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What is Kerala’s SilverLine rail project, why has the govt recalled officials involved in it?

The Opposition Congress and BJP had joined hands with the local protests against the ambitious project of the state government. What is the project and why has it been opposed in some places?

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. (Photo via Keralarail.com)

The Kerala state government has decided to recall the revenue officials deployed to conduct a social impact assessment (SIA) study for land acquisition regarding the SilverLine rail corridor project. In an order issued Saturday, the state revenue department said the staff with SIA units should be redeployed with other essential projects.

With the Union Government yet to give its nod for Kerala’s proposed semi-high-speed rail corridor, or K-Rail, here is where the project stands today and why it has seen opposition since its announcement.

What is the Silverline project?

The proposed 529.45-km railway line will link Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod in the north, covering 11 districts through 11 stations within four hours, at a speed of 200 km/hr.

The proposed SilverLine corridor route.

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.

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Why is the K-Rail needed?

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, make travel faster for commuters and reduce congestion on roads.

The line will have stations in Kollam, Chengannur, Kottayam, Ernakulam (Kakkanad), Cochin Airport, Thrissur, Tirur, Kozhikode and Kannur before culminating at Kasaragod. The Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) has already offered 1 acre for the station there.

What is the current status of the project?

The state government began the process of land acquisition after the state’s cabinet approval in June 2021. 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.

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While Chief Minister Pinarayi 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.

Why have protests taken place against SilverLine?

Kerala witnessed violent protests in several parts of the state early this year after the Revenue Department started demarcating the proposed project routes for SIA. The Opposition Congress and BJP joined hands with the local protests against the ambitious project of the state government. In many places, the survey had to be suspended as a result.

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.

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In March this year, Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said in the Lok Sabha that environmental concerns are “real”. Activists have alleged environmental harm as the route cuts through precious wetlands, paddy fields and hills. 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.

In July, the Railway Board informed the Kerala High Court that it has neither approved nor concurred with SIA and the survey was being held by the Kerala government. It submitted the affidavit after the High Court directed the Centre to disclose whether Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd had been instructed by the Board not to be part of SIA for the purpose of the project.

It said when a state government is conducting SIA, the Centre has no role in it. However, if the K-Rail Corporation, being a company, is involved in SIA and spending its funds for the purpose, such expenditure will be at its own risk and responsibility.

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 19:53 IST
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