The PMO-appointed Empowered Committee on Innovative Collaborations under NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya has taken over the appraisal of the ambitious high-speed railway network to ascertain its way forward and how to go about implementing the first section between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, signifying the NDA government’s seriousness regarding the cost-intensive project.
The high-power committee also has secretaries of Department of Economic Affairs and Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. Former Central Vigilance Commissioner P Shankar and former Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrashekhar are also part of the committee.
In its first meeting held last week, the committee reviewed a presentation from Railway Board on the latest Japan International Cooperation Agency report on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed corridor and an overview of the other lines dovetailing to the government’s grand Diamond Quadrilateral of high-speed links.
Sources said the committee stepping in to appraise and prescribe a way forward for the project also relieves the Railway Board of the tough task of having to take a decision of this magnitude—the first corridor will cost around Rs 98,000 crore—and places the project in a higher league.
As per the mandate of the committee, its recommendations cannot be overruled by the ministry. In case a ministry does not agree with the recommendations, the matter will go to the Cabinet. “The pace of technological change and of innovations is such that time-honoured government practices and procedures may sometimes not be capable of expeditiously converting ideas into action,” the committee’s mandate says.
Government sources said what is lacking in the current way the high-speed railway dream is being pursued is a broad, cohesive vision. Corridors have been sanctioned in piecemeal and studies have been commissioned in the past. A proper vision document for India’s proposed 10,000-km of high-speed railway aspirations, therefore, is to be prepared in consonance with the government’s overall policy of development and transport evolution.
The first high-speed link, whose final report by Japan was submitted in July, has been lying in Railway Board’s perusal process. Although JICA has proposed to lend money at very cheap rates to fund the project, a bulk of the funding will have to come from the government. This is not a decision that could have been taken by railway ministry alone.
The first project, whose economic rate of return is pegged at upwards of 12 per cent even though the financial rate of return in below 4 per cent (Railways considers a project financially viable only if has a rate of return of 14 and above), would have anyway required some heavy handholding by top offices. The newly formed Empowered Committee on Innovative Collaborations, vested with the appropriate powers, is expected to do exactly that, sources said.