In pursuance of Mr Pulappre Balakrishnan’s short essay titled ‘The heavy footprint of a light rail’ which was published in the editorial pages of The Hindu on 05-07-2021, I would like to shed some more light on the disastrous rail project pet named as Silver Line. It is a reconstructed ghost of the erstwhile High Speed Rail Corridor Project (which was shelved due to stiff resistance on the part of the environmentalists and people of Kerala) which was running between Trivandrum and Mangalore. That project was envisaged on the sidelines of the Indian Railway Vision 2020 proposed by the Central Government in 2009. That project was floated by Mr V.S Achuthanandan while he was the Chief Minister of Kerala. It was meant to be constructed on elevated structure on pillars. Taking consideration of the people’s pulse of Kerala, the then Chief Minister Mr. Oommen Chandy scrapped the project in 2013.
Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan in his second term as Chief Minister tries to reincarnate the project with some slight modifications. It runs from Kochuveli (in Trivandrum) to Kasargod covering a distance of 530 km, cutting horizontally across 11 districts of Kerala. It is a standalone rail project which runs on standard gauge (1435 mm) without any connectivity of the existing railway lines of Kerala and elsewhere. The semi high speed rail technology is an outdated one, the technical proponents like Japan abandoned this technology in the seventies itself. The K-rail Development Corporation Ltd proposes to construct this semi high speed rail (200 kmph) on a huge and horrendous castle-like embankment having an average height of 9 to 11 metres and a width of 40 meters. It is said that the average height was so fixed after studying several years of flood water levels of Kerala i.e. the flooding water shall not inundate the Silver Line.
The main features of the edifice
As is mentioned earlier, the total length of the semi high speed rail is 529.45 km. This line necessitates an 11.53 km stretch of tunnels cutting through the medium sized mountains of the already deteriorated Western ghats. It runs on bridges with a length of 12.99 km. Construction requires 88.4 km of viaducts. Cuttings have a length of 101.74 km; cut and cover 24.79 km. It runs 115 km through wetlands and paddy fields. The lengthy fort-like structure of embankments covers a length of 292.73km. In short there is no doubt that this semi high speed rail corridor divides Kerala into two parts East and West. People cannot in any way cross over this line. It is said that people and traffic may be allowed to travel through underpasses every 500 metres all over the stretch of the line. Either side of the proposed line requires 4 meter width of service roads for construction works and thereafter maintaining it for the exclusive use of vehicular traffic for anticipated accidents.
The anti-k.rail (an organisation working against the project) moved the Green Tribunal alleging various lapses including environmental aspects on the part of k.rail development corporation. The organisers point out that an agency- Center for Environment and Development – which was entrusted with the study of Environment Impact Assessment has no valid accreditation. The said organisation submitted their study reports as an ornamental document having 317 pages. They agreed in the report that the EIA was a ready-made document after adopting statistical datas regarding the topographical, geological, seismological, climatical, hydrological studies available in print materials. The k.rail development corporation limited is said to be reluctant to share the detailed project report with the applicants under the Right to Information Act. It is doubtful of the existence of a Social Impact Assessment Study which is highly essential for a major project categorized as ‘A’ as is compulsorily required by International Financial Agencies like JICA (Japanese International Cooperative Agency) etc. It is also alleged that an International Agency named SYSTRA (a French company) was entrusted to perform the feasibility study of the project. This company is said to be a black listed one that made an aerial survey using drones and helicopters sowing fear and uncertainty in the minds of the residents who are living under the imaginary line (the route map) in which way the alignment is deviated ultimately.
A dream project
Like a thirsty wolf the newly sworn in left democratic front government took immediate arrangements to acquire land required for the completion of the project ,the dream project will be completed at any cost within a period of 5 years. As everyone knows this Government is overwhelmed by a debt trap. Even then the government is bound to borrow more than ₹ 3000 crore within a short period of its second tenure in order to meet the expenditure of the day today functions of the government. The Chief Minister recently announced that a loan amount of ₹ 2000 crore was sanctioned by Hudco to acquire land for the project. The overall debt burden of the government is about ₹ 3 lakh crore excluding the accumulated debt created by the KIIFB. The estimated cost of silver line projects is ₹ 53941 crores. But according to the opinion of the Niti Ayog it requires ₹ 126000 crores to complete the projects within a time frame. 15% of the cost of the project is borne by the Central Government and the remaining 15% n is met by the State Government. The balance 70% is believed to be raised as loan from various international funding agencies.
If the rail project is materialized it may affect the already fragile ecological fabric of the state. It is a big question that how to make available the construction materials like granites, sand, soil etc. The Vizhinjam International Container Terminal Project’s work is at a snail’s pace because of the non availability of building materials. Then naturally the authorities will look for the Western ghats for plundering the UNESCO’s Heritage Monuments. During the seventies Kerala had cultivable paddy fields of about 8 lakh hectares. Now it is reduced to below 2 lakh hectares due to different land use patterns of Kerala. Since the project runs 115 km through wetlands, mangroves and paddy fields it may destroy the micro ecological system and reduce the water retention capacity of the area. The natural vegetation of the entire stretch upto 100 metres width will be destroyed forever. It is assessed that 500 metres on either side of the silver line as the footprint of the project. The flora and fauna of the area and its habitational ecosystem will be destroyed. The fertility of the soil of the area inclusive of the nutrients of the soil will be perished beyond repair. When the embankment and other structures divided Kerala into two, it might affect frequent floods and droughts on either side of the division. The water required in the construction stage of the project is 30 mld and in the operating stage it consumes 5 mld. Naturally Kerala may experience acute water scarcity in future. Uninterrupted high tension electric power is required to the tune of 279 million units daily, further aggravating the electricity generation of Kerala which ultimately destroys the remaining forests. This project displaces about 20,000 families, besides the destruction of tens of thousands of schools, hospitals, cultural centres, temples, mosques and churches. One may wonder whether such vast devastation is required to travel a few hundreds people at high speed to reach either end of Kerala within 4 hours spending exorbitant rate higher than air fare.The silver line runs through the earthquake prone area and its construction likely to sustain a major geological hazard called soil piping in the Northern part of Kerala.
Mr Pulappre Balakrishnan concluded his essay by citing a metaphor that the proletariat will ultimately own the land they cultivated and reaped. But the leadership eventually kills the spirits of the labour class by destroying the remaining stretch of paddy fields of Kerala. Accidentally I also used the same metaphor earlier when forwarding an open letter to 140 MLAs of Kerala to remind them of the hidden agenda behind the silverline project exampling that the left movement took its root deep into the soil of Kerala during the 50s by plunging into the burning problems of poor peasants who were always leading an uncertain life without knowing when would they be thrown away from their ‘pattam’ lands by the landlords. The same left movement some 70 years later under the influence of corporate agenda tries to root out the descendants of the same people from their homesteads on the basis of various forms of quixotic infrastructure development projects.