The Chinese leadership knows how to think big — which is more than what one can say about the Indian leadership, which one must remember has been mainly from the Congress party led by the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty. One case in point is how big the Chinese leaders think about railways.
The Chinese are significantly ahead of India both in qualitative and quantitative terms regarding railways. In 2004, China logged 363 billion passenger-kms, compared to Japan’s 396 and India’s 316 billion passenger-kms. (Source.) An item in today’s The Hindu reports:
In December, China opened what it described as the world’s fastest rail link, between Wuhan and southern Guangzhou, where a 350 kmph-speed train covers the 1,068 km journey in three hours, down from 10.5 hours. By 2012, China will have opened 42 high-speed lines, covering 13,000 km of its total railway coverage of 110,000 km. When completed, China’s will be the world’s largest high-speed railway network.
Compare China’s 350 kmph train to India’s premier Rajdhani trains which do an average of 70 kmph.
Not content with an amazing domestic rail network, China’s leaders are thinking of a 17-country transcontinental rail project.
China has finally reached agreements with several Central Asian countries and given the green signal to its ambitious pan-Asian high-speed rail link, which envisages connecting cities in China to Central Asia, Iran, Europe, Russia and Singapore.
Of course, the Chinese are not doing this for the fun of playing with railways. They are thinking ahead about energy.
When completed, the plan will give China unprecedented access to energy resources in many of these countries.
A spokesperson at the Ministry of Railways told the official Global Times newspaper on Friday that the Chinese government has initiated talks with some of the 17 countries involved in the project. China will bear the brunt of the cost of building the high-speed rail lines in many of the countries involved, but will in return get access to energy resources in a proposed “resources for technology” arrangement, the Global Times reported.
One of China’s leading railways consultant is quoted as saying:
“India is a relatively small country with a huge population. It will be too costly to build highways for India, so our high-speed rail link project will improve transportation efficiency and resources.”
Now where have I heard something similar before? Was it one of India’s railway ministers in the last 60 years? Nope. I think it was yours truly on this blog. From “The Integrated Rail Transportation System — Revisited” July 2005:
To achieve greater production and productive efficiency, an efficient transportation system is not optional but mandatory. Without one, the economy cannot achieve productive efficiency.
The transportation system of an economy as geographically large, as densely populated, and as resource constrained as India’s, has to have as its backbone a rail transportation system.
Roads transportation is not an option for India for a number of obvious reasons. Cars and fossil fuels are expensive. Very efficient alternative fuel cars are even more expensive. With 17 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the world’s land area, we cannot afford the luxury of high speed expressways the way that the US can. We have to be more fuel efficient than the US because it is not even theoretically possible to emulate the US with its automobile/airlines system. The US appropriates approximately a quarter of the world’s total energy use with only about five percent of the world’s population. To reach US standards of energy use per capita, India would have to increase its energy consumption 25-fold. (NOTE: all figures in this piece are approximate. The exact figures will not substantially alter the argument.)
To put it another way, India would have to use four times the total amount of energy currently consumed by the entire world. At present, India has to import over half of its fossil fuel needs and pays an unaffordable amount for it. India’s economy cannot be sustained on imported fuel. From here flows the case for solar energy, which we will not dwell on right now.
The same argument as above applies with even greater force when air transport is considered as the backbone of a national transportation system. Only a very insignificant percentage of Indians can afford to fly. By afford I do not merely mean individual capacity to pay. The system itself cannot accomodate it. You cannot have 75,000 daily flights serving India’s billion people, which is what you would need to match the US’s air transportation system around daily 30,000 flights serving around 0.3 billion Americans.
A bit of arithmetic is all that is needed to expose the underlying reality that we don’t have the option of having road or air as the backbone of India’s transportation system. We not only cannot afford the fuel (source constraint), but we cannot also afford the pollution (sink constraint) of 700 million cars and 20,000 airliners spewing exhaust — as would be required to match the US on a per capita basis.
Rail transportation is of particular interest to me because it is critically important for India’s development. I think that India’s leadership — which boils down to one particular family and one particular party — is really not interested in India’s development. They are more interested in hanging on to power, even if it means that India will continue to sink further into the morass that they created for India.
India is falling behind. In Feb 2007, in “Trains and the Transportation System” I wrote:
You wouldn’t believe it but it seems that in the early 1990s, India was ahead of China in route kilometer per capita and total route kilometer. In the decade starting 1992, China invested US$85 billion and jumped so far ahead of India that it is unlikely that India will ever catch up with China. India invested only US$17.3 billion in the same period. India’s route kilometer grew by ONE percent and China’s grew by 24 percent.
The sad part is that when I bring this comparison of India with China, I am told by some, “But India is a democracy.” So friggin’ what? Since when is it the rule that having a democratic system condemns a nation to be backward and poor? Why is it that well-off Indians explain away India’s appalling poverty on “democracy”?
If you have to explain away all failures of leadership of your country by saying “but we are a democracy”, you might be a third world country.