Protests are taking place across Kerala against SilverLine, a semi high-speed railway project that envisages trains running at 200 km/h between the state’s northern and southern ends. The project, estimated to cost Rs 63,940 crore, is billed as one of the biggest infrastructure plans being pushed by the Pinarayi Vijayan government.
The proposed 529.45-km line will link Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod in the north, covering 11 districts through 11 stations. When the project is completed, one can travel from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram in less than four hours at 200 km/hr. On the existing Indian Railways network, it now takes 12 hours. The deadline for the project, being executed by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (KRDCL), is 2025. KRDCL, or K-Rail, is a joint venture between the Kerala government and the Union Ministry of Railways created to execute big railway projects.
Urban policy experts have long been arguing that the existing railway infrastructure in Kerala cannot meet the demands of the future. Most trains run at an average speed of 45 km/hr due to a lot of curves and bends on the existing stretch. The government claims the SilverLine project can take a significant load of traffic off the existing stretch and make travel faster for commuters, which in turn will reduce congestion on roads and help reduce accidents.
The government claims the line will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help in expansion of Ro-Ro services, produce employment opportunities, integrate airports and IT corridors, and enable faster development of cities it passes through.
According to K-Rail, the project will have trains of electric multiple unit (EMU) type, each with preferably nine cars extendable to 12. A nine-car rake can seat a maximum of 675 passengers in business and standard class settings. The trains can run at a maximum speed of 220 km/hr on a standard gauge track, completing journeys in either direction in under four hours.
As per the alignment, the railway line, beginning from Thiruvananthapuram, will have stations in Kollam, Chengannur, Kottayam, Ernakulam (Kakkanad), Cochin Airport, Thrissur, Tirur, Kozhikode and Kannur before culminating in Kasaragod (see map). The Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) has already offered 1 acres for the station there.
Of the 11 stations, three will be elevated (Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Thrissur), one underground (Kozhikode) and the rest at grade. At every 500 metres, there will be under-passages with service roads.
The state government has begun the process of land acquisition after the Cabinet approved this in June this year. Out of 1,383 hectares needed to be acquired, 1,198 hectares will be private land. The Cabinet has also approved administrative sanction to get Rs 2,100 crore from the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), the central investment arm of the government.
As part of the first stage of acquisition, local revenue and K-Rail officials are on the ground, demarcating land and placing boundary stones. This is done to give the officials a sense of how much private land will have to be acquired and the number of families who will be displaced. While CM Vijayan has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting his ‘personal intervention’ to give all necessary clearances, the Centre has only given in-principle approval to the project. The line is expected to be constructed using equity funds from the Kerala government, the Centre and loans from multilateral lending agencies.
Why are there protests against the project?
Political parties such as the Congress, BJP and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) as well as citizen outfits such as K-Rail SilverLine Viruddha Janakeeya Samiti have been spearheading separate protests. A petition signed by 17 Opposition MPs from the state said the project was an “astronomical scam in the making” and would sink the state further into debt. The petition, addressed to the Union Railways Minister, said the project was financially unviable and would lead to displacement of over 30,000 families. The Samiti and green activists allege that SilverLine would cause great environmental harm as its route cuts through precious wetlands, paddy fields and hills. The Samiti said the building of embankments on either side of the major portion of the line will block natural drainage and cause floods during heavy rains. The Kerala Paristhiti Aikya Vedi, a forum of ecology experts, has urged the government to abandon the project and explore sustainable solutions.
E Sreedharan, former Delhi Metro head who has joined the BJP, termed the project “ill-conceived” and defectively planned. He said the present proposal needs a lot of correction including its basic track width.
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