Try connecting any two points in the country with a railway line that should take the shortest or the most convenient route, and you can rest assured that others in the vicinity will want the line to veer in their direction (though not as close as their backyard). So it should not come as a surprise that the minister for commerce and industry, Kamal Nath, who represents the Chhindwara constituency in central Madhya Pradesh, should want the proposed Delhi-Mumbai high-speed rail freight track to pass through points in Western MP as well.
Mr Nath is going down a well-worn track. In the US, whenever the government gets ready to spend on a project, the legislators who have to approve that spending demand that a fraction be spent in their states or constituencies. The same thing happens in Europe, not to mention Japan. The Americans have coined a name for this game: pork barrel politics. The reference is to a barrel in which pork used to be kept. The practice of what in India is called “behti Ganga mein haath dhona” (washing your hands in the flowing Ganga) has honourable precedents. Or, as the late Indira Gandhi might have said, it is a “global phenomenon”.
Like corruption, to which she was referring, pork barreling is an inherent risk in government projects, which is why a new breed of bloggers has come into existence, called “pork busters”. Their effort is to try and eliminate “pork”, or the diversion of funds for pet projects.
Given the record of action under the law on the right to information, India needs something like that.
The line for the freight corridor may or may not get twisted into strange shapes by political pulls and pressures, but even without that uncertainty, it has several unanswered questions. The questions begin with the standard ones on commercial and economic logic. With economic growth at around 8.5 per cent, commercial returns are assured between most major hubs of economic activity, especially since 70 per cent of the freight carried by the railways now comprises energy shuffling. Indeed, it is this that gives the oil companies a reason to invest in the high-speed track.
The question of whether private investors will be allowed to do so too has not yet been decided, but given the government’s thrust towards public-private partnerships, it is more than likely that they will be invited to take part. One issue for resolution is that concerning feeder tracks: since the railways own and control them, they will be able to control the freight on the high-speed track as well.
Tariffs will also be a problem as the railways’ own goods trains will compete with privately-owned trains. Past experience has shown that the railways have preferred to divert traffic away from the Konkan railway, and on to lines that they fully own even if that meant taking a longer route, merely because they did not want to lose or share any revenue. It is easy to see how these and other difficulties will crop up when the freight corridor gets going. If there is foresight, these and other such problems should be anticipated now and solutions worked out before work begins, not after money has been sunk and critical choices made.