Thiruvananthapuram: In the best of times, a drive along Kerala’s narrow and meandering roads is a nightmare, with bumper-to-bumper traffic even in small towns. Even in these days of restrictions owing to COVID-19, there seems no change in the number of vehicles on the roads.
Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government has a solution up its sleeve: An intimidatingly expensive one, but one that the government says will be a veritable crown for the state in improving transport infrastructure.
That idea is a semi high-speed rail system named SilverLine, connecting the shrimp-shaped state from south to north, from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod, the northern-most of Kerala’s 14 districts.
None less than chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan is leading the advocacy for the project. But as always with projects in Kerala, there are controversies galore, much fear and fury among those whose homes and properties will be lost, even as the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is drumming up support for the rail.
What is the K-Rail project?
K-Rail, or the Kerala Rail Development Corporation, is a joint venture between the Kerala government and the federal ministry of railways for railway development in Kerala. This JV will build the proposed Semi High-Speed Rail (SilverLine) corridor.
The JV promoters claim that SilverLine will bring “remarkable changes” in local commute. Every kilometre travelled by a person on semi high-speed rail is a kilometre not travelled in an automobile, thus decongesting roads and leading to a substantial reduction in road accidents.
The other reason pointed out in support of the project is that the average speed on the roads and trains in Kerala is among the lowest among all regions in India.
How will the commute time improve?
Speed is the biggest promise that comes with the SilverLine project that bridges the 530km from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod. The highlight is the speed – a maximum operating speed of 200 kmph, cutting the travel time from south to north of the state from the present 10-12 hours to less than 4 hours.
The intermediate stations include Kollam, Chengannur, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Kochi Airport, Thrissur, Tirur, Kozhikode and Kannur.
Why the hostility and opposition to K-Rail project?
One of the key reasons for opposition to the project is the secrecy surrounding it. It was only after much protests and demands for transparency that even the detailed project report (DPR) of SilverLine was revealed on Saturday. The voluminous DPR consists of six volumes and 3,773 pages.
As with all projects in Kerala, a key question is the completion time. K-Rail managing director V. Ajith Kumar has said that the project was planned on a fast-track basis to be completed in 5 years. But there is a rider – the completion time hinges on completing the land acquisition in two years so that the rail can be built in three years.
What about the cost and funding?
The project cost is estimated at Rs 639.41 billion, which is expected to put additional pressure on Kerala’s already strained public finances.
The maintenance cost is estimated at Rs 5.42 billion a year, rising to Rs 6.94 billion after 10 years, while ticket collection is expected to be Rs 22.76 billion in 2025-26.
K-Rail has intensified attempts to secure an overseas loan of Rs 336.70 billion, which amounts to over half of the total project cost.
What do critics say?
Almost any new project in Kerala attracts instant controversy. This project even more so, given that it runs the entire north-south course of the state. The project has attracted flak from India’s Metro Man, E. Sreedharan, to environmental activist Medha Patkar, and even adverse comments from the Kerala High Court.
Metro Man E. Sreedharan has predicted that the fate of Kuttanad, which gets flooded easily, will get repeated in 393 km of the SilverLine corridor (which has a total length of 530 km, including its elevated viaduct) at the ground level.
He says high concrete or masonry walls are needed to prevent trespass of people and animals in the corridor. Fencing will not help as it can be violated easily. Sreedharan warns that providing solid walls on either side is a sure environmental disaster, as it will block natural drainage and will be an eyesore as well.
Former chief minister Oommen Chandy said, “It’s surprising that the CPM which once criticised the South-North Express Highway proposed by the UDF government has now become the proponents of SilverLine”.
What about compensation for land acquired?
One fear that has led to people’s resistance is the trust deficit regarding compensation.
Projects in Kerala are almost always stretched for long years, and those who are evicted for projects get their compensation years later, sometimes never. A recent example is the case of dozens of families evicted from Moolampilly, for the Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal. A good 13 years later, many are still fighting for compensation.
One of them was quoted in the media recently, saying, “Don’t be fooled by the announcement (of compensation) and never leave without first receiving compensation and rehabilitation.”
Are there alternative options?
Critics point out that SilverLine has much more environmental impact than other alternatives like widening the existing highways or even establishing more airports.
Kerala has four international airports, at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode and Kannur. However, the sheer number of international passengers from the state, including tens of thousands of students from the state studying abroad, point to the need for more airports than an all-new railway line cutting through private land and environmentally fragile areas, critics say.
Who will blink first?
The state government has no plans to budge. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has himself taken on the role of chief advocate for the project, addressing groups of ‘prominent citizens’.
Those opposing the project say that those participating in such explanatory sessions are not ‘prominent’ citizens but merely those who are favourably disposed towards the Left government.
The opposition to the project is as strong as the government’s resolve to realise the project. On Friday, seven survey stones planted by SilverLine authorities were found uprooted and a wreath placed over them at Madayipara near Kannur. The Kerala High Court has asked the government to go ahead with the survey, but not place survey stones on private properties.
Just when the project will begin or end is anyone’s guess at the moment. What the project has led to is sharply divide Keralites into two camps that fiercely oppose the project or passionately bats for it.