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In 2022, as India marks its 75th year of independence, Indians were expected to experience the thrill of a bullet train ride. But the railway minister recently said that the likely date for Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed rail project has been pushed back by several years—to 2026, perhaps. The project is entangled in land acquisition battles and construction delays.
Crucially, by 2026, only a 50 km stretch between Surat and Bilimora in Gujarat—a mere 10% of the overall 508-km corridor—is expected to be up and running. Pilot runs would commence on this stretch, with the train clocking a speed of 300 km per hour; much faster than any train currently operational in India, but far slower than the global benchmark for high-speed trains. This raises a question, is India actually ready for a network of high-speed rail corridors?
About Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR)
The plan for the MAHSR corridor was first set into motion in 2013 by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Japan. In 2014, a study was commissioned, and the final report was submitted in July 2015 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
The Japanese government also agreed to fund the project via loans offered at concessional rates. The Union cabinet approved the project in December 2015. An agreement was signed with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The project was inaugurated in 2017 and was scheduled for its first run in 2022.
It is the first and only approved bullet train till now. It will connect Gujarat’s capital with India’s financial capital, Mumbai. It will pass through three districts in Maharashtra, eight in Gujarat and will cut through Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
National High-Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRCL) is the implementing agency of the project. So far, the NHSRCL has completed the final location survey and geotechnical investigation and has obtained the statutory clearances.
|Read more: Railway Minister announces introduction of ‘Bharat Gaurav Trains’|
|Note: NHSRCL was incorporated in 2016 under the Companies Act, 2013. Its mandate is to finance, construct, maintain and manage the High-Speed Rail Corridor in India. The Company has been modelled as Special Purpose Vehicle in the joint sector with equity participation by Central Government through Ministry of Railways and two State Governments viz. Government of Gujarat and Government of Maharashtra.|
What other high-speed rail projects are in the pipeline?
According to a report by Mint, the Union budget 2022-23 may announce a New Delhi to Varanasi high-speed rail corridor. A Mumbai-Nagpur corridor is also likely, depending on the clarity with regard to funding.
The NHSRCL is in the process of preparing detailed project reports for at least five more proposed corridors: Delhi-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Amritsar, Mumbai-Hyderabad, Chennai-Mysore, and Varanasi-Howrah.
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Why high-speed rail projects (HSR) are important for India?
After the Metro train projects, the bullet train project is considered as a second transport revolution. This is because,
Global Experience: The HSR has an economic multiplier effect. Since the introduction of the first Shinkansen (literally meaning ‘new main line’) in Japan in 1964, high-speed trains have proven to be an undeniable technological, commercial and popular success. Many countries like the UK, France, Germany, Spain, China and, most recently, the US have adopted the technology.
Role of the trains in India’s development: In India, trains have played a significant role in shaping the growth of the domestic economy since the late-1800s. Currently, Indian Railways operates one of the largest rail networks in the world—transporting more than 22 million passengers a day and moving more than 1.2 billion tonnes of goods every year.
The high-speed rail network, once in place, is expected to further catalyse India’s economic growth and act as a stimulus for the development of satellite towns.
Improve India’s GDP: According to a study conducted by the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Hamburg in 2008, cities that are connected to HSR systems tend to witness a rise in their gross domestic product (GDP) by at least 2.7 percentage points compared to their neighbours that do not have an HSR station. The reason for the differential was improved market access.
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Technological revolution: The HSR corridor will pass via Thane creek in Mumbai, which is a protected sanctuary housing mangroves and a population of flamingos. In order to avoid disturbing this habitat, the rail corridor will have to traverse through a 21 km tunnel, of which 7 km will be under the sea. Several new technologies are expected to be used for the first time in India to surmount this construction challenge.
Similarly, Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology will also be deployed for the first time in a railway project in India.
Cleaner Transport Mode: According to the International Association of Railways (UIC), high-speed rail is eight times more energy efficient than airplanes and four times more efficient than automobile use. It will also decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality.
The project is expected to create a lots of employment opportunities, increase economic activity, boost productivity and improve mobility.
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What are the challenges faced by the MAHSR?
Challenges in Land acquisition: Land acquisition has been completed in most stretches that fall within Gujarat and Dadra Nagar Haveli, especially after the Gujarat High Court dismissed a string of petitions filed by farmers. But the rail corporation is facing significant challenges in acquiring land in Maharashtra, especially in Palghar and Thane districts.
In Palghar, the entire area is scheduled and tribal land. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 protects the Adivasi community’s access to land and resources. Land acquisition, whether for a public or a private purpose, often requires prior community consent via the Gram Sabha.
The villagers fear displacement and financial insecurity. An estimated 14,884 households stand to lose their land and over 37,000 trees are slated to be cut down.
Significant engineering challenges: NHSRCL also has to tackle significant engineering challenges, particularly in the final leg of the corridor, which will enter Mumbai from under the sea.
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Other challenges: 1) With the advent of new technologies like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies which propose to make travel as fast as 760 miles per hour, investing a humongous capital on bullet trains seems like an outdated investment. 2) The Indian Railways is in a worrying state. There is a need to strengthen the present infrastructure of the railways. At this time, the operation and maintenance of HSR will pose many challenges even if it is privatized, 3) A project report by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad estimates that at least 1 lakh passengers at fares approximately Rs. 1,500 per 300 km would be required daily for the project to make investments even. Considering the low airfares in India, it is challenging, 4) The estimated cost of MAHSR is ₹1.1 lakh crore (US$17 billion) which is massively expensive. Though India receives funding from Japan (81%), the power demand and up-gradation of existing infrastructure will be more costly. Hence, India cannot afford such enormous public expenditure now, especially when India is facing the Omicron threat.
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What should be done to implement the HSR projects in India?
1. The government has to understand that the water-forest-land is an asset for the Adivasi community, it is their identity and culture. Hence, the Policymakers and administration should give priority to systematic sustainable development work. 2. State governments should actively involve in the land acquisition process to get clearances faster. 3. The Central government should complete, at least, the impediments of the MAHSR first, before announcing any other bullet train projects. As this will divert attention and resources and slow things down. 4. The government has to push for technology transfer of HSR. This is because there is no mention of the transfer of technology anywhere in the agreement.
The HSR projects will revitalize India’s smaller towns and cities by opening up avenues for mixed land use, tourism and business opportunities. Though India is ready for bullet trains, land acquisition policies and others are not ready to welcome the development. Hence, India needs to reform those policies that hinder the HSR projects.