Back to the Future
I bet Anil Ambani didn’t get the Rafale deal because he submitted his tender in triplicate. Nevertheless, while the Rafale story is — inevitably — about corruption, I want to point out an even more dangerous trend towards monumental development.
Consider the high speed rail (HSR) deal. We have known for a while that the current prime minister has had a long and fruitful relationship with Japan. One might even go so far as saying that the deal was handed over to Japan because they wanted to prevent corruption in the wake of this deal.
As a result, Indian railway train drivers will be trained in Japanese and will have to learn Japanese as a prerequisite for being a driver on these HSR lines.
That’s not the only problem. The line will be built in standard guage (because that’s how the Japanese run their Shinkansen lines), which means that these HSR trains are incompatible with the existing broad guage system.
Which means that new and expensive infrastructure such as platforms and junctions will have to built for multiple gauges and therefore fewer of those will be built. Which, in turn, will make it hard to make HSR stations hubs for people who might want to travel from their smaller town to a bigger city with an HSR compatible station.
Then there’s the final and most important question of cost: this HSR line is being built at about $30,000,000 (thirty million!) per kilometre — $15 billion for a 508 km line from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. Meanwhile, Indian railways builds its new electrified lines at $123,000 per km, i.e., about 240 times cheaper.
I don’t think it’s corruption. It’s because our idea of development is about monumental dreams, of creating Singapores and Shanghais and Spaceships. A future which has to privatised because public sector enterprises like the Railways (or HAL in the case of Rafale) can’t be trusted with this new ambition.
Even that would be understandable if it was a future facing dream. Instead it’s a dream from the New York world fair of 1964 being passed off as 21st century Mera Bharat Mahaan. Back to the Future indeed.