Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

New Delhi/Tokyo — Japanese steel and engineering companies are in the driver’s seat to bag major supply contracts for a $17bn Indian bullet train, several sources said, undermining a key component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policy — a push to "Make in India".

Japan is funding most of the project, and Japanese companies are likely to supply at least 70% of the core components of the rail line, said five sources in New Delhi with direct knowledge of the matter.

A spokesperson for Modi’s office declined to comment.

The Indian company executing the project, National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHSRCL), said in a statement late on Thursday that procurement from Japan will be only 18% of the total project cost. Indian companies will carry out the construction of bridges and structures for the elevated rail, which will amount to more than half the cost, it said.

A Japanese transport ministry official involved in the project said the two countries were still working out a strategy for the supply of key components, and would unveil a plan for procurements around July. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The September 2017 agreement between Japan and India for the bullet train project included two clauses: the promotion of Make in India and "Transfer of Technology" — through which New Delhi had hoped to set up manufacturing facilities in the country, generate jobs and get a toe-hold in Japanese technology.

Modi faces a general election in 2019 and is under pressure to provide more jobs to millions of unemployed in India. Critics also say the bullet train is wasteful and that the money could be better used elsewhere.

Modi faces a general election in 2019 and is under pressure to provide more jobs to millions of unemployed in India. Critics also say the bullet train is wasteful and that the money could be better used elsewhere

"The Japanese have reservations on certain issues because they have a concern that there is a difference in the culture and systems of Japan from the culture and systems in India," said Achal Khare, MD of NHSRCL. "The work culture is very different."

Khare did not elaborate, but two Indian railways officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said their Japanese counterparts had raised questions about efficiency in Indian companies and their ability to meet timelines.

The World Bank currently ranks India 100th out of 190 nations on the ease of doing business, giving it relatively low marks for starting a business, enforcing contracts and dealing with construction permits.

NHSRCL said that Japan will train more than 300 Indian personnel on the high-speed technology as part of efforts to build local expertise. Tomoyuki Nakano, director for international engineering affairs in the railway bureau at Japan’s transport ministry, said the issue was that Indian companies had no experience or technologies specialising in high-speed railway systems at present.

"I don’t think the Japanese are concerned about a difference in the work culture," Nakano said. He and other Japanese officials said efforts were continuing to fulfil the Make in India component of the agreement by promoting collaborations between companies from the two countries.

Still, several Indian officials said it was by and large accepted that Indian companies would not have a major part to play in the bullet train project.

Japan will get major leeway because the bullet train is largely funded by a 50-year loan provided by its government, said a close aide of Modi, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "At this stage, to expect Indian companies to have a bigger share in manufacturing appears to be a little difficult," said a senior official at the Indian government’s policy think-tank, NITI Aayog, who is involved in the negotiations.

Modi’s flagship Make in India initiative aims to lift the share of manufacturing in India’s $2-trillion economy to 25% and create 100-million jobs by 2022. However, midway through his five-year term, manufacturing was still at 17% of India’s GDP in the 2016-17 financial year from 15% previously.

Only one joint venture

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid the foundation stone for India’s first bullet train in September last year. It will link Mumbai with Ahmedabad, the largest commercial city in Modi’s home state Gujarat.

Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal, Japan’s biggest steel maker, and other companies such as JFE Holdings, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba and Hitachi are likely to bid for various contracts, said three senior Indian government officials directly involved in the project.

Nippon Steel said it would not comment on specific projects. JFE, Hitachi and Toshiba said they were interested in the project but had not finalised plans, including any possibilities of joint ventures with Indian firms. Mitsubishi Heavy said it had not decided if it wanted to be involved.

The sole collaboration aimed at the bullet train project is between Kawasaki Heavy Industries and India’s Bharat Heavy Electricals, which aims to win carriage orders.

Japanese government officials have asked for more bullet train corridors in India before transferring technology, three senior Indian officials said. However, New Delhi is unlikely to announce any new projects until the final cost and commercial feasibility of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad link is clear, the officials said.

"It’s like a chicken and egg situation on technology. The Japanese want an economy of scale and business but the Indian view is that India is a big market [and] that once this market is explored the business will automatically be generated," said NHSRCL’s Khare.

Missed opportunity

New Delhi has tried to help Indian steel companies grab a slice of the pie. Last year, the Indian government mediated negotiations between Nippon Steel and India’s Jindal Steel and Power to set up a joint venture to manufacture rails, but the talks fell through after the Japanese major raised quality concerns, three sources in New Delhi said.

State-owned Steel Authority of India (SAIL), which, for decades, has been the main supplier of rails to Indian Railways, was also overlooked by Japanese companies due to quality concerns, the sources said.

Nippon Steel declined comment and Jindal and SAIL did not reply to e-mails seeking comment.

Left with little choice, Indian firms will now largely provide raw materials, such as cement, and supply manpower for the assembly of rails, the sources said.

India’s UltraTech Cement, Larsen & Toubro, Bharat Heavy Electricals and Ambuja Cements are among those in the race for the supply of construction materials and power, the two Indian railways officials said.

These companies did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

Reuters

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