In keeping with the BJP’s election manifesto, and the campaign pronouncements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first address by President Pranab Mukherjee to the joint session of Parliament has kept the focus clearly on growth and development of infrastructure. While a major programme for the development of the national highways was launched during the Vajpayee government’s tenure, Mr. Modi has outlined a significant plan for the expansion of the railway system in the country. Of course, there is an equal emphasis on reviving the pace of development of the stalled highway projects, as also on embarking on port-led development along India’s long coastline. The government recently emphasised the need to strengthen safety and security on the Railways, and taking the Kakodkar committee report on safety and funding seriously. With the slowdown in the economy, and the unwillingness of successive Railway Ministers to raise fares, not much could be achieved on this front over the last few years. One major initiative during the past decade of the UPA involved the conceptualisation of western and eastern railway corridors. Preparatory work has been launched on the western corridor linking Delhi and Mumbai, with Japanese technology and funding.

Now the President’s address has outlined a ‘diamond quadrilateral project of high speed trains.’ Perhaps modelled on the golden quadrilateral national highways programme, this project could provide special high-speed corridors to link the four main metros. Mr. Modi has hinted at enlisting the support of Japan and China in fast-tracking special and hi-tech Railway projects. Both Japan and China have the experience and the technology to operate bullet trains. High-speed trains could be the answer to the congestion along the highways and slowing road speeds. But it calls for huge investments and consequently high fares. Other concepts mentioned in the address relate to ‘agri-rail networks’ for the quick movement of perishable commodities, and the expansion of the rail network in the northeast. In addition to going in for these dedicated corridors and high-speed trains, the Indian Railways must get its act together on safety and security on the rails — both in terms of technology and human resources. Safety is of paramount importance, given the magnitude of the operations and the more than a million passengers carried every day. It is hoped that these dream projects do not remain on paper. The new Railway Minister, D.V. Sadananda Gowda, has his job cut out for him. He needs the full backing of Nitin Gadkari, who oversees the infrastructure portfolios, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, and of course Prime Minister Modi, to get started on the ambitious projects.

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