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Cost & ecology concerns, ‘corruption’: Why there’s a cloud over Kerala’s SilverLine rail project

Bengaluru: Earlier this week, the Kerala High Court stayed the process of laying boundary stones for land acquisition for Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s pet project, the SilverLine semi-high speed rail corridor, dealing a fresh blow to a project that has been embroiled in controversy for months now.

In its order on a batch of petitions filed against SilverLine, the HC also asked the Union government to clarify its stance on clearance to the project.

The Rs 64,000-crore project, that was first announced 12 years ago by a previous Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, has become a flashpoint between the Kerala government, environmental and social activists, opposition parties as well as urban development experts.

Criticism of the project ranges from irreparable damage to the state’s fragile ecology, displacement of tens of thousands of families, allegations of 10 per cent commission against the LDF government, and misrepresentation of costs, among others.

The Pinarayi Vijayan government’s decision to disallow the Detailed Project Report (DPR) to be made available for public scrutiny has only fanned the controversy.

ThePrint approached Kerala’s Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal through text messages and an email for a comment on this issue, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.

Also read: K-Rail: Global agencies including JICA offer support, says Kerala CM

What is the SilverLine project?

The SilverLine project is a 560-km semi-high speed rail corridor that aims to connect Kasargod with Thiruvananthapuram — essentially connecting the northern end of Kerala to the southern end.

According to K-Rail (Kerala Rail Development Corporation, a joint venture between Kerala and the Union Ministry of Railways), which is executing the corridor, the total cost of the project will be Rs 63,941 crore. The corridor is projected to operate at speeds of 200 km per hour, covering the entire distance in four hours instead of the existing rail routes that take 12 hours.

The semi-high speed rail will pass through 11 districts, with stations in Kollam, Chengannur, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Kochi airport, Thrissur, Tirur, Kozhikode and Kannur. It is proposed to be completed by 2025.

The project would require 1,383 hectares of land, of which some 1,198 hectares are privately owned. The rail is projected to pass through wetlands, backwaters, embankments, paddy fields, forest areas along the Western Ghats, semi-urban and urban localities. 

The project was first mooted in 2010 by then-finance minister of Kerala, Thomas Issac, citing the need to expand rail and waterways to cater to Kerala’s growing commuting needs.

However, it was only in October 2020 that the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government submitted the project report to the Union government. In four months, the Centre gave an ‘in-principle’ nod, and directed the state to begin land acquisition and approach foreign funding agencies.

In May 2021, the Vijayan government registered a historic victory in the assembly polls and returned to power, and five months later, the Union government withdrew its consent for foreign funding.

In response to a query in the Rajya Sabha last month, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said K-Rail is a joint-venture company of the Kerala government (51 per cent) and his ministry (49 per cent), adding that further consideration of the project will come only after assessing its technological and economic viability. 

On 6 December, the Kerala CM wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to intervene and approve the project.

However, with the Union government not making its stance clear, the Kerala HC has now asked the Centre to state its position on 20 January, when it will hear the batch of petitions challenging the project.

Also read: Uprooting survey stones will not stop development, SilverLine project will be implemented: Kerala CM

Questions on cost projections

According to E. Sreedharan, the ‘Metro Man’ of India and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s chief ministerial candidate in the 2021 Kerala elections, the project costs have been “brutally suppressed”. 

“It will cost about Rs 1.2 lakh crore to implement this,” he told ThePrint.

Adding that the cons of the project outweigh the pros, Sreedharan accused the LDF government of hiding the DRP from people.

“Of the 500-plus km of the rail corridor, some 350 km will pass through urban settlements, embankments, paddy fields and forests, causing severe destruction. Kerala is already starved for land for paddy cultivation. I have prepared DPRs for national projects and never once were they kept a secret,” he said, adding that the state government’s decision to build walls on either side of the corridor will cause untold misery to people of Kerala.

K-Rail on its website, however, claims that underpasses and overbridges would be built every 500 meters to ease the commute. “They haven’t shown cost estimates for these underpasses in the current (plan worth) Rs 64,000 crore,” Sreedharan said.

“We are already an ecologically sensitive state and suffer relentlessly with floods. Instead of concentrating on projects that will help people, the LDF government is adamantly trying to push a non-starter,” he added.

Ecology concerns raised as well

The Congress, too, has vehemently opposed the project, along with environmentalists and social activists.

“Twenty thousand families will be displaced. The LDF is undertaking this project in violation of laws for a 10 per cent commission,” alleged V.D. Satheesan, Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala assembly, while speaking to ThePrint.

“Their intent is to acquire land since Kerala is already hard-pressed for land. Their projection for passengers of this SilverLine project is 45,000 commuters per day but current passenger footfall in Kerala on the route is 10,000 per day,” he added.

Satheesan said the LDF government was refusing to discuss the project either on the floor of the assembly or outside with the public.

“LDF is behaving like the BJP. Instead of planning for the welfare of people, they are taking up projects that are economically not viable. This is the same party that opposed the Gujarat-Mumbai bullet train citing heavy costs to the exchequer, but now wants to take up a project that will drown Kerala in debt,” Satheesan added. 

The LOP also raised concerns over the project using standard gauge instead of broad gauge rails. 

“Without clearance, the government has started the land acquisition process. They have agreed to use standard gauge for the project since it is a condition put forth by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) whose intent is to sell scrap and substandard material for the project,” he alleged.

Govt’s response to concerns

So strong is the protest on the ground against the project that K-Rail, on its website, has set up a page called ‘Myth versus reality’, to address the concerns. The page is aimed at responding to concerns in an FAQ manner.

CM Vijayan himself wrote in the latest edition of Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s mouthpiece ‘Chintha’ that resistance to the project was the result of “misunderstanding”.

“There is no government anywhere in the world that does not borrow for infrastructure development projects,” he said. 

Renowned activist Medha Patkar visited sites where boundary walls were erected in Kozhikode on 10 January, and spoke with several organisations protesting relentlessly against the project.

“This isn’t a priority project at all. People don’t want this project. Kerala has become a flood-prone state and mega-infrastructure projects like this have led to water-logging since they become barriers to natural flow of water,” Patkar told ThePrint, adding that the project was supposed to get an environment impact assessment (EIA) report.

“The government needs to prove that this isn’t disastrous for the environment. There is no EIA. The only reason the Kerala government is calling this a ‘green project’ is because the rail runs on electricity, but where does this electricity come from?” she added, pointing to thermal plants being largest producers of electricity in India.

“Instead of blaming protestors like farmers were blamed by BJP, we expect the CPI(M) to hold dialogue,” Patkar said.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: Centre’s nod for SilverLine unlikely, says Metroman Sreedharan

Source: The Print

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