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India is said to be considering three major areas for collaboration with China — the development of high-speed rail networks, expansion of heavy freight haulage and the upgrading of major train stations. In all these fields, India is a laggard and can help itself by opening the door to the new world leader, China. Beijing has the money, technology, expertise and experience to accelerate the transformation of Indian railways.
The rail sector, in fact, captures the story of the divergent developmental trajectories that Delhi and Beijing have pursued in the last few decades and explains why India has fallen behind China in so many areas. But is Delhi capable of grasping the counter-intuitive truth that the road to political parity with Beijing runs through deeper economic collaboration with Beijing?
At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese nationalists and communists understood the centrality of railways in the political unification and economic modernisation of the country. Few leaders of the Indian national movement matched the vision for railway development that the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, had. Nearly a century ago, Sun Yat-sen, who took charge as the first president of the provisional Republic of China, outlined a blueprint for the building of 1,60,000 kilometres of rail network.
Mao Zedong, who established the People's Republic, understood the importance of railways in uniting the country and focused on expanding the rail network to western China. Deng Xiaoping and his successors have invested heavily in the expansion and modernisation of railways as part of their reconstruction of China after the Maoist era. Communist China, which had barely 27,000 km of rail routes in 1949, now has a network that is nearly 1,00,000 km. Much of the Chinese expansion has occurred in the last three decades. India, which inherited from the British nearly 54,000 km of network, has added just about 11,000 in the last six and a half decades.
If China's vision for railways was driven by nationalism, Sun's strategy focused on the importance of active external collaboration with America, Europe and Russia. After an initial inward orientation, China's communists turned towards international cooperation. India's narrowly constructed ideology of "self-reliance" meant it never had the resources or technology for transforming the rail network.
By confidently collaborating with advanced countries, playing one against the other, leveraging its size to get good terms on technology transfer, and designing effective policies for technology absorption, China has now become the world's top dog in railways. In the 19th century, Chinese labour was indispensable in the construction of trans-continental North American railroads. Today, Beijing is offering capital and technology to build high-speed train networks in the United States.
For Sun Yat Sen, railways were not just about national unification; they were about integrating China with the rest of the world. Sun dreamt of linking China's railroads with those of Europe and extending them to India and Africa. China has brought its railroads to the borders of India through Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan provinces. It has plans to extend them into Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
India, meanwhile, is struggling to extend the rail network to sensitive regions of Kashmir and the Northeast. Its Raj-era rail links to Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh are in acute disrepair. Let alone offering a vision for railways, successive governments in Delhi have been wilful in their neglect and the politicians ruthless in milking it dry for parochial ends.
The nitpicking bureaucrats at Rail Bhavan have tended to squander the recent opportunities that have come India's way. Recall their delaying tactics in response to the Japanese offer seven years ago to build the Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor.
The railways are too important for India's future to be left to bureaucrats and engineers. India's challenges of national integration, inclusive development, industrialisation, economic efficiency, employment generation, environmental management and urban development, to name just a few, depend critically on the rapid modernisation of its railways.
It is up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, then, to make sure that the current opportunity for collaboration with China does not become just another MoU that will gather dust. To be sure, there are many technical issues that will need to be addressed before a large Chinese participation in Indian railway development can occur. That, precisely, is where the PM must demonstrate leadership in resolving contentious policy issues expeditiously.
With the Rail Bhavan in the hands of the Congress, a rare opportunity is at hand for the PM to push forward purposefully with China. More broadly, the rail sector allows Delhi to demonstrate that it is ready for serious government-to-government collaboration with Beijing.
Until now, India's private sector has pulled the train of India-China commercial cooperation. While a large number of Indian corporates recognise that China is a growth opportunity, much of the government is paralysed by fears about an expansive commercial engagement with Beijing.
The second round of the strategic economic dialogue is the right moment for India to end its ambiguous signals on industrial cooperation with China, which is now the world's second largest economy and might replace the US as the first within the next two decades.
While Delhi must necessarily exclude Beijing's presence in a small set of areas on national security considerations, it must actively facilitate Chinese participation in the rest. The railways are a good place to start welcoming what could be consequential Chinese contribution to India's industrial and technological rejuvenation.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'
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