India is way behind China on investment in railway, including border infrastructure, says Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu , even as he defends the government’s delivery record in MoUs with other countries such as Japan, China and Korea
In terms of India’s ambitions abroad, where does the Indian Railways hope to grow?
We already have connectivity with Bangladesh and we would like to improve on that with more lines. Also with Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. The budget allocation for the North-East has increased dramatically just to take this in. Connecting to our neighbours is definitely a priority.
How much is competition with China an issue for you?
China has invested every year what we plan to invest in five years. Till 2014, when we came to power, they would invest in 6 months what we did in 5 years. We will now increase our investment to $142 billion over the next five years, and we are on track to do that, but that will still be nothing compared to China’s investment. China is way ahead of us in terms of railways investment. In any case, if India wants to have overall infrastructure of a good quality, we must step up railway infrastructure.
We are always constrained by the fact that the Finance Ministry will have limited resources, and won’t be able to give us more investment. So, for the first time we have looked at extra-budget resources. In the Finance Minister’s budget speech, he said they would allocate ₹1,31,000 crore for railways, of which the gross budgetary support is ₹55,000 crore. So the balance will come from extra-budget resources which is part of the Consolidated Fund of India. Finance ministry has told us to raise the funds ourselves, which we can do at a cheaper rate. The question you are asking is very valid, which is about China’s deep infrastructure spending which is much greater than ours.
Particularly when it comes to border infrastructure, given how Chinese railway comes right up to its frontiers with India in Tibet, along Arunachal Pradesh etc, how will the railways compete?
We are working closely with the Ministry of Defence on this and the MoD will take calls on what lines are important for them, and we will support them fully on all these strategic issues.
Do you think India would also consider linking up with the Chinese lines that are being laid for the OBOR (One Belt One Road) project for neighbourhood connectivity?
Again, physical connectivity can always be discussed by the Railways, but strategic issues go beyond that. So there has to be the larger perspective and the MEA and MoD will decide on these things. We, as the Ministry of Railways, would be able to implement their decisions. There is a plan to connect Asia on one side and Eurasia on the other…that is already a plan. But it’s not going to happen in a hurry since the investment required will be huge. But certain ideas are there: for example the plan to link to Myanmar by railway will take us to South-East Asia as well. Eventually though, our domestic agenda..., the huge backlog of investments in India itself will come first and will take years to cover. Whatever you see today in terms of problems in the Railways is a result of a lack of investment in the Railways for decades. It is inconceivable that we can solve the problem of decades in a few years.
You are the first Rail Minister of India to not present a Rail Budget. Do you feel bad about it?
If you look at my first two Budgets, this is a continuation of the same thing. It doesn’t matter as long as the Railways benefit.
What about the other end of the spectrum? The MoU for Ahmedabad-Mumbai rail has been signed at ₹97,000 crore, but it begs the question, couldn’t the money be spent on other areas where the Railways needs to spend?
Is that money available for other public service obligations, then? Will Japan give us this money for other projects?
Is it viable at all? The fact is that for such a short route you may need to charge over ₹3,000 per ticket which is more than the airfare at present…
This is what the feasibility study by NITI Aayog says, you should ask them. JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency) has also accepted the study.
Another issue for these international agencies is delivery, particularly on land acquisition delays. On this project, Maharashtra refused to give land identified for the train terminals, for example. How do you plan to work around this?
That was not a problem from the Railways side. We have reached out to them and now Maharashtra and Gujarat governments are discussing this issue and they are on board to find land. There are issues but we are able to solve them.