Bullet train project chief outlined 16 issues on day of his removal

The chief of the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHSRCL), the government unit working on the Bullet train project, wrote a letter to the Maharashtra government outlining 16 issues that he said were delaying the marquee project, the day he was sacked over corruption allegation, documents accessed by HT show.

Satish Agnihotri was removed from his post on July 8, with officials in the Railway ministry saying the sacking was linked to a 2011 accusation in which Agnihotri, who was brought out of retirement to head the flagship Bullet train project just a year ago, was accused of allotting a contract to a firm where his son worked – a charge he has denied.

Documents accessed by HT showed that in the letter dated July 7, Agnihotri urged the Maharashtra chief secretary to expedite land acquisition and resolve other related issues so that project work could begin.

Agnihotri’s key contention was that the NHSRCL was under pressure from the Japanese agency funding 81% of the project, which is for a bullet train to run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai and is expected to cost 1.08 lakh crore.

The letter and its timing, to be sure, have no apparent connection with Agnihotri’s sacking on the same day. But it the issues listed by the former chairman give an insight into the various issues confronting the project.

“In various interactions, the Japanese side have been requesting likely dates for commencement of civil work in the state of Maharashtra as the tenders for underground stations at BKC… and undersea tunnel… have been cancelled after repeated postponement during last 14 monthsto 2 years,” the letter said.

NHSRCL authorities, who asked not to be named, said that the Japanese push for underground stations at the Bandra Kurla Complex was pending since bids can only be invited after the transfer of 4.84 hectare land for construction of the stations, and 0.81 Ha temporary land to facilitate this work. For the construction work to begin, the state authority also needs to shift a petrol pump to an alternate place, for which a lease agreement is yet to be signed.

The letter also flags pending work for construction of 21 km undersea tunnel and for construction of viaducts, stations and bridges.

The overall progress of land acquisition in Maharashtra for the project stands at 72%, the letter stated, adding that even though the process for even these plots has been completed, physical possession has been received for only 39% of the area acquired.

Most of the land needed to be acquired in Gujarat has been secured but farmers in Thane and Palghar appear to be the holdouts.

Of the 508.17km project, 155.76km is in Maharashtra, 384.04km in Gujarat and 4.3km in Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Requesting the newly formed state government to resolve issues that are a hindrance to the project, the NHSRCL letter stated: “One of the most important long-pending issues which will affect commencement of work in Maharashtra is Stage -II clearance under Forest Conservation Act 1980… Application for Stage -II clearance after compliances of State-I conditions and payment of mandatory charges has been submitted in March 2021”.

“At present it is pending with the Forest Department, Government of Maharashtra. Your kind intervention is requested in resolving aforesaid issues for providing encumbrance free land at the earliest and expedite acquisition of remaining land in Thane and Palghar districts,” the letter added.

Railway officials did not comment on the letter but said there is an expectation that the return of the Bharatiya Janata Party-allied government in the state will accelerate the pace of a project that is one of the key promises of the Modi government.

The initial deadline for completing work on the 508-km project was the end of 2022 but it has been extended and at present, the first phase of the project, a 50-km stretch between Surat and Bilimora in Gujarat, is likely to be operational in 2026. “Though the trial between Surat and Bilimora will be conducted in 2026, we will commence bullet train operations in between these two stations from 2027,” Agnihotri had said in April.

The project was delayed as it was opposed by the ex-chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, officials said.