India’s $17bn bullet train project halted by local protests
Local protests are hindering Indian plans to acquire land for a new bullet train that has been backed by a $17bn loan from Japan.
Protests, backed by local politicians, have flared up in recent months against attempts to secure sections of a 108km stretch, which is around one-fifth of the entire bullet train corridor connecting Mumbai with Ahmedabad, the largest commercial city in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
The project was first approved in late 2015 after Japan offered the massive loan to India at less than one per cent interest.
The project represents an attempt to modernise part of India’s aging railways; construction on the new line started in September 2017.
Modi’s office is now monitoring the project week-to-week, as Indian officials seek to reassure Tokyo that the hurdles can be overcome with local opposition through intense negotiations with sapota and mango growers in the western state of Maharashtra.
“I’ve worked hard for three decades to develop this plantation and they are asking me to hand over this land,” sapota farmer Dashrat Purav, 62, said as he showed his orchard in the town of Palghar, a three-hour-drive north of Mumbai.
“I haven’t worked hard to surrender land for the project. I did that for my children.”
Purav said he would sell his land only if at least one of his two unemployed sons was promised a government job.
Protests against land acquisitions are common in India, where tens of millions of farmers till small holdings. A planned $44bn refinery to be run by a consortium including Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producer, is also struggling to secure land in Maharashtra.
“Land acquisition for any project is complex in India,” said Dhananjay Kumar, spokesman for the National High Speed Rail Corp Ltd (NHSRCL) that is overseeing the project. “Here also we are facing difficulty because of so much resistance.”
Failure to procure the bullet train land by the deadline could delay the Japanese loan.
A spokeswoman for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is providing the loan, said that India must create relocation plans for local residents and make them public in order to enter into a loan agreement covering the main part of the bullet train project.
“It is possible that it takes time to sign a contract, as India takes proper and careful measures in line with JICA’s guidelines for environmental and social considerations,” she said.
To assuage Japan’s concerns, Indian officials have sought a meeting this month with transport ministry officials in Tokyo. India wants the project’s completion target to be advanced by a year to 2022, the 75th year of India’s independence.