Saturday 26 February 2011

Kashmir Rail Link Project : Railways Bureaucracy Plays Chinese Whispers

NEW DELHI : Following media attention, which began with reports exposing the long bureaucratic cover-up of shoddy planning behind failures along the crucial 126 km Katra-Banihal section of the Kashmir Rail Link project, the Railway Board has decided to shift senior project officials of Northern Railway, and Railways PSUs’ KRCL, IRCON, and RITES to the project site by 31 March. That this "solution" comes eight years after the project was fast-tracked as a "project of national importance" is telling. It also shows the Board is being allowed by the minister to avoid addressing a fundamental engineering concern ~ that the line, even if built at present speed and that will take 20 years, will be unsafe, unstable, and unviable.

While this 126 km section has seen less than 10 per cent progress since 2002, and the political leadership continues to allow a scheming Board to save face, China is fast encircling India strategically. Begun in 2001, China opened its Golmud-Lhasa 1142 km section ~ elevated, for the most part, 4,000 meters above sea-level where depleted oxygen levels and permafrost are permanent features ~ by 2006. Apart from other strategic rail link plans and infrastructure projects being surveyed by China, the 280 km extension of the Golmud-Lhasa line to Xigatse is in progress and further extension to the Nepal border has been announced. In catch-up mode, India is itself surveying a slew of infrastructure and rail projects in the Himalayas. And, this is precisely why the alignment on the Katra-Banihal section and its administration is critical; it sets a precedent for future mountain rail in India.

Railways have not constructed in Himalayas since around the turn of the century, when slope skirting alignments were innovated upon for meter-gauge toy-trains on the Darjeeling, Shimla, and Khyber Pass lines. As may be evinced from arguments made by eminent engineers Mr E. Sreedharan as well as ex-Member, Engineering Mr S K Vij and Chief Engineer Mr A K Verma, Indian Railways has chosen to employ the same turn-of-the-century alignment to construct a heavy, broad gauge line in far more volatile mountains, rather than a slightly steeper alignment with straighter and longer tunneling, as is the practice now in Europe and in China.

Furthermore, eager to sign contracts and please political masters, bureaucrats rushed into construction, without adequate surveys and mapping.

Mr Verma’s proposal, which has still not been properly examined, shows that tunnels are collapsing because they are being built in the sides of landslide prone mountains, not through the more stable centre, and 40 per cent of the line is being built along seismic fault-lines.

However, for the third time in eight years, an obdurate Board is resisting examination of an innovative solution, conceiving differing ideas not on merit, but as personality clashes and insubordination. The first time was in 2003 when then MD, KRCL, strongly objected to rushing into construction on a slope skirting paper alignment without adequate planning, which would escalate costs by Rs 3,000 crore and might never succeed. His proposal to tunnel straight through on a steeper alignment was dismissed as the ravings of an interested contractor and he was punished.

Mr Verma’s alternative alignment proposed to the Railway Board in 2007, supported by Mr Vij, was also scuttled as soon as Mr Vij retired, when Board Members allegedly resorted to forgery and malice. The compromised expert committee refused to examine the fundamental concern of safety and stability raised by Mr Verma, who was then sent packing from the project and hasn’t been paid dues since he resisted this punitive transfer. Now, for the third time, an opportunity to review Mr Verma’s proposal is being resisted.

The minister seems to have left it to the decision of an expert committee; in normal times this would be perfectly kosher, but such is the rot Miss Mamata Banerjee has inherited that the committee itself is compromised as it choose to ignore the very safety concerns expressed by Mr Verma and has instead followed the lead of chairman, Railway Board, Mr Vivek Sahai.

Mr Sahai, incidentally, owes Mr Shriprakash for retiring early so that he (Mr Sahai) could become Member Traffic, and then Chairman, Railway Board. Naturally, Mr Shriprakash, is now himself chairman of the Standing High Power Committee on Infrastructure and Project Monitoring, which in turn is responsible for muffling Mr Verma repeatedly and scuttling his proposal.

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