Monday, January 20, 2014

The New Golden Quadrilateral

The BJP's Prime Minister-candidate Narendra Modi made an exceptionally visionary speech at the party's National Executive in New Delhi last week, significantly raising the stakes in the elections for the future of India. Among other things, I was particularly pleased to hear a politician taking a scientific approach to development by calling for data to be put at the heart of policy analysis. The example he gave - of having realtime data on crop availability to plan commerce - seems so obvious to an engineer but the sad truth is that India's development is based more on political fancies than hard data, that despite the scientific temper being a part of the Constitution.

But the real highlight of his economic vision of India was what I like to call the New Golden Quadrilateral - a system of high speed trains connecting the four corners of the nation and revolutionizing commerce in India by drastically cutting travel time between economic centers. The name, of course, comes from the largest infrastructure project to have been undertaken successfully in India - the Golden Quadrilateral Project - under former PM Ataj Behari Vajpayee. Although the idea of introducing 'bullet trains' in India has been talked about before, the political vision under which NaMo placed it was inspiring to say the least - not as a dole, not as a favour to India, but as a shining example of a modern India as we head towards the 75th anniversary of our Independence from the British Empire.

Now, those criticizing the idea actually like the idea but call the promise as mute because India does not have the technology. Actually, Indian engineers are aware of what it takes to make the move from our current railways to High Speed Rail (HSR). Apart from the different propulsion system and very-long welded rails, both of which require industrial investment to build the necessary factories, the biggest issue is the fact that HSR systems require minimal curves on the rail because curves force the train to slow down and hence defeat the purpose. A few curves are unavoidable of course, but it has to be kept to a very minimum. And the problem with having mostly straight lines is that it involves purchasing a great deal of land without having the option to reroute - a political problem, as land acquisition is.

And that is where the problem lies - the lack of political will. The reason why we don't have HSR in India is not because we don't have the knowledge to do it - even if you current research is inadequate, we have strategic allies in Japan, Germany and France that can be requested to help us. The real problem is the lack of political will to convince people - urban or rural - of the benefits of HSR for the whole nation and to take care of their concerns over the loss of their land. It is not about token legislation but political will to see such projects through - the UPA has plenty of the former but very little of the latter.

By associating the New Golden Quadrilateral with a larger vision for India, NaMo has demonstrated that overarching vision that India badly needs. 

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