Unfortunately, in India, infrastructure projects are lost in a miasma of political and personal vanity, observes Shyam G Menon.
The February 9, 2023 verdict of the Bombay high court on the acquisition of a plot of land owned by Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Co in Vikhroli, for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, will be remembered for some of the observations in it.
While the ruling would surely have brought joy to those supporting the project, it would have made some cringe for the larger justifications included, at a time when Indian democracy is frequently tossed by majoritarianism.
According to livelaw.in, Godrej had challenged the award and compensation of Rs 264 crore (Rs 2.64 billion) by the deputy collector on September 15, 2022 for acquiring 9.69 acres of company land for the bullet train project.
‘The company claimed the amount was a fraction of the initial offering of Rs 572 crore (Rs 5.72 billion,’ the Web site reported.
The main challenge was to a notification from August 2019 exempting the project from social impact assessment, issued under Section 10A of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013.
“It also challenged the Constitutional validity of a proviso to Section 25 of the Fair Compensation Act, which permits the State to grant extensions for issuance of the award,” livelaw.in said.
In its ruling of February 9, the court declined to set aside the acquisition of the land.
According to the Web site, ‘the court said at such stage of the project, it cannot exercise the discretion under Article 226 of the Constitution to interfere with the acquisition of a small portion of the land as compared to 97 per cent of the land, which is already acquired and used substantially.’
Notably, the court observed that the project is of paramount importance, public interest would prevail over private interest and there have been no procedural irregularities in the acquisition.
‘Even if there is any irregularity, no interference is warranted in view of the project being the Infrastructure Project of national importance and being a project in public interest,’ livelaw.in quoted.
Earlier, the state had blamed Godrej for causing cost escalation of Rs 1000 crore through delaying the land acquisition.
A portion of the bullet train’s tracks are underground and one of the entry points to the underground tunnel falls in land owned by Godrej in Vikhroli.
With much of the land needed for the 508.17-km long project already acquired, the court’s order is most understandable.
However, the observations of the project being of national importance, in public interest and public interest prevailing over private interest, will leave some people disappointed against the backdrop of how projects can be vaulted to the league of irreversible national importance using majoritarianism and sustained implementation through thick and thin.
The Indian Railways has a total route length of over 68,000 km. In 2020, it carried over 8.08 billion passengers.
As the product it is, the bullet train will service mainly that class of commuters who may be able to afford tickets on it.
On February 10, 2023, the Financial Express newspaper reported the full fare from Mumbai’s CSMT to Solapur on the much slower Vande Bharat Express as ranging from Rs 1,300 for AC chair car to Rs 2,365 for executive chair car, for the full distance of 455 km.
For a bullet train, built on an island of standard gauge tracks and in this case, at a project cost of Rs 100,000 crore/Rs 1 trillion (Times of India, December 21, 2022), the fares will most likely be higher still.
There is no problem in beholding these fares as befitting the product.
The disagreement will be with presenting the bullet train project as one of national importance, when the number of people capable of affording its tickets or wishing to commute between Mumbai and Ahmedabad so, would be only a fraction of those using the railways on a regular basis nationwide.
The only model of imagination in which the bullet train would seem nationally important, is one of trickle-down wealth creation.
If a country embraces such a model built around its wealthy, with the hope that their needs and spending become the stuff of income for the rest, then elite projects of this sort can call the shots at the apex of the infrastructure heap.
Otherwise, for the lay man, national importance for the bullet train merely distances him that much more from a system he continues to believe, runs on his vote.
To its credit, the Indian Railways has disclosed plans for Vande Bharat Regional and Vande Bharat Metro Rapid trains.
This will help migrate superior technology, comforts and product packaging further down the railway network.
But even at such levels and volumes of traffic, we may not be close to calling these services nationally important in the way, ‘nation’ and ‘national’ are popularly understood.
What one wishes the honourable Court would note about the wording it adopted for its order of February 9 (the Godrej vs bullet train project matter) is that it shouldn’t endorse the trickle down-model of economic development as nationally important.
Patterns exist of projects catering to a few, continuing to be executed despite controversy; progressively becoming too large in terms of investment to reverse gear and eventually beset with no option but to be completed as a project of great priority by everybody.
Even entire companies and business groups have used this model of landing up in the safety net of public funds, to survive.
One understands the rescue, but should we defend the above said style of imagination and functioning as nationally important?
The correct alternative would be to explain projects well so that national significance if any, is properly understood.
In this context, there is one reason for the bullet train meriting national importance despite catering to a few.
In our era of fossil fuels discouraged, there is a question mark hanging over the future economics of air travel.
Lack of clarity in this regard makes alternative modes of high-speed transport like the bullet train worth exploring.
Unfortunately, in India, infrastructure projects are lost in a miasma of political and personal vanity.
It is the race to be stamped visionary.
Projects become embellishments for the egos of political parties and personalities, their real meaning diminished by the distraction.
Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com
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