Tuesday 25 September 2018

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Infrastructure | Railways

Money crunch slows down Konkan railway

 

Making no budgetary provision to cover the shortfall of Rs 3000 million has thrown all the plans to complete the prestigious Konkan railway project by October this year to the winds.

Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, though admitted on the floor of the House that the project is getting delayed due to financial crunch, announced yet another deadline, misguiding the long-awaiting people of the western region.

This has however spread a wave of pessimism among the KRC officials, who are already struggling to overcome the technical hurdles like marine clay sinking the embankments and soft soil delaying digging of the tunnels in Goa region.

"We will try our level best to meet the deadline", says KRC spokesman S V Salelkar, reacting to the minister's statement. However, none of the KRC officials can state how they would perform this miracle when no official in the railway ministry is keenly interested in resolving the fund crunch the important national project is facing.

"It's a personality clash between the Railway Board and the KRC", says one senior official in the KRC. But the subordinate staff has a strong feeling that the officials in the Railway Board as well as the ministry are deliberately creating hurdles in its completion because they are not happy with the creation of an autonomous body like a corporation for such a lucrative project, covering a distance of 760 kms.

The project, work on which started in October '90, has now reached a final phase. Almost 95 per cent of work has been completed while 130 km - line upto Chiplun in Maharashtra and upto Kundapur in Karnataka has already been commissioned.

The KRC is also overcoming its major technical hurdle of the soft soil found in 10 tunnels in the three states, raising hopes of the locals. "But we can't do anything much without funds", admits Salelkar.

This is perhaps the sixth time KRC has changed its deadline, after the first one of October '94. The estimated cost of the project has also zoomed up from Rs 104.3 billion to Rs 240 billion in last six years.

Besides the central government and the four states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala contributing Rs 6000 million in terms of equity, the KRC has also made several experiments to raise funds on its own, to accomplish its target.

But all its efforts learnt to have been either stalled or delayed by some elements sitting in Delhi. "There is very little co-operation we could get from the railway ministry or the central government", discloses one KRC official who prefers to hide his identity. In fact the cold war, he recalls, had reached even upto the ministerial level with former railway minister C K Jaffer Sharief openly crossing swords with KRC chairman E Sreedharan.

His successor, former minister of state for railways Suresh Kalmadi, also failed to fulfil his promises to make a provision in his interim budget presented in February to cover the shortfall. Even former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, it is learnt, had given similar assurance to the KRC authorities in February during his Goa visit.

The recent budget presented by Paswan is also no different, except the request he has made to the Planning Commission for "special co-operation" to resolve the resource problem. But why the PC was not approached till date by the ministry till date, wonder the KRC authorities.

Perhaps the financial problem in KRC exists since 1991, one year after the work started, when Indian Railways Finance Corporation (IRFC) refused to oblige the finance ministry by raising funds for the KRC project, raising several objections.

The KRC was then permitted to mobilise its own resources through tax-free bonds as IRFC could raise only Rs 1316.4 million in three years, till 93-94. Floating the issues twice, the KRC could raise only Rs 180 billion till date, as the market has not responded to its tax-free bonds as expected.

"I don't know why IRFC didn't co-operate. But it's a fact that response to our bonds started diminishing due to RBI restrictions like even not allowing to transfer the bonds", says Salelkar. The KRC has now mooted a proposal to raise around Rs 1000 million by mortgaging its assets like railway tracks etc to the financial institutions.

Faced with a shortfall of Rs 3000 million, the KRC also tried for foreign aid. The Bank of America, situated in Europe, has expressed its willingness to grant a loan of $ 30 million (Rs 1000 million approximately). "But the finance ministry still hesitates to give the letter of comfort, which is a guarantee on behalf of the Govt of India to pay back the loans", the sources disclose.

The KRC authorities are irritated with the "step-motherly treatment", as one official describes it, given to the corporation. According to him, such letter of comfort is given even to the Maharashtra Telephone Nigam Ltd. But the finance ministry seems to have been considering the MTNL as a government body, while the KRC an autonomous one.

It is in this light that Paswan's announcement is flayed by all the political parties, at least in Goa. Power Minister Mauvin Godinho, in whose Cortalim constituency the KRC will now replace the embankments with three more bridges to overcome the problem of marine clay, has categorically stated that it's impossible to commission the line by October end.

State transport minister Subhash Shirodkar, who is heading the cabinet committee for Konkan railway here, also admits that work cannot be expedited without getting the financial problem resolved. "The KRC is loosing Rs 4 million per day due to delay in commissioning the railway line. But I am confident that Paswan will solve this problem", he says.

Shirodkar however does not agree that the work is also delayed because of the problems faced along the route, especially in Goa. Due to the realignment controversy Goan environmentalists had raised, it may be recalled, the work was stopped for nine months in most of the parts of the tourist state.

It got delayed further due to the soft soil found while digging tunnels and also the embankments which started sinking due to marine clay. "But they could expedite the work here if money was not the issue", opines Shirodkar.

The KRC engineers have already succeeded in breaking through the tunnels, four in Karnataka and two in Maharashtra, overcoming the problem of soft soil. But three tunnels in Goa, except the one at Verna, is still the struggling area. "Only 61 mts of stretch is remaining at the 2.35 km - long tunnel at Padi. But 30 per cent work is still left at Old Goa and 36 per cent at Pedne", says Salelkar.

Similarly, the KRC is confronted with a work of building three new bridges and extending an existing one at Cortalim, approximately a distance of 250 mts, due to its own apathy. The 10 mt-high embankments kept on sinking in the marshy land on the banks of Zuari river while the authorities sat down adamantly for over two years.

Though Salelkar claims of completing the work before October, engineers on the site disclose that work may not be completed even by next monsoons, if the present state of affairs continued.

Though overall work progress is around 95 per cent in Maharashtra and Karnataka, 10 per cent of major work is still lingering on the 105 km - long Goa stretch. It includes three problematic tunnels against 98 per cent of the tunnel work completed otherwise, three new bridges in the state against 96 per cent of bridges completed and only 46 per cent of area in Goa covered with tracks against 80 per cent of track-laying completed in the neighbouring states.

The work, especially digging of the dangerous tunnels, will stop now with the arrival of monsoons. The workers would not be able to enter these tunnels till October, risking their lives with the soft soil. But still the KRC officials claim that they can complete the work by March next year - - yet another deadline they have set, subject to funds.






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