The Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train project is the Centre’s flagship collaboration with Japan, which was jointly announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in the year 2017.
Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train Project: A new hurdle for India’s first high-speed rail project – COVID-19, says an IE report. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has already described the Rs 1.1 lakh crore project as a “white elephant”. The Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train project is the Centre’s flagship collaboration with Japan, which was jointly announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in the year 2017. For the project, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is funding 80% of the estimated cost of the project through a soft loan. The remaining cost for the Bullet Train corridor has to be borne by the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in the form of land acquisitions for the project.
For the execution of the project, Indian Railways had set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV)- National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL). Of the 530-km long corridor, 108 km will fall in Maharashtra. For the project, the state of Maharashtra has to acquire 353 hectares land of the total 1,400 hectares land that is required in the Dahanu-Palghar-Bhiwandi belt. However, the land acquisition process has barely begun with the people of the area opposing the Bullet Train project.
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Earlier, Thackeray had described the high-speed rail project as a “white elephant”, asking who the beneficiaries would be and if the project would bring in more trade and industry in the state of Maharashtra. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the state government with a ready reason. According to a senior finance department official, due to drastically reduced revenue collection amid the coronavirus breakout and the lockdown, the government had already imposed a 67% cut in expenditure on development schemes for the current fiscal. The official further said that the balance 33% of funds are expected to be used only for priority works.
According to the report, the funds that the state government would spend on the acquisition of land for the Bullet Train project have to come out of the allocation to the transport department – the high-speed rail corridor project is being handled by it – which is also included in the two-thirds expenditure cut back. According to state Transport Minister Anil Parab, the Maharashtra government has decided that projects, in which work is yet to commence, would now be stayed for a year. A source quoted in the report said that the government may later review the projects that are put on hold.
Shinsuke Nagai, senior representative of JICA, India was quoted saying that the Japanese agency is following up with both governments. At this stage, there is no immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. JICA is in discussions with both, the Japanese and the Indian governments about the project cost and the schedule, but the conclusion has not yet arrived. At present, no civil work is underway except for a training facility that is nearing completion. Nagai further said that most of the construction of the project is at the bidding stage. He believes that the construction will begin by next year. To sign the contract, it will take about six months to one year, and only after that, the construction will start, the JICA representative added.
In the state of Gujarat, work on the project had already commenced. However, a labour shortage has been caused due to the displacement of migrant workers following the nationwide lockdown. According to Achal Khare, Managing Director of NHSRCL, prior to the lockdown, NHSRCL had a lot of utility shifting going on in Gujarat. He said that now the works will have be to rescheduled for when more labourers are available. The immediate concern of NHSRCL is to restart all its sites, Khare said. A number of works are going in Ahmedabad, Sabarmati, and Vadodara, he added.
According to the report, now, the project may have more takers in the state of Maharashtra than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents of the Palghar district, who in 2018, had refused to make way for the project, are reconsidering their opposition due to their uncertain financial condition, brought on by the nationwide lockdown. As many as 10 farmers in Mori village have agreed to give up their land that is likely to clear about five acres for the high-speed rail corridor project.
In Palghar district, officials of NHSRCL said joint measurement survey had been completed in 71 villages of the 73 villages. According to a senior NHSRCL officer in Palghar, only four hectares of land had been acquired in the region. Earlier, there were protests but now, NHSRCL is getting more and more consent letters. The corporation is counseling the villagers and the farmers are being offered a fair price, the senior NHSRCL official added.