Will mangoes derail PM Modi's ambitious Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project?

Last Updated: Wed, Jun 13, 2018 17:29 hrs
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi nd Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pose in front of Shinkansen bullet train before heading for Hyogo prefecture at Tokyo Station

While the Summers may have receded, the mango season and its fervor seems far from over.

Mango, one among India's most exported fruits, and a delicacy on the platters of several hi-profile dignitaries seems to be haunting the prospects of India's flagship Bullet Train. The very project that saw Narendra Modi shake hands with Shinzo Abe, his counterpart from Japan.

Apparently, there are prospects that PM Modi's ambitious bullet train may get to miss its first deadline, in December. This is according to several officials in the know.

The bullet train that was promised to ease commuting time between Mumbai and Ahmedabad has been struck with protests. Most of the protesters are farmers, largely orchard owners growing mango and Sapota.

A delay in procurement of land has led the Prime Minister's Office to personally monitor the developments on a week-to-week basis. The PMO is also reassuring officials from Tokyo that a deal could be worked out with the farmers of Maharashtra.

A Reuters report quotes distressed farmers willing to part away with their hard-toiled land only in the event if they could foresee economic benefits. Some of the economic benefits include employment for their sons and also a good price for their lands.

A failure to meet the December deadline to procure land, may lead to delay in disbursal of soft-loans from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government run body which is reviewing the bullet train project in India with the state-run Indian Railways.

While JICA agreed to fund 81% of the total project cost or Rs 88,087 crore ($13 billion) through a 50-year loan (interest rate of 0.1% with a moratorium on repayments up to 20 years), the remaining cost will be borne by the state governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

20% of the components used on the corridor will be supplied by Japan, and locally manufactured in India.

Indian officials are expected to meet their counterparts as well as JICA's officials in Tokyo. The meeting would be likely to assuage JICA officials.

According to official sources, India is keen to start operations on the flagship project by 2023, and a delay in acquiring funds is likely to derail the commencement date of the bullet train.

The project is an ambitious and a critical one for PM Modi. Firstly the project is integral to his talks of Make-in-India. A smooth implementation of the project is likely to increase the demand for jobs, and further offer the central government sufficient ammunition to counter its critics.

The National High-Speed Rail Corporation limited is overseeing the project, and is also corresponding with the government to complete the task of acquiring land from farmers. The Indian Railways has also shown interest in offering funds from its own welfare funds towards building schools and community halls for the farmers.

So far, the government has suggested its preparedness to acquire land by paying a 25% premium in addition to the existing market value, according to government officials. The government is also offering resettlement dues of 500,000 rupees ($7,409) or 50 percent of the land value, whichever is higher.

In the case of the Bullet train, farmers and local politicians from Palghar, a town through which the train project would pass were reluctant to fall for those prices.

Land acquisition has been a tricky proposition for several development projects.

A $44 billion refinery to be run by a consortium of backers including Saudi Aramco, the world's biggest oil producer, was reportedly struggling to secure land in Maharashtra.

Even as Palghar observes elections next year the issue of farmers has been picked up by the opposition. Some called the bullet train a wasteful spend, adding that the money spent on a bullet train could be used better in upgrading the rail infrastructure.

With the elections nearing in 2019, and farmers from the belt threatening a hunger strike, there is speculation on whether Modi's pet project would meet its deadline. Nilam Gorhe, from the Shiv Sena, a regional party in Maharashtra was quoted saying that protests will be intensified in the coming weeks.

Besides political concerns there is speculation that there could be environmental concerns too.

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