A Slow Bullet Train: How India's Politics Frustrated the Japan-Backed Project

The pace of completion and cost have both been hit by a mix of farmer-politics issues and India's ground realities.

4 min read
A Slow Bullet Train: How India's Politics Frustrated the Japan-Backed Project

On a highway journey to the Jaipur Literature Festival from Delhi a few days ago, I was fascinated by how the Japanese had carved a large, clustered industrial footprint on a ride that I once used to enjoy for its yellow mustard fields, rugged mud houses and fresh-air expanses of rural spaces.

It had begun with the legendary Suzuki's Maruti venture circa 1980 in Gurgaon and now houses a slew of modern manufacturing industries that stretch out from Bawal on the Haryana side to Neemrana on the Rajasthan side; you can even spot a Japanese restaurant from atop the highway better known for dhaba delicacies. These are among the nearly 1,500 Japanese companies in India mostly dwelling in 11 Japan industrial township (JIT) projects.


Japan Faced With India's 'Jugaad' Style

Now, the famed Samurai are setting their eyes on the Prime Minister's home territory through the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train and a humongous $42-billion (5 trillion yen) investment plan over five years to tap into a demographic surge in the world’s fastest-growing major economy. Japan has successfully achieved a target of 3.5 trillion yen set for the 2014-2019 period, which shows that a "Special Strategic and Global Partnership" has made decent progress.

However, the bullet train is a different story. It may be superfast as and when it arrives, but its current progress does not have a speed matching the intended train. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pace of ‘ease of doing business’ is facing frustrations in the project, and his counterpart Fumio Kishida's visit last weekend, much loaded with the symbolism of the Tokyo-New Delhi axis to usher in a new era of prosperity and check China's progress across Asia, has more to show in gestures than in outcomes when it comes to the bullet train.

This is India, where the make-it-up-as-you-go 'jugaad' approach has challenged Japan’s nimble, just-in-time style. It is starkly evident in the bullet train project.

Officially, the Gujarat government says 99 per cent of the 360 hectares required to build the 500-odd-km project has been acquired on its side. But if you look at the date of announcement of the train (2017), the progress hardly matches Modi's can-do image. Only 30% of the required land in the track's Maharashtra stretch had been acquired until September 2021, though last month's updates showed it at 62%.


Miles to Go

Of the total length of the project recently estimated to cost $17 billion, 156 km is in Maharashtra, 348 km in Gujarat, and about 5 km in Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Modi's estranged ally, Shiv Sena, which is in power in Mumbai, is clearly out to throw a spanner in the works. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray described the bullet train as a "white elephant" in February 2020, only to subtly change his stance 18 months later as he backed a Mumbai-Nagpur bullet train even as he wondered how it might precede the Ahmedabad link as India's first bullet to hit the mark. Modi said last month that the Ahmedabad link would make Mumbai a "City of Dreams" – a polite hint that Thackeray may be shooting himself in the foot if he stands too hard or long against the original bullet train.

Notably, the same Shiv Sena had once scuttled the Enron power project to target its current allies and then-adversaries, Sharad Pawar and the Congress party. When farmers have to give up agricultural land to industries or infrastructure, there is a heavy price to be paid, especially when a political bullet-train like the Modi-led electoral juggernaut wants to overshadow the fierce Maratha pride of a Thackeray.

The "Shinkansen" (Japanese high-speed rail network) project's progress, or the lack of it, in western India, contrasts the progress in the Haryana-Rajasthan industrial corridor, where, ironically, for Modi, the Congress party has held Tokyo's hands rather well.


In India, Economics is Also Politics

Though Japan's International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is doing more than 80 per cent of the funding for the bullet train project, it is clear that unlike in many other ambitious industrial ventures, the problem here appears to be politics, not money – much like the Enron power project that crashed out in Maharashtra in the 1990s after being touted as a global showpiece of India's 1991 economic reform programme.

The bullet train should have been up and running by this year, but is now looking at 2026 to complete just a small 63-km Gujarat slice of the project – and Modi cannot possibly invoke it in his speeches for 2024 elections, though there are recent claims that the project is progressing well. For all we know, the Gujarat side may grow just enough to provide ammunition for the BJP's election rhetoric.

Whatever the detail, the pace of completion and the cost have both been hit by a mix of farmer-politics issues and India's ground realities.

Modi's "Act East" policy in global affairs may look good, but the bullet train project by the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd has been hurt by his lack of "Act West" policy in India's own Maharashtra.

The moral: In India, economics is often about politics, and this is particularly so when farmers and allies – estranged or current – are involved.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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