SILVERLINE PROJECT

Kerala's SilverLine: Putting a project on track

Print edition : January 14, 2022

A protest against the Silverline project led by the UDF district committee outside the Thrissur Collectorate on December 19. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The LDF government in Kerala takes determined steps to go ahead with the SilverLine project, a semi high-speed rail corridor, but opposition to the project is mounting.

IN the State Budget in March 2019, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala announced its plan to build a “north-south parallel rail track” which would be an “elevated double line” independent of the existing railway line in the State.

The “elevated corridor” plan was soon dropped, considering the high costs involved, but the government said a new double line was “to ease the transport between the two ends of the State and reduce travel time to four hours as against the existing 10 to 12 hours”.

In his Budget speech, delivered soon after the devastating rainfall and floods in the State, the then Finance Minister Thomas Isaac described the proposed “greenfield track for medium speed trains” as one of the 25 new projects with the “potential to deeply influence Kerala’s future”, and which the government was launching as part of its efforts to rebuild the State.

Now, as the new LDF government takes determined steps to go ahead with the project, establishing land acquisition offices and notifying the survey numbers of plots meant to be taken over, environmental activists, engineers, green organisations, families likely to be displaced by the project and opposition parties, including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are on the warpath.

The State government said (in November last year) that “80 per cent of the required land would be acquired within 18 months, and the rest during the construction phase”, although a detailed environment or social impact assessment is yet to be conducted and the Centre has offered only an “in-principle clearance” for the project.

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But implementing the “SilverLine project” has become more or less a matter of prestige for the LDF government. The project involves the construction of a 529.45-kilometre-long semi-high speed rail corridor connecting the northern-most Kasaragod district with the State’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, in the south, and running “semi-high-speed trains” at an operating speed of 200 km per hour.

The project entails the acquisition of 1,383 hectares, of which 1,198 ha are under private ownership and 185 ha are with the Railways. Structures that will come up across the proposed corridor include viaducts along 88.41 km (16.61 per cent); bridges along 12.99 km (2.44 per cent), and tunnels along 11.52 km (2.17 per cent). It will also have 101.73 km (19.12 per cent) of “cutting” (open passages excavated through higher ground for the railway); and 24.78 km (4.66 per cent) of "cut & cover" (a traditional form of tunnelling that involves breaking the ground surface and excavating to the required depth). Over 55 per cent of the corridor (292.73 km) will have embankments.

The corridor is to pass through 11 of the 14 districts of Kerala, and is to have only 11 stations, including one underground station (Kozhikode), three elevated ones, and the rest “at grade” (”on the same level”) stations.

The government’s rationale for the two new tracks is that traffic in the existing double line between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod has grown to such an extent that some sections have capacity utilisation of more than 115 per cent. The innumerable curves and bends on the existing track allow most trains to run only at an average speed of 45 kmph.

The new line is also meant to help reduce congestion and pollution on the roads, improve safety and comfort. According to the State Planning Board, by 2028 the Semi High Speed Rail will divert road vehicles and trucks from the highways, causing reduction of approximately 2,87,994 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (5,94,636 tonnes by 2051). It has also said that last-mile connectivity using aggregate services and feeder services and movement of goods by train (through RO-RO services), is also part of the rail corridor project

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The Kerala Rail Development Corporation (K-Rail), a joint venture between the Ministry of Railways and the Kerala government, has been appointed as the implementing agency. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2025 and envisages a total projected cost of Rs.63,941 crore, more than half of which is to be sourced from international funding agencies. However, the NITI Aayog has said that the project cost will work out to approximately Rs.1,26,081 crore as per current costs and schedule of implementation

Last-mile connectivity

According to K-Rail advertisements, SilverLine will bring remarkable changes in local commute, by improving the travel time and quality of transportation. There will be a substantial reduction in road accidents with decongestion on roads. SilverLine provides last-mile connectivity, which will transform people’s perception towards public transportation. The government has said that the construction phase will provide direct and indirect employment opportunities for 50,000 people, and the project, once completed, will provide direct employment to 11,000 people.

However, environmentalists, green activists and opposition parties have raised several concerns with regard to the project, which is set to displace thousands of families. Citing valid reasons, they maintain that the environmental and social costs will definitely be much higher than what has been estimated and that it is “not a green project” but a destructive one. It is expected to affect at least 20,000 families across Kerala, including those who were earlier affected by a highway expansion project.

A major concern is that the project will require the construction of high embankments which will divide the State, and hundreds of bridges, viaducts and underpasses which will accentuate the effect of floods and cause distortions in the existing road networks. K-Rail officials have rebutted these claims, saying, for instance, that there will be underpasses every 500 metres along the embankments.

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There is also the apprehension that the project will disrupt wetlands and paddy fields, necessitate the demolition of hundreds of buildings, including people’s homes, which activists and political leaders say, is being sought to be done without their consent and by encroaching upon their rights. They also point out that as in other parts of India, previous experience in the State with such big projects that have displaced people, has not been smooth or easy on the affected people. This and the need for gathering of granite and sand and other raw materials from the State for the construction of the line would have an unprecedented impact on an already fragile ecology in Kerala, which is yet to recover from the back-to-back natural calamities and effects of environmental degradation caused by other factors.

Critics also say that, as envisaged now, SilverLine, with its standard gauge, will become an isolated rail line delinked from the existing broad-gauge railway line and will be of no use to inter-State travellers. The majority of the stations in the new line are proposed to be outside main urban centres. For instance, the Ernakulam station is at Kakkanad and that for Kozhikode is at West Hill. They point out that the main problems plaguing the existing railway line in Kerala are single-lane tracks and an outdated signalling system, and that the money will be well spent if these are solved in order to reduce travel time and operate more trains.

Protests galore

On December 18, the United Democratic Front organised protests in all the 11 districts through which the new rail corridor is to run, highlighting the environmental, social and economic impact of such a project. Its leaders have already announced that the next phase of the agitation will be “on the Nandigram model”. Already, residents of some villages have threatened to commit suicide if their land is taken up for the project.

Separate protests have been launched by the Congress, the BJP, the Muslim League, newly formed citizen’s groups such as the K-Rail SilverLine Virudha Janakeeya Samiti and well-known movements such as the Left-leaning Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP). A petition to the Railway Minister signed by 17 opposition MPs from Kerala described the project “as an astronomical scam in the making”, one that would push the already debt-ridden State into deeper trouble. The Kerala Parisththi Aikya Vedi, a forum of experts and ecologists, has urged the government to abandon the project and explore sustainable solutions.

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According to ‘Metroman’ E. Sreedharan, the Left government’s ambitious project has been “defectively planned and technically handicapped” to offer any economic or social good for the State. “I am not against the proposal of a high-speed rail, per se, but the present one needs lots of corrections, including in its basic track width. It should be a broad-gauge line instead of the proposed standard gauge,” he said at a meeting in Palakkad.

The Central government’s response to the project has been ambivalent, or vague, at best. On December 10, in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on whether “the State had approached the Centre with a proposal for a semi high-speed project”, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said that such a project “has been identified by K-Rail development”; and that “K-Rail has prepared a detailed project report and assessed the cost at Rs.63,941 crore”.

“Further consideration of the project depends upon techno-economic viability of the project,” he said, adding that “at this time, the source of funding for the project cannot be ascertained.”

The response came four days after Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his personal intervention and sanction for the project, and promising that the State government will meet the entire cost of land acquisition of Rs.13,700 crore. The Chief Minister’s letter further said: “The State government has also agreed in-principle to meet the liability arising from any default on external debt obligation undertaken by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd for the project.”

Significantly, the government had given an assurance in the Kerala High Court that it would proceed with the land acquisition process only after getting the necessary approvals from the Centre and other statutory authorities. A contempt petition has been filed by a group of people challenging the land acquisition proceedings initiated now by the K-Rail authorities.

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On November 30, the High Court sought an explanation from the State government and K-Rail authorities as the petitioners had submitted that “K-Rail has invited a tender for an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study, which has to be completed by January 2023 in total disregard of the undertaking given to the court”. The petitioners had also alleged that the government was being hasty and that it was already in the process of acquiring land without obtaining the necessary clearances from the Central government, the Railway Board and other statutory bodies.

The petition further said that the government had taken up a project that would incur huge expenses which the State, with its meagre resources, would not be able to afford. “The project is likely to be dropped midway and if by that time the government has already acquired our valuable property, it would result in grave hardship and loss,” it said. A large extent of paddy land and wetland will have to be converted, resulting in adverse consequences to the environment, the petitioners said

Out of K-Rail’s modest estimate of Rs.63,914 crore for the project, Rs.33,700 crore is to be sourced from international lending agencies. Earlier, NITI Aayog had informed the State (in response to a right to information application filed by a local activist) that the repayment of loans and cost overrun would be the sole responsibility of the State government. “There will not be any obligation on the Centre with respect to the repayment or interest or cash loss under the tripartite agreement for multilateral loans/bilateral funding (including from fluctuation) and there will not be any budgetary support of the Centre or further multilateral/bilateral debt for funding any cost overrun under the project.”

Several organisations, eco-experts, activists and prominent individuals have, therefore, called on the Kerala government to abandon the project and explore alternative but sustainable solutions. Medha Patkar, who was recently in Thrissur to speak at a protest meeting against the project, raised a pertinent question at an interview conducted subsequently: “Why is saving a few hours so important when the social and environmental costs are so big that you cannot compensate easily for it?” Such questions are likely to haunt the authorities for a long time to come.

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