The government of Maharashtra has clarified that the state-appointed sub-committee met twice before clearing the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. But the minutes of the meetings confirm the sub-committee did not address most of the objections raised by various departments.
Touted as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to upgrade infrastructure in India, the 508-kilometre project is estimated at Rs 1.08 lakh crore, with central railway footing half of the bill, and the rest of the 50 percent of the expenses to be shared equally between Gujarat and Maharashtra.
On 27 February 2017, the home department of Maharashtra government issued a circular noting the formation of a sub-committee to conduct an “in-depth study” of the bullet train project. The sub-committee, said the circular, would be headed by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis himself.
More than six months later, on 12 September, 2017, the home department issued another circular approving the project. When RTI activist Jeetendra Ghadge sought details of the sub-committee’s meetings, the documents provided by the home department read, “You have sought information on the meetings of the cabinet sub-committee. So far, not even one meeting has been held.” NewsArena accessed the documents and that Fadnavis had overlooked his own orders before clearing the project.
Within days, the state government suspended the information officer, Sarangkumar Patil, for providing “incorrect information”. The suspension was the first after Right to Information Act came into force in 2005.
The home department then provided the “correct information” to Ghadge, by providing minutes of the two meetings held on 23 August, 2017 and 4 September, 2017.
At the first meeting, held after over five-and-a-half months of the formation of the sub-committee, they mainly discussed the proposed place of the terminus at Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai.
The MMRDA had raised its objection at the proposed terminus, for it could have an impact on the development potential at BKC. The urban development department even said it would lead to a revenue loss of Rs 48,000 crore.
The sub-committee discussed how the majority of the construction would be underground. Along with Fadnavis, three others on the panel of the sub-committee were Minister for Revenue, Relief & Rehabilitation, and Public Works Chandrakant Patil, Education Minister Vinod Tawde and Transport Minister Diwakar Raote. All of them were present at the first meeting, along with other officers in concerned departments.
In the following meeting of 4 September, 2017, the panel decided to finalise BKC for the Mumbai terminus. It said that 0.9 hectares of land should be made available for the terminus. The land value should be included in the state government’s share value in the bullet train implementation company. The sub-committee said the decision on the state government’s 25 percent share value in the company would be taken in the cabinet meeting.
Three days later, on 7 September, 2017, the cabinet cleared the project.
According to the minutes, Patil had been absent in the second meeting of 4 September. The rest were there. However, Raote had initially told NewsArena, “I am not looking into the bullet train, the chief minister is.”
Upon pointing out his name is on the sub-committee, Raote said, “My name may be there, but I have no clue about it. I don’t know what this committee is, and I do not recall attending anything pertaining to it.”
After making that statement, Raote later denied it. The recording of the call is with the reporter. It embarrassed the state government, even suggested that Fadnavis had no option but to approve it, since it is Modi’s pet project.
Ghadge said he had inspected “the file thoroughly” but “did not get any information of the meetings conducted by the sub-committee”. “There was no correspondence, minutes or report of the sub -committee meeting,” he said, wondering how accurate the details provided by the state government are.
The papers do not disclose how long the meetings lasted.
A former IAS officer, who inspected the papers, said the documents look genuine. “The department sends out a summary of the meeting,” he said. “The papers are authentic.”
Ghadge said even if we go by the minutes they have provided, “it shows they did not address several objections raised by various departments.”
On 3 January, 2017, the transport department of the state home department solicited inputs from others on the bullet train project, in which the planning department said the MoU “should clarify how the revenue would be shared between Centre, Gujarat and Maharashtra after the project is operational”.
The revenue department had even more pertinent objections. It noted the project is “likely to make losses, which means one would have to infuse capital repeatedly to keep it afloat”.
“In this regard, it is important to know what the responsibility of the state would be,” it said. “There is no information or estimate available regarding how much profit or loss this project would make.”
In conclusion, the revenue department asked to examine how many people go to Ahmedabad for work from Maharashtra currently, in order to establish the benefits for the state.
The minutes provided under the RTI reveal the sub-committee, which was formed to conduct an “in-depth study”, did not touch upon any of the objections raised above