Japanese Loan for India’s bullet train

In Economic Times of 24th Oct 2015, I saw a news item that Japan has offered a soft loan at 1% interest to finance India’s first bullet train proposed between Mumbai- Ahmedabad (505 km ) at an estimated cost of US$15b, roughly one lakh crore. It seems that Ministry of railways is ready to jump at this offer, but I feel that it will be a disaster for Indian Railways or Govt of India (depending upon who foots the final bill) because

1% interest may look attractive, but with a long history of appreciation of Yen and devaluation of Rupee, as between 2007 to 2012 yen appreciated from 35p to 70p, the effective interest rate would be much higher.

Japanese Loan, like most of the bilateral loans, usually comes tied up with lot of conditions, like vetting of tender conditions to suit the interests of Japanese industry, and with major spending in yen (may be 70 %age or more), the actual cost may even exceed estimation of 200 crores per km.

With such high import content the gain to Indian industry and R&D will be negligible.

Unlike Metro, High Speed Railway (HSR) projects do not add value to land or real estate, rather they lower it because of NIMBY (as everybody wants HSR but ‘Not In My BackYard)

High Speed Railways in most of the rich countries is losing its shine, in France TGV traffic and profit margins are much below its peak (Ref Economist- 15 Jan 2015)

Even with a typical HSR train fare of Euro11/ 100 km in Europe, the latest HSR- Sud Europe Atlantique between Tours and Bordeaux (302 km long) is coming under PPP with 51% viability gap funding by public on a budget of 7.5 b Euros which means less Rs 180 crores per km.. (Ref Rly Gazette international- March 2015)

Since India’s proposed bullet train will be more expensive to build, and India cannot keep comparable fares (say Rs 3960 for chair car for Mumbai- Ahmedabad bullet train) and can’t have matching traffic, the ultimate subsidy to be borne by Indian public can be anybody’s guess. Moreover, the beneficiary will be a miniscule of Indian population. But surprisingly, both- the Indian media which is generally against subsidies (specially in food and all other meant for poor), and the Govt of India which had gone for major cut on subsidies in healthcare and education in this budget, seem delighted with the prospect of bullet train in India.

I think that if in India we really want to go for HSR, the complete economics of the project must be brought forward for public debate. Even a rich country like USA, after two decades of discussions, has recently started construction of Californian HSR, but many are dubbing it as a ‘Monster’. Probably we must try with indigenous efforts, first for speeds between 200-250 kmph and then go to 250-300 kmph.

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Rebuttal: Kind British Rule in India

Thank you for your inputs both via mail and via phone call. Here is a summary of the important points.

As mentioned in the original post, India had some of the worst famines during the British rule. These famines were not due to weather conditions. Only after you research what changed in the past 60-70 years, can one really understand the full extent of the high-handedness and complete disregard of the value of Indian life under British rule. British hoarded the grain for feeding crown troops abroad, and even exported grain at the time of famine rather than saving lives.

The farmers were heavily taxed, forced to grow cash crops (rather than food), and no serious thought were put in to create public food-grain distribution systems. As a result in spite of 80% of the population focused on agriculture, the people were barely able to feed themselves. Infant mortality was between 270-300 per thousand live births. (i.e. 27-30% of the live births did not survive) and life expectancy of 32 years. I was trying to compare the data with the rest of the world and was surprised to see that life expectancy of India could not be even plotted on the graph http://investing.calsci.com/blog9-9-09.html

Life expectancy across the globe

Sure the Railroads, ports & telegraph were developed by the British. However the intent of faster troop response, gathering intelligence & snipping any rebellion in the bud. Since the intend of the infrastructure was not developed to spur economic prosperity. The roads, electricity, technical training institutes, adoption of international best practices suffered during British rule. No wonder Mahatma Gandhi himself remarked “Trains accentuate[s] the evil nature of man” and lets “bad men fulfill their designs with greater rapidity.” In times of drought & famine railways was used to create artificial scarcities and beef up the prices rather than other way around. It is presumptuous that railroads, telegraph etc. would not have developed in India without the British.  Strange that the British get the credit as if they did us a favor.

For the country that wrote the world’s oldest books on science & technology, only 16% of the population could even write their own name as per the 1951 Census. Pick any metrics of measuring the economic prosperity and India in 1947 would be in the bottom. As per Angus Maddison of Cambridge University, in 1700 the entire Europe had a 23.3% share in the world GDP while India alone was contributing 22.6%. The systematic robbing of India ensured that by the time British exited, India’s share fell to 3.8% of world GDP. The Permanent Settlement of Bengal by creating zamindars impoverished the Indian peasantry.

While the world was going for rapid industrialization, Indian industries esp. Textiles & iron working was systematically destroyed by British. There was no taxation on imports so that the factories in Britain were always occupied, while exports were heavily taxed. Furthermore British had monopoly over the shipping (Boston Tea Party) & railroad which meant that the producers & exporters got a small portion of the realized value of their produce and could not compete against imports. The Indian Rupee was pegged to Pound sterling by British to ensure a constant drain of bullion from India to the London. “The misery hardly finds parallel in the history of commerce,” said the governor general, William Bentinck. “The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”

On social reforms, nothing was done to eliminate untouchability in India. The claims of British introducing elections, universal franchise & democracy was a joke. On a population base of 100million, the total electorate in 1934 was 1,415,892 Of which only 81,602 women were registered. Even the 1945 elections was held in only 102 of the 375 constituencies. The export of Opium to China devastated the two great nations India & China equally. It took a century and hash steps by Chairman Mao to cure China of the opium addiction.

Essentially for a period of 200 years, India was systematically dismantled and robbed. Furthermore the divide and rule policy ensured that the country could never stand united and steer itself to regain its past glory.

Truth Vs Fact

I recently watched the movie Talwar and it raised an important question. Sometimes seemingly similar words are not interchangeable. We often confuse between Truth & Fact and mix the two terms up. I asked people about the fine distinction between the two and got responses like:

“Truth is a personal fact and fact is a universal truth”

“Fact is a subset of Truth”

“Fire is hot is a fact, but god is present is a truth (not a fact)”

“Essentially fact is objective, permanent, based on reality and is verifiable. Truth on the other hand is a commonly accepted state of any event or phenomenon. Some truth can be proven and is called fact.”

So essentially it appears that fact has a more stringent criteria than the truth. Being a scientific & rational man, I would argue that truth is often open to interpretation while facts are not.

Now the question is sometimes we don’t have the complete picture. Remember the six blind men and an elephant story. All of them had verifiable facts, but no one had the truth. In everyday life, we often give higher importance to facts that validate our hypothesis and confirm our notions. No wonder, the thin layer of subjectivity that is present in truth enables us to make a judgment on the data that is presented.

British: Kind rulers of India

A friend of mine was trying to benchmark the atrocities committed against natives in other parts of the world with British in India. His remarks were “If all you can quote is Jallianwala Baug with 379 casualties as genocides, then the British were too kind on you!” For a moment I was dumbstruck, wondering how to react.
His point was essentially that Jallianwala happened in 1919 a good 28 years before the final declaration of independence, had it been a massive genocide, it would have led to either a no of such genocides or early freedom. Compared to that many countries lost a sizable population during their freedom struggle. The small country of Algeria alone lost close to 300,000 during the period 1954-62. Even the number of Indians imprisoned/expelled was a tiny fraction and the popular belief was that majority of Indians were either indifferent or supporting British rule.

Since I was not convinced, he continued stating that the aftermath of any revolution is often the best way to gauge what the masses had endured in the years/decades/centuries prior to the spark. The Majarajas, princes, Nizams and sultans of the 562 princely states whose only job was to prosecute freedom fighters and ensure continuity of British rule were rewarded by free India with estates & royal pension even though she was bankrupt. Even today scions of many of them hold prominent political positions. Similarly Anglo-Indians and British that stayed back were given police-protection and even reservation in the Parliament and legislatures across the country. In contrast, French, Russia and China practically slaughtered their entire nobility/landlords in response to the years of injustice that the common man had endured.

The fact that the free India retained, rewarded & even promoted the soldiers, bureaucrats and other employees of British India, indicating that there were no harsh feelings against the locals who aided & abetted with the oppressors. On the contrary individuals that participated in the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny (Feb 1946), German Indian Legion (Legion Freies Indien), Ghadar Mutiny 1915, or Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj were never reinstated in service, even denied Freedom Fighter’s Pension/honors/recognition, indicates that the democratic government of India was more sympathetic to those who upheld British rule rather than those who fought against British. Free Indians had more resentment on religious lines than on administrative lines. In fact Singapore recognizes and is grateful for the role of Indians in 1915 Singapore mutiny more than India does to its 1857 mutiny leaders.

Native Indians were not exterminated unlike what happened to Aborigines in Australia or Red Indians in America. Unlike Africa, the Indian population was not enslaved and forced to trans-locate. In fact the coolies that provided labor to other parts of the globe were voluntarily. British introduced policies like employment tenure, health check-up etc. to prevent exploitation or being diverted to slave trade. They even censured/banned agents/destinations with high mortality/inhuman conditions.

On social reforms most laws like minimum marriageable age for a girl (12 years old at that time), ban on sati pratha, monogamy, widow remarriage, reforms for upliftment of women etc. were introduced by East India Company. British infact had a keen interest in social reforms, it was the opposition of Hindu Mahasabha/pundits/scholars and the 1857 mutiny that forced them to slow them down. In spite of that, British crown introduced bills to criminalize female infanticide in 1870.

Under British, India got its name, the boundaries got defined even the national character got evolved. There has been no Indian ruler that had unified India from Kankykumari to Kashmir before in its five thousand year history. On the infrastructure front, most of the railroad, ports and telegraphs were developed by India. Subsequent expansion of these services under Free India was not to be seen in any commendable scale. In short British were founders, architects and builders of modern India. Even most of the cities, hill-stations and beautiful monuments were built during the British Raj.

The only concrete data point I could find to refute the stance was the frequent occurrence of famine under British rule.

Famine Years Deaths

In millions

Great Bengal Famine 1769–1770 10
Madras city famine 1782–1783
Chalisa famine 1791–1792 11
Doji bara or Skull famine 1789–1795 11
Agra famine of 1837–38 1837–1838 0.8
Eastern Rajputana 1860–1861 2
Odisha famine of 1866 1865–1867 1
Rajputana famine of 1869 1868–1870 1.5
Bihar famine of 1873–74 1873–1874 0
Great Famine of 1876–78 1876–1878 10.3
Odisha, Bihar 1888–1889 0.15
Indian famine of 1896–97 1896–1897 5
Indian famine of 1899–1900 1899–1900 1
Bombay Presidency 1905–1906 0.23
Bengal famine of 1943 1943–1944 5

What scares me is the frequency of the famine, the long duration and the death toll. It should be noted that the death toll is only from the official records and excludes death in the princely states. Mandatory registration of birth and death was not enforced in British India, hence the actual toll could be much higher.

I am a patriotic Indian who was born in Free India. To me democracy & freedom is sacrosanct it is sacrilege to even think otherwise. However keeping emotions aside, I am not able to dig enough data points to justify my position that British rule was bad for India.

Email signature quote

In the era where most people check their office mails on their phone, selectively screen it based on the subject line/sender’s name are the email signature quotes relevant?

When most people don’t believe the signing their name at the end of the email is relevant, will anyone bother to read the signature?

You are paid to do your job, not open up a parish. Why on earth will someone quote from Bible/Geeta/Buddhism preaching and try to unsettle someone from a different faith? Worse some people use quotes to preach morality to the sender. What they don’t realize is that people don’t like to be corrected

Geeks: Some quotes like “There are 10 kinds of people 1 who ere are 10 kinds of people, 1 understand binary and 1 who does not” only revel that the sender is a geek, nerd or a socially awkward person. Hence it is sometimes important to see what your signature reveals about you.

Funky cartoons & multi-color quotes: Dilbert is sometimes considered acceptable but only if you are sending to your peer group and in-office social groups. Such messages if send outside the organization or to someone you have never met, better rethink your strategy.

Self-improvement: It is OK for a guy with an anger issue to put up a poster like “think before you react” in his cabin or on the fridge or anywhere else to serve as a reminder to mend his actions. However putting this in an email signature could mean only one of the two things. Firstly, you are preaching the recipient and highlighting err in their ways (which nobody likes) or advertising to everyone the err in your ways and creating a negative bias against you.

In short in today’s digital world people (even those sitting in the same office) rarely get to meet each other in person. This lack of physical clues has only aggravated the human’s need to put a picture to the conversation they have. Hence people often like to read/re-read emails and in absence of much information build a false first impression of you even before they meet you.

All said and done, in my first company, a senior guy Venu had a powerful quote. “Success is not created by cutting edge technology, but by solving client’s problems.” He single handedly steered the entire startup away from pursuing academic research and speeding up the quest to make a minimum viable product and launch it soon. If you have a mission in life/office: what better way than to incorporate in every mail that you send out. If your sub-ordinates and peers read it long/often enough… some might incorporate it in life. It is like a contagious smile in an otherwise emotionless office-space.