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Railways tighten purse strings as land hurdles delay 177 new rail line projects

Arun Kumar Das | Updated on: 20 December 2017, 19:54 IST

Facing a prolonged delay in acquiring land for several key rail projects, the railways has tightened the fund allocation method and has decided that the commencement of physical work shall be taken up only after the completion of land acquisition.

Since land is a state subject and railways depend upon the state governments to acquire land for rail projects.

Though land is required for setting up new production units, station development, construction of underpass and overbridges to eliminate level crossings, the state-run transporter is facing the crunch mostly when it comes to laying new lines across the country.

Laying new lines is a part of the rapid expansion of rail infrastructure plan is crucial for the national transporter to decongest the oversaturated network and speed up the train movement to reduce travel time of passengers.

The state-run transporter has recently written to all states to expedite the land acquisition proceedings to prevent further delays in laying new lines in their respective states.

The commencement of physical work for New Line projects shall be taken up only after the completion of land acquisition. However, general managers of zonal railways have been empowered to invite tenders if they are certain of the possibility of land acquisition in a reasonable time frame. For this, a written assurance from the state government will be required by the GMs, the latest letter by the Additional Member (Works) Ajit Pandit said.

Currently, the railways have 177 new rail line projects worth Rs 2.42 lakh crores as part of the massive rail infrastructure development plan. The 177 new lines entail adding about 20,500 km long rail track across the country involving acquiring 82,000 hectares of land.

Besides this, work is going on for 58 gauge conversions and 256 doubling projects worth about Rs 1.6 lakh cr.

However, the gauge conversion and doubling do not require much land as it is done mostly on existing rail land while laying of one km long line requires up to four to five hectares of land.

“Almost all our new lines projects are facing unusual delays because of land acquisition issue and there are many such projects which are on for the last 20 years,” said a senior Railway Ministry official involved with the infrastructure project.

In order to expedite the land acquisition, railways has sought state governments' support by making states joint partners in the projects through signing MoUs and forming special purpose vehicles (SPV). SPVs give states a chance to prioritise railway projects for quicker execution and to open opportunities to avail private funding.

As per the arrangement, there are joint ventures in which states give land as part of their equity. Then, there are regular new-line projects for which land needs to be acquired in states. States like Maharashtra, Odisha, Kerala, Telangana, Chhatisgarh have signed MoUs with the Railways to be part of the rail projects in their respective states.

“Our emphasis is to make sure that the land acquisition process does not hold up progress in projects,” said the official.

Ajit Pandit has already sent letters to chief secretaries in this regard requesting for a speedy land-acquisition process so that “project activities” may continue. 

“General Managers of Zonal Railways have also been empowered to review further investments where state support is not forthcoming and the projects have remained in limbo for a long period,” Pandit stated in the letter.

According to the new policy, the issue of tenders or commencement of physical work for new line projects shall be taken up only after completion of land acquisition.

Railways acquire land through Special Rail Projects Act where one person can be nominated as competent authority to deal with the state and the landowners. Railway land acquisition also involves the Right to fair compensation, rehabilitation which entails direct negotiation with villagers.

Railways, which executed line projects through its PSUs like RVNL, IRCON, RITES, KRCL and MRVC besides zonal railways, gives compensation amount which is disbursed by the state government. Currently, only 70% of the land needed to be acquired to start a project, which often led to stoppages and delays because of non-availably of land or earmarked land being caught in litigation. 

The existing policy did not define the acquired line needed to be linear, so problems arose when projects would start having issues when part work begins and the next section of land was not available.

There are law and order issues, agitations, reluctance on the part of the landowners to part with the land are some of the problems being faced for acquiring land, he said.

There are many new line projects being delayed inordinately like the land acquisition for Indore-Dahod and Dhar-Chhota Udaipur new rail line and Mhow-Khandwa gauge conversion projects. The Indore-Dahod and Dhar-Chhota Udaipur new rail line project had to be completed by 2011. While the foundation stone of the project was laid in 2008, the project being delayed.

Similarly, the Rs 747.91 crore project involving the 37.56 km Jeypore-Nabarangpur line in Odisha is facing the land acquisition delays.

As per the memorandum of understanding with Odisha, Railway and the state government will have equal responsibilities. While the Railways will bear half of the construction cost, the state government will bear the entire cost of land.

Now that the Railways has furnished the details of land requirement, so it is the state government’s responsibility because acquisition remains the single biggest problem for the progress of the projects, the official said.

The broad gauge line is important considering it brings connectivity to Nabarangpur district with an existing station on Kottavalasa-Kirandul line. This rail line will provide connectivity to Koraput, Jeypore, Jagdalpur and Dantewada. It will also connect Nabarangpur to Junagarh and result in cutting travel time to Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

According to a parliamentary panel report, out of the 432 new line, doubling and gauge conversion ongoing/pending projects of the Railways, 292 projects are socially desirable having the rate of returns (RoR) less than 12%.

The socially desirable projects can be funded only from gross budgetary support (GBS) and not by taking a loan from outside where the railways have to pay market rate because the rate of return (RoR)from those lines will not be substantial enough to reimburse the cost of burrowing, it observed.

Railways has taken up many socially desirable projects in states including north-east, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh though RoR is less. But due to the land acquisition hurdles, the projects are facing delays, the official said.

The author is senior journalist and can be contacted at akdas2005@gmail.com

First published: 20 December 2017, 19:54 IST