Thursday, March 02, 2017

Indian Infra: Untold Stories, Lost Lessons

I always do a double-take whenever I spot an article or new item on the Delhi-Mumbai Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC).  Call it nostalgia, or just plain curiosity that comes from close association a few years ago.

I was working with JICA in the 2000s when this project was conceived, and when the proposal passed through the labyrinth of North Block before being taken up by the Japanese government. As a part of the numerous surveys and site visits that resulted in the master-plan, I worked with various consultants and traveled extensively - especially in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

One thing that had always puzzled me was the insistence from Indian Railways that the dedicated freight line be "double stack" and "electrical traction". This meant that the engineers and planners had to work on Star Trek mode - to 'go where no man had gone before'. Such a combination had never been implemented successfully anywhere. Getting the electrified pantographs over and above the height of double-stacked containers, and then to get these trains to run reasonably fast across the baked scrublands of Rajasthan, seemed particularly difficult.

Another clear challenge was to get the freight lines through the super densely populated areas of Mumbai, to the JNPT Port.

After 2009, I had lost touch with this project since not much was coming into the public domain by way of news. I did read that the Japanese had - very strategically - limited their ODA involvement to the Western Corridor, and that too from Rewari to Vadodara, instead of going all the way till Mumbai. The Eastern Corridor was subsequently taken up by the World Bank.

Cut to 27 Feb., 2017, to a symposium organised the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and the Embassy of Japan on "Quality Infrastructure: Japanese Investment in India". At this event, I was quite surprised to hear Mr. Amitabh Kant (now CEO, NITI Aayog) say that five new cities would be commissioned by 2018, along the DFC.

Was this my own Rip Van Winkle moment? What had I missed? Was the Industrial Corridor coming up faster than the freight corridor that supported it? How was this great development being ignored by our hyperactive media?

A subsequent presentation confirmed a long-held opinion that the focus of the Indian media remains firmly on negative reporting. Good news is no news.

Mr. Anil Kumar Dutta (MD, DFC 2014-15) spoke of the close coordination with state government that had resulted in smooth transfer of land to DFC. He talked of 'bombshells' that had been defused during his tenure. One had come from the environment ministry (MoEF) demanding that the route alignment be shifted 140km to save the Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. Another one from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that had objected to the use of a piece of land in the Rewari for the main rail-yard because it had traces of a Harappan settlement dating back to 3000+ years.

Contrary to popular notions about both MoEF and ASI, Mr. Dutta declared that they were "most cooperative...all you must do is to listen - and take action - on their concerns!"

In the case of the suspected Harappan settlement, the discussions had yielded a time-bound, pragmatic solution. DFC hired the services of IIT Kanpur and had the whole rail-yard zone scanned with special ground penetrating radars. A small portion was found to contain ancient remains and  ASI had agreed to go as deep as required to extract all the material it needed. Once this was done, all the clearances were promptly given.

This symposium had quite a number of takeaways. Clearly, we seem to be hiring the right people for the right jobs and they seem to be doing great work, far away from the glare of the Indian media.

Unfortunately, it is also clear that we continue to be pathetic when it comes to documenting lessons learnt from mega projects like the Dedicated Freight Corridor. Great lessons learnt by JICA, DFC and DFCCIL remain locked in project reports, and in the minds of the pragmatic people who cut the proverbial Gordian knot, and then moved on nonchalantly to the next task at hand, or just faded into retirement.

If the lessons we learn are not shared in the public domain, the task of pioneers in other sectors are bound to become so much more difficult.


* Axis Capital PPT (Jan., 2016) -
* Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary -
* (2012) -
* (2013) - DFCCIL PPT by R.K. Gupta --
* Nippon Koei India -

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