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Ballot Trail in Gujarat but Bullet Train is Indian

VVP Sharma @vvemuri

Updated: September 14, 2017, 11:33 AM IST
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Ballot Trail in Gujarat but Bullet Train is Indian
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (AP Photo)
Nineteen years after Japan was devastated by Little Boy and Fat Man, the country was back in the mainstream of world affairs. It was 1964. The Olympics were to be held in Tokyo. Emperor Hirohito, who authorized his country to launch a blood bath in the east in the 1940s, wanted a fitting tribute to his country turning a new leaf. He gave the world the bullet train. Something the world had never seen. In fact, he inaugurated it just nine days before the Olympics began.

Japan came to be known as the bullet train country for its rapid strides in rail technology that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imported to India. Under the watchful eye of his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, the project was inaugurated in Gujarat.

The late emperor understood the political importance of the bullet train in 1964. Just as Modi understands its significance in today’s Gujarat. The bullet train will be touted as a national asset. It certainly is. But the significance of the timing of the inauguration, and the place of inauguration, will not be lost on the people of Gujarat. The state goes to elections in a few months. The opposition in India has already raised the issue.

The railway ministers of India have always faced a common charge: Somehow, new rail projects happened to come up in their home states. The bullet train comes to the home state of the Prime Minister himself.

Be that as it may, here is a question to ponder: Does India need a bullet train now?

The question has been asked several times already. The question has been asked every time a new concept was introduced into the country. The simple argument is India cannot say no to new technology, new paths of progress. No country can. Look at Bhutan and how fast it is shedding aspects of its isolation.

Take the railways itself. From metre gauge to broad gauge, the introduction of reservation of seats in the third class, the introduction of AC cars, the modernising of coaches, the Shatabdi, the Rajdhani, the Duronto types of faster and luxurious trains – they all drew criticism when they were introduced. What a drain of resources, it was said. Indians continue to defecate in the fields, farmers continue to die, children get raped, the number of the jobless is growing, lack of medicare is rampant, no drinking water, no electricity, no schools – the list is endless.

In fact, back in 1964, after the Olympics concluded in Japan, the government took stock of the bullet train expenses. It found there was a 100 per cent cost over-run. Similar questions were raised in the National Diet. The government of the day had to appease the opposition. So heads had to roll. The president of the Japanese National Railway, Shinji Sojo, and his chief engineer, Hideo Shima, were forced to resign. The Japanese prepare for things well in advance. In the case of these two persons, they were conveniently kept away from the inauguration ceremony itself. By the way, you know who Hideo Shima was? The father of the bullet train. It was his idea. He conceived it first on paper and then translated it into reality. What a way to go.

India does need the bullet train. Not necessarily the politics and ballot-bites that go with it. Without going into economics jargon, the issue is that a country does not progress at a uniform pace. The pace is the average of the various rates of growth in the various regions of the country. Some are poor. Some are rich. Some deficient. Some advanced. Nature plays a role. So does partial governance and multi-party politics. The demands of the various classes are different. A toilet is a luxury for a rural woman. A rich woman of would demand a bullet train. Money and resources and opportunities determine individual perspectives of progress.

When the Metro came to Delhi, thousands of families in the bylanes of Old Delhi which had never stirred out of Chandni Chowk got the chance to take the Metro and visit India Gate. It was the first glimpse of the structure for many! Look how people as they progressed in life, also progressed in class and mode of travel -- going by II AC or First Class and by air.

But what India does need is civility. Basic manners. It should learn to treat public property with respect. Recall how the passengers riding the new semi-luxury Tejas Express from Mumbai to Goa in July vandalised the equipment – stolen earphones, smashed consoles, scratched screens.

In Japan, with the bullet train came a new sense of hospitality. The Japanese projected the train as an exhibition of their culture on wheels. The trains were fast, spotlessly clean, always on time, the staff are impeccably dressed. The food served in bento boxes are souvenir items. Manner matter and are maintained at all costs. Manners have nothing to do with economic progress, costs. They are more of a cultural thing. And culture is national thing, not regional, just like the bullet train.
First Published: September 14, 2017, 11:11 AM IST

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