Getting Back on Track

By Meena Menon

Part III of VI,
Cover Story December Sanctuary Asia

Every morning, large crowds struggle to get into the local trains to Dahanu. Commuters can also see a number of long-distance trains whizz past. Most of these are bound for Ahmedabad (76 trains run between Mumbai and Ahmedabad) and the general compartments are packed and overflowing. When I heard about the proposed bullet train project, my first thought was of the plight of ordinary commuters. I believe the ticket cost will be around Rs. 3,000, an unaffordable amount for most.  

With climate change moving into higher gear, communities living in the tribal-dominated Palghar district will be unfairly victimised as they stand to lose the most land for the project, nearly 280 hectares. The Social Impact Assessment (SIA) in 2018 records that approximately 35 per cent of the 14,884 affected households fall in the vulnerable category. About 14 per cent of the project-affected are illiterate and only about 12 per cent have graduate degrees. Agriculture is the mainstay, and about 14 per cent have incomes less than Rs 5,000, whereas most earn in the range of Rs 5,000-10,000 per month. 

There is a dearth of decent hospitals in the area and most of the poor in Palghar district prefer to go to Silvassa or Gujarat for medical services. In a bitter irony, this Independence Day, the National High-Speed Rail Corporation Ltd. (NHSRCL) donated an ambulance to the civil surgeon at Palghar to “uplift” the health facilities in the tribal areas of Dahanu and Talasari. No doubt a useful measure, but people need affordable and accessible healthcare, not a solitary ambulance. 

The bullet train is one of the linear projects passing through the eco-fragile area of Dahanu taluka, where a port at Vadhvan, the Mumbai Delhi freight corridor, and other ‘developmental’ proposals are in the pipeline. A 500 MW thermal power plant is already located in Dahanu, despite opposition. There has been no cumulative environmental impact assessment of these projects. The SIA for the bullet train was belated, and the public hearings were based on an outdated report from 2010. The MoEFCC has been conspicuously quiet, and activists have pointed out the lack of transparency and the flouting of Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) strict environment and transparency guidelines. 

Local communities want efficient public transport, of course, and also better roads, clean water, and sustainable livelihoods. Yet, though entire Gram Sabhas have opposed the bullet train project, people have been “persuaded” individually to give up their land. Many adivasis in this region have not even been granted rights to their land. There is a certain novelty to a high-speed train but, as Soumya Dutta, member advisory board, UN Climate Technology Centre and Network, argues, it certainly doesn’t save energy. The increased velocity means that the amount of energy used will multiply and there is no justification for an investment of Rs 1.10 lakh crore. Even today, nearly 68 per cent of India’s energy comes from coal, so it is clear that clean energy is not going to be the primary power source for the bullet train. And, of course, the higher the speed, the greater the carbon footprint.

Equally worrying, the alignment passes through forests and farmlands, and will adversely impact a large mangrove area to accommodate the station near Thane. As with so many projects designed before the true import of our climate crisis was known to planners, the high-speed train comes at a huge environmental cost that has not been properly assessed. In my view, high speed trains, symbols of modern progress, are not to be dismissed in toto, but such initiatives must wait until India’s more pressing, very basic transport infrastructure is in place before opting for ventures that only an elite few will ever use, leaving the rest to pay an unacceptably heavy price. 

Solutions that deliver both infrastructure and equity require investments in public transport, climate resilience and the creation of jobs, livelihoods and relief for those currently on the lowest rungs of national developmental priorities. Solutions and options that are viable, just and deal effectively with the looming threat of climate change need to be at the top of our national agenda to put our nation back on track.

What Needs to be Done

First: Resurrect and implement the forgotten report of the Expert Group for Modernisation of the Indian Railways in 2012. This involved a plan to invest Rs. 5,60,000 crores over five years to improve the falling circle of diminishing efficiency, improving safety standards and enhance the railway’s share of India’s freight and passenger traffic. 

Second: Review the idea of spending INR 1.10 lakh crore, of which 81 per cent is sought as a loan from the JICA, for a very small 508 km. sector rail alignment. This stretch already has a glut of train and air services and is, additionally, well connected by road. 

Third: Conduct a detailed study by experts of the cumulative impact of so many projects in Palghar district and eco-fragile Dahanu taluka, which already has a coal-based thermal power plant, to understand the repercussions of change of land use, and have public hearings based on updated data to increase people’s participation.

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