The Messenger Shoots the Bullet

 In Speaker / Gateway

Founder and Director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival and Literature Live, Anil Dharker, is a columnist, writer, and literary genius. We were privileged to hear his insights on the Indian bullet train project.

Beginning his discussion, Dharker forewarned us Rotarians, “The topic of the talk is “Shoot the Bullet, not Shoot the Messenger.” He hoped to be proved wrong about his opinions on India’s bullet train project, acknowledging that large investments were already made in its development. The Japanese innovation of the bullet train, named Shinkansen and connecting Tokyo and Osaka, was executed in 1964. Back then, the train’s speed was 210 kilometres per hour and has now reached a whopping 350 kilometres per hour.

In 1978, Chinese politician Deng Xiaoping was greatly impressed by Shinkansen upon his visit to Japan. When the Chinese replicated the idea, the initial proposal relied heavily on Shinkansen for the project’s execution in China.
However, the final project was accomplished with the help of Siemens, Bombardier, Alstom, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The Japanese refused to transfer their technology, which resulted in the change in China’s manufacturing plans. Now the biggest high-speed network in the world, with 89 tracks across 26,783 kilometres, China has built its own bullet train system.

“France, Germany, Italy, Spain, South Korea, and surprisingly even Turkey – not one of them use Japanese Technology.
Why?” Dharker asked. Despite this, India has chosen to use Japanese technology.

Quoting Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, Dharker said, “Where will the raw materials and labourers for the project come from? Obviously from India. Everything that needs to be used for the project, from services to provisions, will have great potential to create revenue.” However, Dharker merely saw this as avoiding the transfer of technology.

Another concern he brought up was that no technical evaluations were made before the onset of this project. In terms of viability, we have only one instance: Taiwan and their use of the Japanese Shinkansen system. Unfortunately, the initial years saw steep depreciation in ridership rates, which fell short of forecasts.

Currently, the traffic from Mumbai to Ahmedabad is 18,000 passengers a day, but to maintain the costs of the Indian
bullet train, the traffic would need to carry at least a lakh of passengers daily to keep fares at a reasonable level.

Thus, either the rates would have to be very high or the service will have to be subsidised greatly. A surprising
fact that Dharker shared with us is that 95% of rail-using Indians cannot use the Rajdhani or August Kranti train because of the rates. And yet, the entire project is predicted to cost Rs. 1.08 lakh crore. This means that affordability for the average Indian may be an issue. Moreover, sadly enough, reports say that the bullet train
may only run in Gujarat during its initial stages.

Said Dharker, “I am not anti-progress, I am not antidevelopment. I am only arguing against misplaced priorities. I am arguing against showpiece projects and overrating ambition. That’s all.”

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