Dream projects, involving high technology and massive investments, are not necessarily in conflict with the fundamental tasks of development. In fact, they are often proved to be great investments for future generations. The countries that made massive investments in road and rail infrastructure, after the end of the Second World War, reaped tremendous benefits and emerged as global leaders. Japan’s famous bullet train introduced in 1964 is one such example of how big dreams can have a transformative impact on the country’s economy. India will hopefully have its first bullet train running between its commercial capital Mumbai and Ahmedabad from August 15, 2022, if the ambitious Rs 1.10 lakh crore Japanese-assisted project proceeds as per the plan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe launched the works at Ahmedabad, marking a major leap of faith for India in taking up gigantic projects. The bullet train, covering a 508-km stretch at an average speed of 250 km per hour, will reduce the travel time by four hours and will pass through the country’s longest tunnel of 21 km, of which 7 km will be under the sea. The project will not only demonstrate India’s capability to build high-tech projects but also usher in a new era of cooperation with Japan at a time when China is flexing its muscles in a show of hegemonic assertion in the region. Japan is funding 81% of the project, amounting to Rs. 88,000 crores in soft loans at a low interest rate of 0.1%, repayable in 50 years.
Questions are being raised over the desirability of bullet trains when the basic problems of the Railways–creaky infrastructure, outdated tracks, congestion, poor safety record, inadequate passenger amenities and operational inefficiency–are yet to be fixed. However, the commitment to address these inadequacies, which are largely legacy issues, should not mean blocking the dreams about new projects involving advanced technologies. In fact, similar scepticism was expressed when Delhi Metro project was undertaken. The debate over bullet trains should not be reduced to straightjacket binaries and projection of technology as anti-poor. The high speed connectivity will boost growth, increase productivity, create jobs and bring in advanced technologies. It has the potential to transform the economy of the region and could be a game-changer in terms of inter-urban connectivity, establishing India as a market for such technologies. . However, the bullet train project faces a plethora of challenges, with land acquisition being the major one. The high-speed rail fares will be much higher than the existing first class AC train tickets and even air fares. Working out a tariff structure that is fair to the travellers without adversely affecting the viability of the project could be a big challenge.