If the Government fails to get even a few low-hanging fruits, all talk of reviving the economy will remain just that.

If there is one project that the newly formed Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) should put on high priority for a fast-track clearance, it is three seemingly innocuous rail lines of not even 325 km in aggregate length located in the deep hinterlands of the country. These lines would facilitate evacuation of coal from three major fields — Mand Raigarh in Chhattisgarh, Ib Valley in Orissa and North Karanpura in Jharkhand — belonging to Coal India Ltd (CIL), helping the latter to produce an extra 100 million tonnes (mt) over its existing annual output of 440 mt or so. The only thing stopping that from happening is the absence of rail links to haul the coal from the pitheads once it is mined. Currently, some coal is being moved by road, but there are limits to it, not to speak of the colossal loss from burning a fuel that costs much more to transport than to mine.

The proposal for setting up dedicated rail lines from the above fields – the first one of 180 km distance and the other two about 55 and 95 km respectively — has been gathering dust for over a decade. While CIL has blamed the Railways for going slow with execution, the latter has cited delays in getting environment and forest approvals as the main reason. The Prime Minister's Office, in turn, has told the Railways to build the three lines within three years of the necessary clearances being received. Nobody, though, apparently knows the reasons why these are not being given in the first place. Do the said rail links pose such insurmountable ecological threats that outweigh the economic benefits from their implementation? The benefits are obvious for CIL and even the Railways, which stands to earn Rs 10,000 crore more from lugging the additional coal that can be evacuated. But more than just them, there are gains for the country as a whole, which is battling chronic power shortages and is actually importing over 100 mt of coal a year.

It is precisely projects of this kind — having significant economic implications, but stuck simply on account of multiple execution or approval authorities, moving at their own pace — that the CCI needs to identify for expediting all pending clearances and closely tracking implementation thereafter. The advantage with having a CCI-like body is that it is a forum for all relevant ministries/departments to present their views and arrive at a decision on a particular project. That decision can, then, become the basis for implementation. The above mentioned rail links, in fact, should be taken up as a test case to see how the basic principle underlying the CCI works in practice. If even this project — which involves two state-owned entities and both monopolies on top — cannot pass the test, all talk of the Government being keen to revive investments in the economy will remain just that.

(This article was published on December 23, 2012)
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