Activists Protest Bullet Train on Environmental Grounds, Say 80,000 Trees Will Be Cut

The National Alliance of People's Movements has also raised questions about the ridership forecast and the increased interest rate for repaying the loan taken for the project.

New Delhi: Raising serious environmental concerns over the bullet train project, a coalition of organisations has highlighted the fact that about 80,000 trees in reserved forests and mangroves will be cut down to make way for the high-speed corridor.

Terming this a “clear climate-negative action” on the part of the government, the civil society group has questioned its economic viability and sought the rollback of the project.

In addition, the group has also raised questions about the ridership forecast and the increased interest rate for the heavy loan repayment of the project.

Opposing the land acquisition for the project, the organisations – the Bhumi Adhikar Andolon, Gujarat Khedut Samaj, Kashtakari Sangathana, Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti – have been resisting the bullet train in different parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra and elsewhere.

Questioning the need for the bullet train, the NAPM in a report, ‘Bullet Train: A People’s Critique’, has highlighted the gaping holes in the feasibility study of the Mumbai Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR). Though the feasibility study conducted by the Railways is quite detailed, four key chapters of the report are missing.

The missing chapters (12 to 15) contain details on project cost, implementation plan, financing options and most importantly, economic and financial analysis. These chapters could have shed some light on the calculation of costs and estimated direct/indirect benefits of the project.

The NAPM has stated that after repeated attempts to retrieve the missing data through Right to Information queries, the concerned authority simply cited some secrecy reason – that might affect business competition – to justify withholding this crucial information from the public.

Quoting the feasibility study, the report has stated that claims of a daily ridership forecast of 40,000 passengers in the year 2023 is ridiculously optimistic if one goes by the present day traffic data used in the same study.

Describing the feasibility study’s prediction that from each mode of transport, 60% of passengers will switch to the bullet train from the first day of operation as “absurd”, the civil society report maintained that the travel demand forecast looks completely unreliable.

On the loan front, it said though Japan is lending Rs 88,000 crore at an interest rate of 0.1% and the payback period is 50 years with a moratorium of 15 years, the major concern is not about the interest but the relative strength of currencies – the Japanese yen and Indian rupee. As a much higher inflation economy than Japan, the Indian rupee is continuously becoming cheaper against the Japanese yen.

It is possible that in the 50-year loan repayment period, the Rs 88,000 crore loan would become three times more than the original loan amount, thereby putting a huge burden on the Indian economy, the report suggested.

Flagging the environmental aspect, the report said the proposed route will pass through areas which possibly have shallow aquifers.

The construction of digging the foundations for supporting pillars is likely to puncture some of these aquifers, leading to the loss of groundwater. Large-scale contamination of these aquifers and consequently the ground water sources is also highly likely.

This will have a severe impact on the lives of people critically dependent on the source for their daily needs, it said.

The key question is, to what extent will speed enhancement draw income of the richer class away from air travel and towards the railways? The report maintains that the traffic contributed by other modes of transport is even more difficult to convert.

Around 5,000 people travel by trains run by the Indian Railways, while another 15,000 people travel by personal automobiles between Mumbai and Ahmedabad daily, according to the feasibility study.

Comparing this to other countries, the report has stated that the viability of an Indian high speed rail experiment is quite bleak, as the Taiwan high speed rail had to be shut down because of low ridership – less than half of what was predicted.

Quoting the study by the scholars of IIM-Ahmedabad, which showed that 100 daily trips at full occupancy would be required at a fare of Rs 5,000 between Ahmedabad and Mumbai to make the bullet train financially viable, it said across the globe, transport services do not recover expenses through the fare-box alone.

The report pointed out that losing the forest would mean reduced carbon sequestration, along with the lost biodiversity and water retention contributions. Carbon sequestration is the process involved in carbon capture and the long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to mitigate or deter global warming.

The construction phase adds to the pollution and climate-threatening CO2 emissions, as mega-projects of these kinds employ massive amounts of energy-intensive machinery and energy-intensive construction practices, which mostly consume heavy diesel oil.

The high-speed rail corridor is largely to be built over a rural area with farms and forest. During the years of construction, huge amounts of fine dust and grime will adversely affect agriculture and horticulture, contaminate nearby water bodies and damage forest cover. The health of surrounding populations may also be under risk because of likely increase in the level of air pollution, the report says.

The NAPM has pointed out that even the high-level national transport development policy committee, set up by the government to formulate a long term national transport policy, had recommended that priority should be a semi-high speed rail (160-200kmph) and not the high speed rail.

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail corridor has 12 stations – Mumbai, Thane, Virar and Boisar in Maharashtra and Vapi, Bilmora, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad and Sabarmati in Gujarat.

Despite severe resistance to land acquisition for the project, preparatory measures are afoot for the 508 km MAHSR project estimated to cost Rs 1.1 lakh crore. The scheduled completion deadline is August 15, 2023. Talks are on to address the grievances of landowners and no efforts will be spared to resolve the issue, as land acquisition will take place with consent only, said a senior railway ministry official involved with the project.

Arun Kumar Das is a Delhi-based journalist. He can be contacted at akdas2005@gmail.com.