India opens vast railway network to private players

India’s 167-year-old train network carries 20 million passengers. (AFP)
Updated 02 July 2020

India opens vast railway network to private players

  • The 167-year-old train network carries 20 million passengers daily
  • India’s railway ministry said it would now permit businesses to run trains along 109 routes

MUMBAI: India has opened up its vast railway sector to private companies, allowing firms to operate trains on certain routes, in a bid to boost its stuttering, virus-hit economy.
The 167-year-old train network carries 20 million passengers daily but is plagued by deadly accidents, rickety infrastructure, lack of modern amenities and poor investment.
In an announcement late Wednesday, the railway ministry said it would now permit businesses to run trains along 109 routes, inviting bids from firms weeks after New Delhi opened up coal mining to the private sector.
“This is the first initiative of private investment for running passenger trains over Indian Railways network,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The objective of this initiative is to introduce modern technology rolling stock with reduced maintenance, reduced transit time, boost job creation, provide enhanced safety, provide world class travel experience to passengers,” it added.
The project will require an investment of $39.8 million and private players will have to pay the government fixed haul charges and a percentage of profits determined during the bidding process.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to privatize a range of industries that have been under state control for decades, sparking criticism from the opposition Congress party.
“Now the government is in a desperate mood to sell a great chunk of one of our largest national asset #IndianRailways,” Congress politician Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury tweeted.
“Privatization cannot be construed as a panacea of railways malady,” he added.
The tottering network is notorious for accidents, with 15,000 passengers killed every year according to a 2012 government report that described the deaths as a “massacre.”
Asia’s third-largest economy has been clobbered by the pandemic and a months-long lockdown, growing at its slowest pace in at least two decades last quarter.
The shutdown, which put millions out of work overnight, is widely expected to plunge the country into recession.
Fears for the economy prompted the government to allow many businesses to resume operations starting last month despite an ongoing increase in infections, which have now crossed 600,000.
Even before Modi announced the lockdown in late March, the economy was struggling to gain traction with sluggish growth, record unemployment and a flurry of bad loans making banks reluctant to lend.


Lebanon’s $15bn blast repair bill adds to economic misery

Updated 06 August 2020

Lebanon’s $15bn blast repair bill adds to economic misery

  • Beirut port devastation brings warnings of housing crisis and billion-dollar hit to exports, imports

BEIRUT: Lebanon could face a repair bill of up to $15 billion in the aftermath of a cataclysmic chemical blast at Beirut port, according to a top government adviser.

The explosion, which was felt as far away as Cyprus, killed at least 100 people, wounded thousands and left an additional 300,000 Beirut residents homeless. 

It is thought to have been caused by nearly three tons of ammonium nitrate, a common agricultural fertilizer, that was confiscated in 2013 and improperly stored in warehouses. But after months of economic misery, the collapse of the currency and mounting civil unrest, it is being seen as the consequence of years of neglect, financial mismanagement and corruption as across the country.

Charbel Cordahi, an economist and financial adviser to the president, estimated the cost of damages from the explosion, including compensation, at around $15 billion. 

“Up to 70 percent of Lebanon’s trade channels through the port of Beirut,” he told Arab News.

“Airports and other ports in the country can facilitate only 30-40 percent of this trade, and opening the borders with Syria can facilitate another 20 percent. This means that at least $5 billion of imports will not find their way to the country, and another $2 billion of exports will stay on ground in the coming eight months. This represents a loss of around $4 billion, or 15 percent of gross domestic product,” he said.

He added that without an international aid program, “Lebanon cannot face this disaster.”

The explosion caps months of misery for the Lebanese, nearly half of whom now live below the poverty line. Popular anger directed at the government and political classes has swelled as a wider economic crisis has been made worse by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Efforts to assess the damage at Beirut port, the country’s main trade gateway, are already underway. The second priority will be to restore food security and ensure the country does not run out of wheat after grain silos were destroyed, while also making sure residents who have lost their homes are rehoused as quickly as possible. Maintaining medical supplies and mitigating the environmental impact will also be a priority for city chiefs.

Many residents of the city are unable to return to their homes, even if their buildings remain visibly intact, because of the potential structural damage caused by the 4.5 Richter-scale blast.

“We need other countries to help us reconstruct Beirut,” Gen. Mohammed Kheir, secretary general of the Higher Relief Council, told Arab News. “We would be grateful if each country rebuilt a street or neighborhood in Beirut, like they did following the 2006 Israeli aggression. That would be the best way.”

He also appealed for emergency prefab homes for families for whom the government may not be able to provide housing.

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud, who estimated the primary damage at $3-$5 billion, appealed to the international community and the Lebanese diaspora to help.

Health officials had told Arab News that the country was running low on medical equipment, especially items needed for major surgery, and hoped that aid from abroad would fill the gap.

It is still too early to assess the full environmental impact of the blast, but environmental expert Mostapha Raad said a potentially bigger catastrophe may have been averted when the wind carried away a toxic cloud filled with nitric acid away from land and toward open sea.

“We were afraid the ammonium nitrate residue would lead to cooling off the weather and causing acidic rain, but according to tests on air samples, the result was green and the cloud disappeared over the sea,” he said.