Home Where One is Not Fun: Bullet Trains and Great Power Projection

Where One is Not Fun: Bullet Trains and Great Power Projection



Lack of techno-nationalism and leadership in front end technology has long been a pain in India’s great power ambitions. Therefore, the Mumbai - Ahmedabad bullet train project with the Japanese techno - financial help should come as good news. However, the debate over huge budgetary projection of over 1 lakh crore is misplaced and needs to be contexualised with India’s strategic deficit about high end technology horses.


As a rising great power, India desperately needs what Nandan Nilekani calls as ‘frictionless highways’to boost economic growth and empowerment. The bullet trains have the capacity to bring India closer with a chain of such trains criss-crossing the major business and passenger corridors of the country. Imagine a scenario where one reaches Delhi from Mumbai in five hours and Kolkata to Delhi in similar time. In an ideal scenario, most parts of the country should be reachable in twelve hours and this is possible only when bullet trains supported by semi-high speed trains emerge as a ‘popular’means of travel.


One would need to study the Chinese experiment with the bullet trains to see how great powers factor these fast running goliaths to propel their power projection. China got serious about bullet trains only around the end of the last century but has since made tremendous progress spraying around 22000 kms of bullet train tracks linking its major cities. It has also started trial runs with maglev trains and is likely to operationalize them by year end. The most notable thing about fast train development in China is the reliance of indigenous technology with very little input coming from other countries. Having established its credentials on fast train technology, China is partnering with foreign countries and is running goods train to UK, Russia and continental Europe. In fact, China is also conceptualizing an (over) ambitious plan to extend its bullet train outreach to the North American content through the Bering Sea.


In contemporary international relations, bullet trains have emerged as an invisible force multiplier. First, it enables mass movement of goods and passenger traffic from one corner of the country to the other, thereby effectively enhancing the sense of nationalism. Regional tendencies and secessionist attitude are likely to give way to a homogenous national sentiment since regional imbalances are likely to come down.  This would propel and consolidate the feeling of nationhood[G1] . Second, better means of communication, available at affordable rates, has the potential to propel diffusion of innovation and reduce economics of uncertainty in almost every aspect of socio-economic life. It is a fact that socio-economic life is much better in north-western and southern India than in northern and eastern part that are still laggards. Bullet trains could act as a means of convergence and enable level playing field for all regions. Third, better convergence would lead to the rise of one nation, one market since the physical barriers through break journeys and slow means would come down. It would also induce demand aggregation and scale of economy in the long term and would make the bullet trains a viable means of journey since there is a huge demand for faster means of communication and the competition from aviation and roadways sector.


It is a pity that India has started thinking of bullet trains after five decades of its innovation and first operation. While the initial railway revolution in late nineteenth century unified the nation under the Britishers, the greatly desired second revolution would take considerable time that would further reduce geographical distance. Primarily, it is because railways have been under Government control enjoying a complete monopoly over operations. Business revolutions have not taken place in organisations running under the Government since there is little competition, challenge and scope for innovation. The communication and IT revolution took place only when the official clutches like license raj were released. Unless the railways take bold steps like corporatization as suggested by the BibekDebroy Committee, it is doubtful if the status quo will change for better.


Cost is another factor that cast shadows on future of bullet trains in India. Bullet trains are being apprehended as a loss making business model. Given its high capital cost, the apprehensions are quite justified, more so since Indian railways have been suffering from recurring losses. However, there are successful business models on operating bullet trains in many countries. That needs to be studied for customized adoption in India. Also, if futuristic platforms are opened for private sector players to invest, a profit model would emerge on its own. Government would not have an amount of 10-15 lakh crore rupees to invest and a sustainable model of bullet trains operations in India is possible only through private sector participation.


In resorting to bullet trains, India has an opportunity to overcome its image of a tortoise and explore another tool for smart power projection. Therefore, instead of debating the viability of bullet trains, we must support the hypothesis ‘the more, the better’and debate on its sustainability.


Note: The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views are strictly personal.






















 [G1]I personally think it is far fetched!! The costs of travelling in the bullet train is unlikely to make it available, economically, as a form of mass transportation to the common man, at least in any foreseeable future. So the “sense of nationalism” this form of development will propel/instill, as perceived by the author, will be limited to the feeling when one gets when maybe one sees satellites being launched or a  moon vehicle of one’s country !!!


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Bhartendu K Singh

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