Silver Line Project

Political Economy of Speed Rail in Kerala

K T Rammohan

The public protest against the Silver Line aka K- Rail, the speed rail project proposed by Kerala’s Left-front government, was intense and widespread. As contractors began erecting concrete poles through the entire length of the state for land acquisition that would have displaced thousands of families in the densely populated state, large numbers of people, including children, came out to the street in a peaceful protest, faced the police action, and courted arrest. This continued for several months. The agitation and the repression it invited were of such a scale that even the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, the people’s science organisation closely linked to the ruling CPI(M), was prompted to react. It refrained from joining the agitation but came out with a persuasive pamphlet that pinpointed the adverse ecological and economic implications of the project and put forward a set of viable alternatives to improve the speed and quality of existing transportation without causing displacement in hordes. Alongside, leading writers, academics and social activists submitted a petition to the government praying for jettisoning the project.

Neither the public outcry nor the protest petition deterred the state government which declared that it would go ahead with the project, come what may. It parrot-mouthed the feasibility and desirability claims of speed rail as presented by SYSTRA, the multinational transport engineering consultancy firm which had prepared the project report. Subsequently, however, following the directives of the High Court, and also, fearing a backlash in the then impending by-election in a legislative assembly constituency, the government temporarily stalled the pre-acquisition proceedings. A definitive stop came with the Centre refusing to approve the project proposal which was not backed by a comprehensive social and ecological impact assessment. Simultaneously, the Centre managed a political win by introducing its own speed train, the Vande Bharat express, linking the northern and southern ends of the state as conceived in the Silver Line project but without involving fresh acquisition of land or causing any displacement of people as it ran along the existing tracks.

Why did the Silver Line proposal invite such enormous public hostility? The threat of displacement was indeed the foremost factor that triggered the agitation. The negative reaction was related to a host of other issues as well. The estimated cost of the project was a whopping Rs 65,000 crore. It was sought to be met through borrowing, both internal and external. The severely cash-strapped and indebted government would have had to pass on the formidable burden to the people as higher taxes. The history of earlier development projects in the state, with their steep escalation of cost and time, deepened the pessimism.

Besides, the revenue projections of the Silver Line as made by SYSTRA were suspect. The number of daily passengers was estimated at 80,000. Considering that it was nearly double even that of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train that connected two major commercial metros, the projected figure was unrealistic. The government sought to defend the estimate by noting that it was based on the present rail traffic and the potential shift of passengers from road to speed rail. With the Silver Line fare pegged higher than even the premium class in regular trains, the proposed stations located away from the cities, and the standard gauge speed rail tracks devoid of seamless connectivity with the present broad-gauge tracks, the projection was a gross exaggeration. The government strove to make a further case for the project by noting that the Japan International Cooperative Agency had offered to fund the project at a low rate of interest. Considering that these loans are invariably tied to procurement of equipment from Japan, most likely, the offer marked an attempt to dump outdated technology as the country was steadily phasing it out and shifting to sophisticated magnetic levitation technology.

Even more disquieting was the possible ecological impact of the project. All those hills, the greenery and the waters cape that a traveller sees in Kerala throw misleading hints on the state’s environmental health. Kerala is a severely ecologically fragile land. Through a century and a half, the state has suffered a steady deterioration of forest cover due to the spread of plantation crops and construction of big dams. Beginning from the 1960s, following the surge in remittances from overseas migrants, the housing and commercial space has kept swelling. While outward migration and demographic transition have resulted in smaller families, the houses have grown bigger. Huge, ugly concrete boxes are a great Keralite obsession. The steep rise in wages, the generosity of migrant relatives, and relatively easy access to loans have enabled even the lower classes to mime the middle and upper classes and build similar, although somewhat smaller but no less ugly, concrete houses. The ‘seventies is depicted as a period of ‘construction boom’ but there has been hardly any slump subsequently. The high density of houses and unbridled consumerism have seen huge malls coming up even in small towns. Innumerable tourist resorts have sprung up, from the seaside to the mountains. The hectic construction activity owing to these and the persistent widening of roads and laying of new roads have led to a vast expansion of built space and swallowed up much of the natural resources like stones, soil, and sand. Consequent to these as also global climate change, in recent years, monsoons in Kerala are attendant with disastrous floods. Shockingly, it was against such a vulnerable landscape that the government had conceived the Silver Line project that involved laying tracks mostly on embankments. The proposed track would have run through the thickly populated coast and the midland, displacing dwellings, damaging wetlands and water-bodies, disrupting fishing, slicing away rice-fields and coconut groves, destroying livelihoods, and, fragmenting neighbourhoods.

Technical experts are of the view that there are much cheaper alternatives for improving the speed and quality of transportation. Their foremost recommendation is laying a new, dedicated broad gauge track for speed trains alongside the present broad-gauge tracks, instead of going for a stand-alone project cut off from the main lines. Other recommendations include strengthening the existing tracks and straightening the curves and installing automatic signalling systems. All these would involve minimal displacement of dwellings and hardly any serious ecological damage. The investment thereof would be only a tiny fraction of that envisaged for the Silver Line but the revenue much higher.

Clearly, the Silver Line project is economically unviable, environmentally unsustainable, and technologically unimaginative. It would be difficult to believe that the state government is not aware of the serious financial and environmental implications of the project. The decision to go ahead with the project may therefore be explained only in terms of the narrow interests of the ruling classes and the development model it seeks to promote. The ruling classes of contemporary Kerala comprise the CPI(M) party dons, the techno-administrative elite, who are in league with consultancy firms, and contractors who liaise with the party at different levels. Such development works also tend to benefit the party cadre many of whom are players in a range of economic activities including real-estate, quarrying, sand-mining, and transportation. In a party of beneficiaries rather than comrades, who bothers if the speed rail is ecologically destructive or whether its hefty fare renders it inaccessible to the common people? Projects imposed from above without even a semblance of discussion in the gramasaba has failed to sit comfortably with the party’s much-publicised exercise in decentralised planning. Yet, as mega development projects are highly visible and therefore good vote-catchers, these meet with hardly any resistance from the party at large.

The state government now strives to secure the sanction of the union government through intermediaries. Towards this, a veteran speed rail expert who has a close liaison with the Centre and who had contested on a BJP ticket to the state legislative assembly in the last elections has been roped in. Apparently with the blessings of the Centre, he has prepared a new speed rail proposal which involves higher investment than the Silver Line but is, as the claim goes, less destructive ecologically speaking. Like the earlier one, the new plan envisages laying a new, standard gauge track but it would run mostly on elevated columns and through underground tunnels. Admittedly, under the new plan, much less land would need to be acquired. Erecting concrete columns and building tunnels would still involve extraction of natural resources on a large scale. In contrast with the Silver Line which envisaged buying train sets from abroad, the newly proposed rail would have much less import contents. Given the huge investment and limited potential revenue, however, the revised project too is bound to be financially unsustainable. While ruled by different political parties, supposedly at loggerheads ideologically, it is obvious that the union and the state governments share a similar paradigm of development. Speed rail spells power and money for both.  


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023