India’s first bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is to be built at a cost of Rs 1.1 lakh crore, but environment activists from Gujarat say the project is already in violation of several compliance guidelines issued by the Japanese government agency that is investing Rs 88,000 crore in it.

In a report released to the media on August 15, environmentalists Rohit Prajapati and Krishnakant Chauhan listed the ways in which the Indian corporation implementing the bullet train project is allegedly violating social, environmental and human rights-related norms mandated by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

The bullet train corridor from Mumbai to Ahmedabad is proposed to be an elevated 508-km high-speed rail line meant to benefit diamond merchants, textile traders and other professionals shuttling between the two cities. In the process, the project will cut through at least 312 villages in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, take over 866 hectares of fertile farmland and cut down more than 80,000 trees.

Since the Japan International Cooperation Agency is a partner in the bullet train project along with the Indian government’s National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited, implementation has to be in accordance with not just Indian laws but also the rules of the Japanese agency. Farmers and Adivasi residents along the bullet train route are already staging furious protests against the National High Speed Rail Corporation for flouting land acquisition law while surveying and acquiring their land in the past year. The Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a farmers’ rights organisation, has filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court against the government’s allegedly unlawful attempts to acquire land for the bullet train.

By highlighting how the National High Speed Rail Corporation is also defying Japan International Cooperation Agency guidelines, Prajapati and Chauhan hope the Japanese government will be induced to take action against the Indian agency for the violations.

Farmers and residents are already protesting alleged violations of rules in the survey and acquisition of their land for the bullet train project. (Credit: HT)

No environmental impact assessment

The blatant disregard for environmental and social considerations is one of the main violations highlighted in the activists’ report.

The guidelines of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, for instance, require that project authorities establish an independent advisory committee for environmental and social considerations, comprising external experts who can be consulted about the impact of the project on the environment and communities. The meetings of this committee are supposed to be open to the public. But in the case of the bullet train project, Prajapati and Chauhan’s report points out that no such advisory body has been publicly announced, and even if a committee exists, its details are not available in the public domain.

The Japanese agency classifies projects it assists into four categories based on the social and environmental impact each project is likely to have. As a large-scale infrastructure project, India’s bullet train is classified as “Category A”. The Japan International Cooperation Agency defines Category A projects as those likely to have significant, irreversible, complicated or unprecedented impacts on environment or society, through involuntary resettlement of people or construction in protected natural habitats.

For such projects, the Japanese agency makes it mandatory for project proponents to conduct environmental impact assessments and outline a resettlement action plan and an indigenous people’s plan at the planning stage of the project. It signs agreements only after reviewing these plans and reports, and continues to monitor their implementation as the project construction unfolds. The Japanese agency also mandates the disclosure of information about the proposed project with the public and consultation meetings with stakeholders.

According to the 2015 Joint Feasibility Study report for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train corridor, published by India’s Ministry of Railways and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the only environmental and social impact assessment studies the project is based on were conducted in 2010.

“These cannot be considered valid when the land acquisition and public consultations are taking place eight years later, in 2018,” said Prajapati, a member of the Gujarat Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a non-profit organisation for environmental protection. “No fresh assessments have been done in recent years.” asked Dhananjay Kumar, the public relations officer of the National High Speed Rail Corporation, why social and environmental impact assessment studies had not been conducted after 2010, and whether the agency had appointed the Japan International Cooperation Agency-mandated advisory committee for social and environmental considerations. “These questions are the same as the ones being heard in the High Court, and we cannot comment on matters that are sub judice,” Kumar responded.

The National High Speed Rail Corporation was able to begin the land acquisition process in Gujarat without social or environment impact assessments because of clauses in certain Indian laws. For instance, in 2016, Gujarat amended the Centre’s Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, exempting “social infrastructure” projects from mandatory social impact assessment and getting the consent of 70% of the affected populace. In the same year, the Supreme Court struck down a National Green Tribunal order that mandated environmental clearances for railway projects.

However, Prajapati and Chauhan point out that if the Japanese agency’s guidelines require environmental and social impact assessments for its Category A projects, then Indian laws should not matter. The Japanese guidelines clearly state that if a host country’s laws, standards and policies differ from international standards, then the project must follow the standards that aim for higher levels of environmental and social considerations.

In this context, Prajapati believes environmental impact assessment is vital for the bullet train, because it is not the only linear infrastructure project proposed in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad belt. “In the same area, other projects like the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, Western Dedicated Freight Corridor and the Vadodara-Mumbai expressway are coming up,” said Prajapati. “The cumulative environmental and social impacts of all these projects have to be taken into account, and fresh assessment studies should be done accordingly.”

Stakeholder meetings

For infrastructure projects that require large-scale land acquisition, well-publicised consultation meetings with project-affected stakeholders are mandatory under Indian laws as well as Japan International Cooperation Agency guidelines. For Category A projects, the Japanese agency expects project proponents to consult with local stakeholders about their understanding of development needs, the likely adverse impacts of the project on environment and society, and an analysis of alternatives to the project at an early stage. It also emphasises the need to disclose basic information about the project to stakeholders, in their languages, well before the consultation meetings.

While the National High Speed Rail Corporation did conduct public stakeholder meetings across project-affected districts in Gujarat and Maharashtra, residents and activists who attended them claim they were a sham. Prajapati and Chauhan point out that most of the stakeholder meetings, held in the first half of 2018, were announced at very short notice – ranging from a few weeks to just a day. In many cases, announcements were made for a second public stakeholder meeting in a particular district even though no first meeting had been organised before it. Farmers and property owners were not given any information about the bullet train project before the meetings.

Moreover, the meetings were not in the form of consultations at all: the National High Speed Rail Corporation simply showed participants hour-long PowerPoint presentations about the benefits of the bullet train, followed by a question and answer session. But farmers met in Gujarat’s Navsari and Valsad districts in June claimed that none of their questions about the need for a bullet train or the impact of the project on their properties and livelihoods were satisfactorily answered. Instead, officials from an external consultation firm hired by the National High Speed Rail Corporation merely informed farmers about the monetary compensation they would receive in exchange for their land and trees. No substitute land or livelihood is to be provided. Farmers across Gujarat have protested by preventing National High Speed Rail Corporation officials from conducting land mapping surveys in their villages.

Farmers at a meeting in Gujarat's Valsad district to plan protests against the bullet train project.

While Indian laws and Japan International Cooperation Agency rules both make it clear that stakeholder meetings have to be public events, announcements for all the meetings in Gujarat stated that “unauthorised persons” would not be allowed. On May 14, hours before a public consultation was scheduled in Surat, the police detained 15 farmer leaders and environment activists who had arrived in the city to attend the meeting. Chauhan was one of the activists detained and released later in the day, and he points out that such human rights violations are also against the Japan International Cooperation Agency guidelines.

Speaking for the National High Speed Rail Corporation, Dhananjay Kumar denied there were violations of norms – whether Indian or Japanese – in the case of the stakeholder consultations. “We did not announce stakeholder meetings at short notice – we put out advertisements in papers well in advance,” Kumar said, but did not specify the number of days that were given to land owners between the announcements and the meetings. Kumar did not comment on the allegations of human rights violations at the meetings, but in a previous interview, he had told that the decision to prohibit “unauthorised persons” from stakeholder meetings was taken to prevent “politically motivated people, like NGOs” from “creating a ruckus” at the consultations.

‘Reconsider the bullet train’

In their report, Prajapati and Chauhan have urged the Japan International Cooperation Agency to investigate and take prompt action against the National High Speed Rail Corporation for failing to comply with its guidelines. They also want the Japanese agency to reconsider the bullet train project and support alternative ways of strengthening the existing rail infrastructure between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

In May, activists of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti and Gujarat Khedut Samaj wrote to the Japan International Cooperation Agency about the alleged violations of its guidelines. Since they did not receive a response, they now plan to approach the Embassy of Japan in India. “We want international groups to respond to these violations, because JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency] is also liable to follow international rules in the implementation of big infrastructure projects,” said Prajapati. has sent a detailed questionnaire to the Japan International Cooperation Agency about the allegations of its guidelines being violated in the bullet train project. In response, the agency said, “JICA is still in the stage of discussion with the Indian side for the project formulation for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail project, and the project is yet to be implemented.”

The bullet train is not the first example of a foreign-funded infrastructure project that has run afoul of international social and environmental standards. In Gujarat itself, the Tata Power-owned Mundra Ultra Mega Power Project in Kutch has been in the midst of such a controversy since 2011. The US-based International Finance Corporation funded the project with an aid of US dollars 450 million, but villagers living around the power plant have now sued the Corporation for alleged large-scale environmental damages caused by the project. In 2015, a lower court in the United States held that international funding organisations are entitled to “absolute immunity” from lawsuits in that country. However, in May this year, the US Supreme Court agreed to take up an appeal case by the project-affected villagers.

“The concept of triple bottom line – planet, people, profit – is now almost 20 years old and it needs to be far more deeply embedded in the functioning of companies,” said Rajni Bakshi, the author of the book Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear. “Because of this concept, many companies still file sustainability reports, but very few companies give priority to the social and environmental bottom line. That is the root cause of why these issues keep coming up.”

An international agency’s guidelines may not be the same as legally-binding laws under which people can be prosecuted, but Bakshi emphasises that what matters is the social and environmental standards that a project strives for. “On that, there are very mixed results across the world. Sustainability is an ongoing struggle,” she said.

This story has been updated on September 1, 2018 to incorporate the response of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.