Criticism of the bullet train project shows our fear of scale is like mass hypochondria, where we fear real medicine and drift on with dainty, sweet, ineffectual pills.
Homeopathy, a relatively modern therapy, was invented in Germany by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. It’s been hailed, questioned, researched, rejected and mocked as a pseudoscience in developed countries since.
Only in India is it still a mainstream therapy. Every city, big or small, has its homeopaths and usually a most trusted one called “Dr Banerji”. The fad is nearly dead in its homeland, Germany. In India, it thrives and also gets sizeable Central government funding. The ‘H’ in the ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) stands for homeopathy. It is dangerous in our country to make fun of it. I bet some abuse and outrage is on my way already for coming this far.
There has to be a reason why Indians so adore homeopathy. Is it because it was designed for the pucca hypochondriac? At the first whiff of a health doubt, you start chewing those sugary, spirit-flavoured pills, often for months. You feel no effect of the drug, but in the course of time, you might believe you are better, even cured, and apparently with no side effects. Any stronger medicine, surgery, we dread.
Are we then a country with a homeopathic state of mind? Just that it seems to pervade our thinking in other areas too. Especially governance, and more specifically infrastructure-building. Do it in small, harmless doses, nothing bitter, sharp or bloody.
You have to mention a project of any size and a million jump at your throats predicting apocalypse. The foundation stone laying ceremony of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe this week evoked many such responses. Most emphatic was from the Congress party’s erudite lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal, he said, left India in economic ruin, famines and starvation. The bullet train will run, he added, but the rest you can imagine. Immediately, in fact, I would now worry for New Delhi’s Shahjahan Road.
More such came from elsewhere: can India afford this, is it sustainable, will it make economic sense and, the criticism made with the greatest passion, that a country could not afford such a toy when it had 17,000 unmanned crossings and trains were derailing. Never mind that the same people would then complain that the top average speed of our trains hadn’t changed much since 1971, which is a fact.
Most interesting is the economic argument, that with air tickets so cheap, who’d pay for the bullet train. This totally discounts the fact that the only reason air fares have fallen is that privatisation increased capacity and supply. Changing aviation from an embarrassingly incompetent and expensive state monopoly to free markets has been a bold and successful reform. It has led to a spectacular democratisation of air travel. By the way, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport had again, in 2013, opposed plans to privatise six other major airports. Speaking on its behalf, now CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury had said, “we’re totally against privatisation and transfer of assets to private entities”.
Criticism of bullet trains by the same lot now conveniently presumes airfares will never rise and bullet train fares won’t fall, with economies of scale. Nor would they lead to a boom in land values and urbanisation. Or, that the real, virtuous switch may be from carbon-spewing cars on the highways. Stay within your means. Even the softest 50-year debt could ruin our future. It means nothing to the crores of our poor commuters and therefore a moral hazard.
This farce plays out whenever a project of scale is planned. The outrage, when E. Sreedharan began building the Konkan Railway and Nitin Gadkari as a young transport minister in Maharashtra (1995-99 when he was 38) planned the Mumbai-Pune expressway was similar. It will devastate the environment and government finances. Now you can’t imagine a world without it. And one of India’s first, albeit short BOT (Build, Operate, Transfer) expressways, is the inspiration for a mass highway-building campaign nationwide. Toll fully pays for the project. Yet, the real benefit has come elsewhere. The expressway has made Pune, a metro-sized sibling for saturated and tired Mumbai, and a magnet for IT/innovation/new economy. It has generated tens of billions of dollars of wealth. Konkan Railway is the pride of India and the lifeline of Marxist Kerala.
In the past, it was the Planning Commission that ensured any notion of scale and ambition was squashed before it could get off the file stage. There’s a real (not apocryphal) story of Yojana Bhawan dissing the Maruti project as a pipedream as their “projections” showed Indians buying no more than 50,000 cars per year. Hindustan Motors and Premier were already providing these, so why Maruti? It was wisely overruled. Today, India is a global automobile power. In fiscal 2016-17, it bought more than 30 lakh and exported 7.5 lakh passenger vehicles.
Check out the debate over the privatisation of big metro airports. Besides the usual Leftist mass-mourning over privatisation of state “assets” and thereby disembowelling their unions, there was talk of feasibility, over-capacity, scarce-resources. Today, Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru are already overcrowded and furiously expanding. Our aviation boom –and rock-bottom air fares – would not have happened without these. Even the Aerocity, the new hospitality district near Delhi airport, dismissed as a white elephant, is buzzing. The utterly idiotic CAG report on Delhi airport privatisation, which made a buzz, has faded away. Many similar arguments were used when the Delhi Metro was planned. Today, 11 cities are building metros and Delhi is completing its fourth phase. Footnote: transport expert and IIT professor Dinesh Mohan had said in 2002: “I don’t think the Metro will be able to survive till 2021 when all 5 phases are completed.”
There are also instances where the minimalists, or the homeopaths won. Mumbai’s sea-link was abandoned one-third built, just from Bandra to Worli, dumping Versova-Bandra and then Worli-Chowpatty that would have become its north-south jugular. New options have been caught in analysis-paralysis. In Delhi, the elevated east-west Barapulla corridor (caught in Commonwealth Games maelstrom) stopped halfway as the government lost the nerve to finish it. It is being taken westwards again now, seven years later, to realise its full potential.
Which brings us to that living showpiece of Indian mis-governance, the capital’s Rao Tula Ram strip which was built as a two-lane bottleneck connecting the ends of an eight-lane highway to the Delhi airport. One excuse was to save money as ” traffic projections” didn’t justify it. An unspoken reason also was that one particular privileged and powerful caste group, fronted by former President R. Venkataraman, also got a promise from the government, on the fear of the Lord, not to disturb the rock on which their popular Swami Malai Mandir was built. Within a few years now, it’s being rebuilt and expanded.
The Delhi-Jaipur and Delhi-Amritsar sections of national highways are being six-laned when four-laning had barely ended. The 8-lane Delhi-Gurgaon expressway was choked even before it was completed and government “planners” had rejected the idea that it be built with 12-lanes instead. The result is, all our infrastructure is constantly under construction. Planned on a lower scale, for creating shortages, and then expanded at added cost.
Planning by homeopathy therefore, isn’t harmless. It only makes the disease worse. The best thing about the bullet train is that the Japanese will control the project and the money. And whatever your quibbles with the Modi government, even its obsession with gigantism of statues, you can’t say that it has the chronic Indian fear of scale and speed. It’s another matter that it has enhanced its sarkari commitment to homeopathy.