns us to the second dimension of affordability - the ethical. The project cost of Rs. 1.10 lakhs crore is no chicken feed. That money would take care of the budget of a small state like Uttarakhand for three years running; that amount spent over 5 years would fund expansion of rail network in the entire country or strengthen its safety and security; that amount could abate pollution and rejuvenate Maa Gange five times over! Besides, derailments and accidents draw attention to the fact 40% of railway bridges are over 100 years old, and 19,000 km of rail tracks are crying for modernisation. Can we afford to ignore these more urgent social needs for a bullet train without which we haven't done too badly so far. Further, there is that moral distaste over subsidising the better off.
With fares at par with the 1st AC class, the poor will not be able to avail this hidden subsidy as they will never get on board. Bullet trains zooming past on elevated tracks will blow a whiff of elitism in a low middle-income country. The bogie of elitism was raised when Rajdhani trains too were conceived. But this time it's a different story. Rajdhani was to run on existing tracks with indigenous technology, not needing dedicated corridors and foreign debt. The common man still travels on those very tracks, albeit on trains with affordable fare. If smart cities in their pristine conception create gated spaces of 'Pompeii' splendour, raised tracks dedicated to bullet trains for deep pockets will do the same for rail travel.
If not for affordability, then what? One cannot rule out hubris. India will join the elite group of 15 countries that have high speed trains running at 250 kmph or more, cause enough to rekindle our machismo, bare our 56" chest.
But what legitimate hubris accrues in wearing a lion's skin? For a nation aspiring to regional power status, real lion paws add punch. Nehru bequeathed to future generations a plethora of research centres, laboratories, technical institutions, space and nuclear research centres that incubated indigenous technologies. With justifiable hubris, today we preen over sending chandrayaan, mangalayan, and multiple payloads hurtling into space at a fraction of the cost in advanced countries.
Of late, though, we have taken to buying products off the shelf, be it Rafale jets, helicopters, F16 planes, submarines, missiles, even nuclear plants. This will only attenuate growth of indigenous cutting-edge technologies and reduce us to the status of 'industrial coolies', the ones who make 'nuts and bolts' or assembly lines for manufactures with foreign technologies. Our bright young minds took early to the IT revolution but not as innovators but as operators of technologies developed in the West earning the sobriquet 'tech coolies'. As Mr. Narayan Murthy observed, we have sub-optimally utilised our large pool of technical personnel. Result, we never produced any earth-shaking innovations. If the second industrial renaissance is to take place now, scripting an 'industrial coolie' paradigm isn't the right way.
We are at a phase in human history where balance of nuclear terror gives nations uninterrupted opportunities for holistic development. If indeed there are imperatives beyond profitability to break the speed barrier of 160 kmph to 320 kmph in one quantum leap, why not invest in incubating innovations in the field of high speed technology suited to Indian conditions? Yes, there will be a delay as technology incubation involves a gestation before its fruition, but then what is the tearing hurry? When it finally arrives, it will put bullet trains on track at much lower costs. China developed its own technology that is said to cost the Wuhan-Guanzhow bullet train infra Rs. 104 crore per km against the Mumbai-Ahmedabad one of Rs. 210 crore per km. If true, it demonstrates starkly that the gains of proprietary technology are enormous.
That brings me to the final destination of this piece - is ballot the prime mover? Mr. Modi is programmed to deliver painful kicks on shin just before the referee walks on the field. His brownie points are already on board before the model code of conduct kicks in leaving the opposition little time to remove the crust on the 'brownie'. For example, a surgical strike trumpeted as one that sent terrorists squirreling in safe tunnels and Pak forces quaking in their boots, followed by PM electing to shoot the Rambaan at Ravan that traditionally marks the end of Dussehra not at Ramlila grounds in Delhi as his predecessors did, but in Lucknow. The symbolism of who represented Ravan and who Rama could scarcely be missed. The coup de grace was demonetisation, scripted as Robinhood taking from the rich to give to the poor. The talk of rich losing sleep, however fanciful, struck an emotional chord that windswept Yogi to power in UP.
Is the tom-tomming of bullet train inauguration of the same genre with Gujarat ballot in the backdrop? The first pointer is the timing and the hoopla surrounding it. The project feasibility report was accepted and Japan chosen in 2015, yet 'inauguration' was deferred till now, 3 months before expected calling of Gujarat elections. A 'bhoomi pujan' with required land acquisition of 825 hectares still in limbo shows undue haste. Social and environmental impact assessment, essential preliminaries to land acquisition, is still pending. Design and track alignments are yet to be finalised. Four sub-groups to identify components and sub-systems for manufacture in India under joint ventures are taking only their first baby steps. The rushed-through inauguration of an undercooked project certainly betrays ballot imperatives.
And if so, what electoral spin has been put on it - cheapest ever loan - PM put it "in a way free", one that 'only PM, Modi can do', 'interest free gift' from a friend. In some rhetoric 'interest' is muted, so most hear 'free gift'. Nothing can be farther from truth. No grant is forthcoming from Japan.
As for the 'free' rhetoric, one need only look at the 'zero interest' EMI schemes that pop up on festive occasions in consumer retail stores. They attract just a few. Even without interest, loans need to be repaid. The question of affordability weighs heavy in any financial decision.
Truly speaking, is Abe being generous? Current yield on Govt securities in Tokyo is 0.06%, so a 0.1% interest on yen loan assures Japanese banks a heathy risk premium, hence good returns. More often Japanese banks pay 0.1% interest for parking their surpluses with the central bank. If parked in the project it earns them effectively a 0.2% interest, a windfall.
Maybe World Bank, International Development Association (IDA) funds are costlier but recipient countries get the freedom to shop for the best terms for their projects. Who can say that the price is right in case of the proprietary technology that Japan has offered?
Further, are we really acquiring cutting edge technology? The signalling and power systems, the technological backbone, will be made in Japan. So, are we being inveigled into the 'industrial coolie ' paradigm?
Will it lift the sagging new jobs market? Official data speaks of 4000 new direct operational jobs, 20,000 construction jobs which will disappear on project completion and 20,000 indirect jobs. Not too enthusing considering the scale of capital investment. Technology is not a wholly benign demi-god, it gives to the skilled and takes away from the unskilled, thereby widening income disparities. Ask Thomas Piketty, he knows.
In conclusion, it does seem that ballot and hubris are greasing the bullet train project for now!
A R Mishra, Patrakar Nagar, Patna.