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The global culture and politics of India’s bullet trains

Daily O
By Professor  

Last year, when considerations and plans of bullet trains in India were at a fairly nascent stage, Bibek Debroy, the noted economist wrote: “When trains and stations become desirable again, we might have a murder mystery with the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train as a setting.” His observation here was from a literary vantage. We will need more of that cultural element in our discourses on the bullet train, and what it augurs for India, in the coming months.

The foundation stone of the first bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai is all set to be laid, next month, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. India is probably in line for not only a cultural but also political transformation, given its present diplomatic relations with China, on the one hand, and that of China and Japan, on the other.

The war of bullets

Shinkansen — the Japanese bullet train network — was envisioned in the 1930s. The project was given the nickname, dangan ressha, literarily meaning “bullet trains”. Plans of extending the railway network to Beijing and Singapore were abandoned near the end of World War II, due to the economic aggravations and political turmoil, not to mention the twin disasters at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 72 years ago, to the day.

The world’s first bullet train went into service on October 1, 1964. It was the veritable sign of a phoenix emerging from the cave of its own ashes, after the huge moral and political setback of the war. Mutsutake Otsuka, Chairman of the East Japan Railway Company, once recalled the event, valorising the imperial army’s peacetime activities in no uncertain terms: “[f]ormer engineers of the imperial armed forces had pledged to devote their expertise to peace. Their nineteen years of determination and research [since August 1945] gave birth to the world’s fastest train.”

The Indian government’s announcement of fast-tracking the bullet train network comes at a time both historic and strategic. Seventy-two years after apocalypse, Japan has an entirely privatised railway network. India, with a subsidy of $6 million, ranks the third in the world in rail subsidies — after China and the European Union — which is a heavy price to pay at this stage. Will privatisation of new railway networks be welcome in India, by the public at large, instead of low interest loans from partner countries? Also, will India’s rhetoric of military valour yield to the valour of the armed forces in peacetime infrastructural development?

As India enters into its eighth decade of independence, debates run rife among Indian millennials about what an octogenarian India will look like, in terms of its industry, employment generation and also mobility. India’s first bullet train — Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail (MAHSR) — may well be the forerunner of all the three. Japan’s soft loan of Rs 1 lakh crore (at a mini interest rate of 0.1 per cent) is on track to recreate PM Modi’s trailblazing bullet train journey, which he took from Tokyo to Kobe, in November 2016, along with PM Abe. The question is: how will China react?

Overtaking the Dragon

India’s last announcement of a major railway development, the Manali-Bilaspur-Leh railway network, came at a time when Indo-China hostilities over Doklam were about to make headlines. Expected to rise to an altitude of 3,300 metres, the railway network is said to surpass the highest railways in the world, that is China’s Qinghai-Tibet railway. Two weeks into the development, the Pakistani army’s ceasefire in Kashmir was reported with speculations of China’s participation in the proxy war. Among others, Mehbooba Mufti, the J&K chief minister, had raised the alarm.

Around the same time, China moved for a naval base at Djibouti, in Africa’s horn, to mark the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary. The mission was accomplished earlier this month. Located near the narrow strip of sea between Africa and the Middle East Asia, China’s naval base is not merely a cause for India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean, but also for India’s potential allies, United States, Japan and France — countries that have military bases in Djibouti.

India’s proposed bullet network is said to operate at a speed of 320 km/hr. While that is way behind the Shanghai-Maglev Train, the world’s fastest commercial train at 430 km/hr, it may just be a reason to provoke another move by China, as part of its expansionist Belt and Road Initiative, a policy of economic militarisation that dreams of joining seventy countries from Asia, Africa, West Asia and Europe. For, not only has China established naval control over the seadoor to Africa, it has also built a railway in Ethiopia, out of sheer “altruism”, or so it says. And this line has been extended to Djibouti.

Just the way China is changing the internal and the external foreign policy dynamics of Africa, we must be alert to its game-changing strategies in Asia. It will be interesting to see China’s next move in Pakistan. Is a bullet-train on the cards, for Pakistani friends, given the country’s volatile political climate after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif? Or will China simply keep up the hostilities at Doklam and its proxy militarisation in Pakistan occupied Kashmir?

India’s first bullet train, the MAHSR network, has a long way to go — the proposed timeline is six years — before turning into a reality. This period may be enough for PM Modi, and the ministry of railways, to keep millennial eyeballs in the star-struck mode.

But it is also a long time for China to plan several steps ahead in this race to infrastructural militarisation. India with its declared ties with United States, Israel and now Japan, is already a faction.

China acknowledges nonetheless. Are we in for an oral literature, culture and rhetoric of wartime propaganda? Or shall we, like Japan, build an army of industrial and economic gallantry?