INFRASTRUCTURE IMPORTS: PRIORITIES CONVERGE
Er. K Vijayachandran FIE
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly firmed up, during his recent Australian visit, several construction projects and foreign investment proposals that were hanging fire for long, ever since the economic reforms got initiated by the UPA Government.
Construction of a 2000 KM mountain road along the China boarder proposed to be built with Japanese help was a long pending project proposal, possibly waiting for clearance by China. It was included in Prime Minister’s priority list when he went to the recent G20 summit meet in Brisbane. Soon after the summit, it was clarified from Beijing that Japan’s road project cooperation with India, will not be in the disputed China-India border area. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei made these remarks at a press briefing, when asked about a recent report that, Japan International Corp. Agency (JICA) had a contract to build roads on the China-India border. JICA will provide financial assistance and technical expertise to this border road project.
Japan is evidently happy because, this multi billion dollar assignment on the foot hills of Himalayas will benefit its recession hit construction and heavy engineering industry. And, Indian loan will provide its finance capital a top class investment outlet. China’s neutral attitude indicates that the project is unlikely to affect their strategic interests in any manner: Being a border road, it is likely to serve the interests of both sides in war and in peace. There is no logic, whatsoever, for India unilaterally bearing the capital and maintenance costs of a high-cost border road, especially, when Indo-China friendship and cooperation is being taken to new heights through the BRIC and its New Development Bank.
And, insisting on foreign collaboration and Japanese technology makes little sense, when our own public sector enterprises like the Border Roads Organization and BEML of Bangalore, as well as other Indian construction firms in public as well as private sector, have proved their mettle in road construction on our Himalayan borders. It is foolish to speed up with the project under the changed circumstances: Civilian needs of the NE states as well as defense priorities of the country should have been re-assessed before taking a final view of this project proposal, which was a product of our infamous war with China. Perhaps, business pushers and fixers of big contracts in Delhi continue on their jobs, as usual, unmindful of regime changes and even fundamental changes in political environment.
The boarder road contract was only a small fish in the list of big projects, got ready for Prime Minister’s Australian tour. There were also the multi-billion dollar high-tech railway projects in his priority list. Most of these were under suspended animation during the UPA Government, for a variety of reasons. There was the 534-km-long Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed corridor project estimated to cost Rs 63,180 cr, for which the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is currently conducting a feasibility study. Them there was the 1,754 km-long Delhi-Chennai route which was being allotted to China for conducting feasibility study and is proposed to be developed jointly with China.
The Delhi-Chennai route was part of a much larger scheme: The Diamond Quadrilateral Project, which aims to build a high-speed train network between different cities, including Delhi-Mumbai, Mumbai-Chennai, Chennai-Kolkata, Kolkata-Delhi and Mumbai-Kolkata. It is likely to cost Rs 2 lakh crore. The 28 hour run of Delhi-Chennai Rajdhani will be reduced to a mere six hours. While the cost of construction of a normal railway route is Rs 5 crore per km, the estimated expenditure on the high speed line will be Rs 120-126 crore.
Most of the projects in Prime Minister’s travel bag were hardly in tune with the development aspirations of our people. In fact North-Eastern states are crying for basic infrastructure, especially transport and communications but a boarder road is unlikely to be solution. NE states are poorly connected to the national rail system: situation in many other Indian states is also not very different. Even a casual examination of basic rail statistics will reveal this disquieting situation.
Census 2011 had counted a total of 598,110 census villages and towns in the country and we have only 7172 railway stations in the country. This means, close to 99 percent of our population centers are unlikely to have a proper rail link. After the British left, only 11,000 route KM was added to the Indian rail system. Most of this 20 percent increase took place during the first four decades of national independence. During the twenty five years of economic reforms; annual addition was only around 100 KM or at the best around some ten new railway stations per year.
In fact this new additions did not even compensate for the closure of rail stations, during this period, in the name of economic viability. With the stress on express and super fast trains and neglect of passenger trains, a large number of rural railway stations have a deserted look today and are facing closure. At the same time, many of the large stations look dirty, ill-maintained, user-unfriendly and overcrowded, despite the best efforts of the employees whose strength was being arbitrarily cut down at an average rate of 17,000 per year during the past two decades.
Rail penetration in the country continues to be far below global development experience, on the basis of geographical area as well as population. India has 60 route km of railway per million people, and 20 route km per 1000 sqkm of land area. This is far below that of USA (803/22), France (603/63), Germany (520/117) or Japan (192/63). China was far behind India in rail penetration at the time of its revolution, but it has more than doubled its route rail length during the past sixty years to around 65,000 KM. The more recently added (2008) Lhasa -Xining train over the Tibetan highland had caught global attention. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qinghai%E2%80%93).
Development priorities on our rail front are thus clear: Launching massive high speed trains on the Golden Triangle and other luxury trains with borrowed capital and imported technologies could hardly be a priority, compared to increasing the rail penetration to a respectable level of at least five percent of the population centers, using our own resources. Our urban centers are developing into massive slums in the absence of efficient urban transport systems. Suburban trains or Metro Rails has to be developed in 40 cities with population exceeding two million if we are to fight against slums and we have the technology and resources to do this, Then there is a big backlog of quality improvement. All these need careful planning as well as development of appropriate technologies: Human resources development and capacity building being the most fundamental.
Prime Minister Modi and his advisors seem to believe that high-cost sophisticated infrastructure, with imported equipment and technology, foreign loans, FDI etc etc are essential for economic growth and will easily yield popular applause. Such projects remind us of the Latin American dictators of last century who led their countries into deep debt traps by pursuing all sorts of fancy projects. Many of these countries continue to be severely indebted and backward even today, despite being blessed with valuable mineral resources including gas and oil.