Lawmaker sees new future in rejection of bullet train

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A prominent legislator hopes the move is a sign the National Assembly is focusing on the needy

People relax on train tracks in Hanoi in January 2010. The National Assembly made a surprise move in rejecting a government proposal to build a US$56-billion bullet train linking Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with representatives arguing that more time would be needed to study the feasibility of the project.

The surprise rejection of a proposed US$56 billion express railway project last weekend could be more than a "rare decision," a lawmaker says, arguing it could be an indicator that the National Assembly is steering its priorities more toward the needs of Vietnam's poor.

A June 19 plenary session of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, voted against a government plan to construct a high-speed railway project traversing the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Only 37 percent of 427 legislators voted for the project while nearly 7 percent abstained. Those who voted against the plan said they did so because it was economically unsound. They asked the government to further study the feasibility of the project.

The $56 billion mega-project would have built a 1,570-kilometer (975-mile) track that would cut HCMC-Hanoi travel time to six hours from the current 29 hours. The first phase was slated for completion in 2020 and the second 15 years later.

"This surprising outcome [of the vote] was in fact an inevitable conclusion for an economically ill-equipped major project," said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a deputy from the northern mountainous province of Lang Son.

"A country that is still poor like Vietnam cannot afford to construct a bullet train that would eat up around 50 percent of its annual gross domestic product [GDP] and would cost 2.5 times more than the annual national budget," Thuyet told Thanh Nien Weekly via phone.

Half of all Vietnamese still depend on agriculture as their meal ticket. Per capita income is about $1,000 and the minimum government salary is VND730,000 ($38) per month. The World Bank has also said that Vietnam's budget deficit was "very high" at 8.4 percent of GDP in 2009.

Thuyet said the rejection of the major government proposal, the first decision of its kind by the legislative body, was a landmark move and he hoped it was not the last.

"I am hopeful that when the National Assembly debates other major issues of national importance in the future, the same debate atmosphere will continue."

Thuyet said different decisions could have been made in regards to other controversial projects had debate been as energetic as it was with regards to the railway project.

At a biannual National Assembly meeting in October 2009, lawmakers pointed out that the government had divided projects into smaller ones of less than VND20 trillion (US$1.12 billion) to bypass the assembly's approval process. According to a National Assembly resolution passed in 2006, only key national investment projects valued at VND20 trillion or above required approval of the legislature.

The government shrugged off the allegation, saying it was best that the projects were implemented separately.

Flow of funds

Experts also pointed out that investment priorities should be turned to other pressing needs of the country.

Jonathan Pincus, a HCMC-based economist with the Vietnam program at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the government should focus on the most pressing infrastructure bottlenecks that can be addressed at relatively low cost, and that are not too heavily reliant on imported machinery and material.

"For example a major north-south, limited access expressway would move goods and people quickly along the densely populated coastline. Or perhaps a freight rail system that could move goods cheaply and quickly along the coast," Pincus said.

Representative Thuyet, who is also vice chair for the parliamentary Committee for Culture, Education, Youth and Children, said mountainous areas should be among the first benefactors of increased infrastructure investment.

"Many children in the mountainous areas still go to school by transportation means tantamount to those their ancestors used centuries ago. That is unacceptable."

At the month-long assembly session that wrapped up on June 19, Thuyet also grilled Transport Minister Ho Nghia Dung on the lack of appropriate infrastructure investment in rural and mountainous areas.

"We can clearly see that people in many places are facing great difficulties, including those in Kon Tum Province [in the Central Highlands] who have to cross the Po Ko River by zip-line," Thuyet said.

Minister Dung responded that local authorities had not informed him of the situation.

"Turning to the cable to cross the river was a creative idea cooked up by local residents. We would have never imagined that idea," Dung said.

Construction of two bridges across the river has begun after the zip-line received major media coverage last month. They are set for completion this September.

Deputy Nguyen Dinh Xuan of the southern Tay Ninh Province also concurred that Vietnam had many other things in desperate need of increased investment that should obviously take priority over a bullet train.

"We need to pump more money into projects tackling climate change, as well as drainage system upgrades, education, and healthcare," Xuan told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"˜A few more decades'

The Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported on June 22 that Japan's Transport Minister Seiji Maehara said he would push on with efforts to sell bullet train technology to Vietnam despite the project's rejection.

"We hope Vietnam will introduce Japan's Shinkansen bullet train system," Maehara was quoted by AFP as saying.

"Japan will try to help Vietnam introduce the Japanese system by cooperating with the Vietnamese government to draw up a feasible plan so that the National Assembly will approve it."

At the assembly's plenary sessions, Vietnamese lawmakers asked the government to be patient and thorough before starting a bullet train project.

Representative Xuan from Tay Ninh Province said the project should not commence before 2020, but Thuyet was even more cautious.

"It would not be too late if the house comes back to debate the project after a few more decades," Thuyet said.

"Yes, Vietnam should have a high-speed rail system. But only once the economy is full-grown."

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