Wonky priorities with Japan

Shinzo Abe’s very politic schtick in Banaras re: “Clean Ganga” by further messing up the river by pouring milk, etc into it by way of Hindu ritual is, well, understandable — what choice did he have? But Modi and the Indian government’s permanent bee-in-the-bonnet — signing nuclear agreements with every passing state in order to get “advanced” reactor technology, however, is getting to be an intolerable joke. One of the persisting hypocrisies Tokyo indulges in mostly by habit, even as it climbs on to the cusp of obtaining nuclear weapons itself in the face of two things — a rampaging China and a retrenching America that has a hard time looking after its own security, let alone secure the futures of its Asian allies such as Japan. So Tokyo insists on far more stringent conditions for nuclear trade with anybody than almost any other supplier state. Technology-wise, Tokyo has little to offer except perhaps in the area of reactor safety. But its conditionalities — are they not insisting on Delhi signing the additional protocol? — are simply too onerous for India to accept unless Modi is willing to give away the last negotiating card and what remains of the leverage the Congress-Manmohan Singh regime so thoughtlessly surrendered with the useless nuclear deal with the US.
Far from changing gears and reversing direction Modi, among all the other continuities in his foreign policy run by the same persons who had “negotiated” the N-deal, is going full steam down the same road.

Not to be outdone by the predecessor govt’s wrong attitude, the BJP in power has just as wonky priorities. It has signed the deal for the Shinkansen “bullet train” tech to be implemented on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector, beating out the Shinkansen-derived Chinese high-speed railway tech, with a $12 billion loan on low interest. So, what’s wrong with this? Consider the alternative usages this amount could have been put to — for the full electrification of trunk lines. Or to double-track some important rail routes that are still single line and require complicated scheduling schemes which get routinely disrupted resulting in most trains running late/very late. Or, it could have been channeled into modernizing/digitalizing the signalling systems. Or, invested in procuring new radar guidance technology to run trains at speeds even in foggy weather, or in developing the vacuum technology to collect night soil (to be vacuumed out at major stops, as in passenger aircraft), which is splayed all over the tracks through holes in the floors that pass for toilets on Indian railways. Instead, we’ll have a shiny new train making the short 200 mile to-and-fro run as Modi’s gift to his home state and a testament to bad choices the Indian government invariably makes no matter who is in power. This is to say nothing about the sheer diseconomics of this damn-fool venture.

And there’s less than meets the eye on security cooperation, especially with regard to ramping up naval links and to get going on the US-2 Shinmeiwa flying boat project that’s been on the table for over a decade now. We should provide incentives to have India become the economical manufacturing base and source of sales of this aircraft for a world-wide market of littoral states. And there’s no mention anywhere of moves and measures to realize Abe’s trademark concept of the ‘security diamond’ of India, Japan, Australia and the United States as the bulwark of security in the Indo-Pacific.

Not sure, in the end, what was achieved except more ground has been ceded on the nuclear front, at which rate India will be reduced as in much else to an entity of minimal consequence.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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6 Responses to Wonky priorities with Japan

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Sorry BK ji,
    but this time by mixing up two different things and picking up an idea from the dumb party you have, effectively watered down the main idea – that of wrongful Nuclear trade.

    Cross-subsidisation of passenger traffic by freight is a reality for Indian Railways. And in a country where people, for justifiable or unjustifiable reasons, seek personal benefits/subsidies there is absolutely no hope for either segments. Both of them will pull each other down. Shinkansen with a $12 billion loan on low interest will seed a completely new ethic and a completely new economic logic and in future Indian Railways will have about as much economic logic as Indian Postal Services. There were similar arguments even for the Domestic Aviation (running at loss but then serving a mass of people today) and even for something as silly as the Delhi-Noida-Delhi Expressway (20 years back). Like the way we have an economic logic for the MTA only because of the Domestic Aviation just the same way for the development of Railways we will need a domestic market for the fast and comfortable railways also.

    By citing the Congressi logic of improving railways you are doing a disservice to the future generations who obviously cannot be expected to have the weight of Social Railways wound round its neck. The target for the Indian Railways should be to achieve the least disruptive crash landing for it. Congress and Baampanthis have the least of the karmic balance on this argument. They were the ones who effectively killed Indian Railways with multi-decadal muftkhori.

    Nuke deal could also have served the same purpose of seeding a new industry, but with 10+ years having been wasted on this horse manure, we have only ended up deluding ourselves. ENR is never going to be made available. Liability even the justified ones will always be gonna get avoided. Our Military/Strategic nukes will always be sought to be rolled back (serves well to have only a few in the so called comity of nations, barter away the interests of the rest of the forgettable world). And in the end will only create dependencies of the worst kinds. If we had to jump so many hoops for the West then why could not the DAE et al do the same for Domestic industry. Domestic industry would have mastered a lot of things in the last 10 years. We are just wasting our time and binding our hands, with the western countries. And with the Russians getting out of their Soviet lethargy, you can bet even 30 years down the line our best nuke deals will be with the Russians. BJP has had a thing for kickstarting the power sector as a first step to their rules and PM is probably ideating on bundling of expesive western nuke energy with cheaper alternatives for an overall energy +ve future but the PMO has probably not truly reckoned with strategic import the dual nature of nuke energy. ‘Difficult Countries’ like India cannot be truly be trusted with western nuke tech (Please read Japan as West in here).

    • No argument that freight traffic is the railways future and prime revenue earner. But Shinkansen isn’t going to pull goods traffic and I have tried to address the bullet-train tech on its own terms as a passenger carrier. Also, every thing you have said on the nuclear issue is right on and what I have been saying in my books and all my writings post-1998 Shakti N-tests!

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        Re. “But Shinkansen isn’t going to pull goods traffic and I have tried to address the bullet-train tech on its own terms as a passenger carrier.” – @BK

        I don’t know how you arrived at both these conclusions. I will just state a few facts that I have with me based on open source:

        1) Shinkansen when it was originally proposed had within it the idea of transporting freight too. Today the Japs don’t transport freight but there could be many different reasons for that. Theoretically nothing holds back our people from considering a freight component to it too. If freight can be air transported then there is nothing to stop the HSR to compete for that part of the business.

        2) Indian Case – Growth of Domestic Air-Freight traffic is nearly twice that of International Air-Freight traffic as well as Domestic and International Air-Passenger Traffic. And this is not going to get reversed. – This presumption is as good as proven.

        3) Shinkansens have turned up operating profits, on lines as small as 300 km with passenger traffic as low as 54% occupancy (Taiwan). Taiwan HSR is in problems due to bad financial planning from its initial stages, which is where Modi Team has released us Indians from slavery. Taiwanese used Bank Finance and Preference Shares. All reasonable Indians interested in India’s economic independence have salivated for the Japanese funding sources for last 20 years. Now that Modi Team has successfully done it some of us are having self-doubts. This performance by Modi Team will rank as high in India’s future as the Indian Nuke Weaponization idea. Personally I would like to see a 50 year plan to put Indian Railways passenger component to NIL and move all of the 120 Crore people onto Shinkansens with Japanese funding :). Let the Indian Railways focus on Commercial Freight and National Strategic Needs (Longitudenal Military transport towards and Lateral transport inside Himalayas) after next 10 years.

        4) Even after 20+ years of liberalization of Domestic Aviation Industry we transport about 60% of the number of people that get transported by Japanese Shinkansens, today.

        5) Domestic Aviation in India has primarily given us a Fluff Society and absolutely NIL Make In India. OTOH, Japanese are more than willing to Make In India since the early 80s (Maruti etc.). Our Japanese relationship has always been forced to remain under the dark clouds from the Evil West :). Not any more.

        6) Japanese Shinkansens as well as Tiwanese Shinkansens have forced their Domestic Aviation Industries to roll back from the sub-500 km circuits. This is how good these trains are. Below 500 km, these HSR rule. Moving 1000-1300 people in nearly the same time as an airliner in a 500 km run has an economic logic of its own that the vaunted Aviation Industry (chugging along at 100 heads per hop) will never be able to match despite its discounts culture.

        7) Sir ji, Shinkansens are an Ethic on their own. Aviation as it is a tool for turning us into slaves. Compare perfect safety records of the Japs with the heavily targeted Aviation which attracts everything from Overt terrorists to False Flag Ops. Merely the Ethics alongwith the faster smoother travel will pay the cost of it.

        8) In fact because of the economic logic of the Indian Shinkansens, there is a good chance the Boeing et al will be ejected from their dominating positions and the MTAs that we will bring in later will have a fighting chance for themselves. When private industry instead of slogging begins to dream of buying 80-100 Boeings for their Indian businesses, you should beware, because pretty soon these guys are going to behave like a lobby. This lobby will never allow even the MTAs to come up.

        Sounds a little declaratory but hey that’s my style. heh heh. Hope you don’t mind it.

      • !o@…@ — Shinkansen, for reasons you mention, is optimised for passenger hauling. Pulling freight at very high speeds would require a far more powerful engine. Won’t that skew the cost in all its aspects, including capital, running, recurring? Unwise, moreover, to compare the operating costs of the Shinkansen and road goods transport in Japan for the obvious reasons, and then try and analogize them in the Indian milieu over any distance. Examples of Taiwan, etc. are inapt for India. And finally I did not stress the one factor that I had mentioned in an article and blog when first the Shinkansen was mooted by Modi over a year back (and which a wellwisher reminded me of) — can the specially constructed bullet-train line be guaranteed the security and protection for it to operate normally at its designated high speeds? Don’t think so. The Railways would have to place an armed policeman every 200 yards! Now input the costs of additional security system into the lifetime costs!!!!

  2. I very much believe the bullet train @ 12b dollars is an unnecessary drain on our exchequer. Right now the airlines satisfy any need for express travel. So is the bullet train only a showcase item ? Or is India flush with cash so that it can allow itself some indulgence ?
    There is a very urgent need to increase conventional freight train transport frequency/capacity (passenger trains as well). I wonder why the govt doesnt see this urgency. It has to be taken up on a war footing if we are serious about improving our nation’s infastructure.

    ……..wonky priorities indeed.

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