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India's Japan-funded bullet train project risks delays

High-speed rail link under scrutiny by new government in western state

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front center, is flanked on the right by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two watch a video demonstration of India's first bullet train in Sept. 2017. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

NEW DELHI -- India's ambitious bullet train project based on Japan's high-speed shinkansen may hit a roadblock with the change of government in the western state of Maharashtra.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is no longer ruling the state, which went to the polls in October and saw a new ruling alliance come to power, a troubling sign for the project.

The new government, which assumed power in November, has expressed reservations over the high-speed rail link that connects Maharashtra's capital of Mumbai with Ahmedabad, the commercial hub of neighboring Gujarat.

Despite emerging as the single largest party in state polls, the BJP could not secure a majority as the allied Shiv Sena party parted ways over differences on power-sharing, instead joining hands with the opposition.

Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra's new chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said on Dec. 1 that his government would review the bullet train project along with other infrastructure works initiated by the previous administration. "We will then take a decision on what needs to be done on a priority basis," he said.

The push behind the 1.1 trillion rupee ($15 billion) project came from Modi and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe -- who attended a ceremonial groundbreaking event in September 2017 -- with 81% of construction costs to be financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency at an interest rate of only 0.1%. Repayments, spread out over 50 years, will begin 15 years after the loan is received.

Scheduled for completion in December 2023, the high-speed link has a maximum speed of 320 kph and services 12 stations. It will cut the current eight-hour, 508-km journey between Ahmedabad and Mumbai to under three hours. About 156 km of the rail line is to be built in Maharashtra.

Facing stiff opposition from farmers and tribal people whose land is needed for the project, Thackeray's party had objected to the high-speed railway project even when it was part of the BJP-led coalition.

After bolting from the BJP, Shiv Sena continues to back the farmers in its new coalition.

In June, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal informed Parliament that there had been "a few agitations [against land acquisition] limited to some localized areas." He added that all efforts had been made to satisfy concerns over compensation so that people affected by the project would give their consent.

A month later, he said that 548 hectares of land out of the required 1,380 had been acquired.

The state government's plan to review the rail link comes ahead of Abe's visit to India for a summit with Modi. The two leaders are likely to discuss progress in what has become one of Modi's pet projects. While India has not officially revealed the dates, Abe announced on Tuesday that he would visit on Dec. 15-17.

Analysts say the state's decision to review the mega project did not come as a surprise, but few feel it will be scrapped.

Both Shiv Sena and the allied Nationalist Congress Party had been opposing the bullet train even before the state polls, ostensibly "to gain the votes of farmers who would likely be affected by the Shinkansen project," said Indo-Japanese expert Shamshad Ahmad Khan.

But Khan also feels "a complete rollback of the bullet train project is unlikely," though it could become a contentious issue between the federal and state governments. "The state government may likely bargain [by asking] to share the financial burden for the project and [seek] better compensation for affected farmers to fulfill campaign promises," Khan said.

New Delhi has set up the National High-Speed Rail Corp. to oversee the project, holding a 50% stake in the company, with 25% going to the state governments of Maharashtra and the BJP-held Gujarat.

The Shiv Sena-led ruling alliance in Maharashtra, however, does not appear as keen to expedite the project as its predecessors.

"If you can travel between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in just one hour [by air] at a cost of only 3,500 rupees, why would you not do that?" Deepak Kesarkar, a Shiv Sena official, told a local news outlet last week.

Tickets for the bullet train covering the same route would reportedly be set at around 3,000 rupees. "We are not opposing anything but our first priority is the farmers," Kesarkar said.

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