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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Why Kerala’s SilverLine project proposal must be discussed openly

🔴 KP Kannan writes: It will address public concerns, clarify its impact and feasibility and set a precedent for discussions about future projects of this scale

Written by KP Kannan |
Updated: January 12, 2022 8:44:52 am
The proposed 529.45-km line will link Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod in the north, covering 11 districts through 11 stations. (Credit: Keralarail.com)

SilverLine, the independent railway system for Kerala, proposed to be constructed and operated by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd (K-Rail), is the single biggest development project in the state’s history. Its construction will cut across 11 of Kerala’s 14 districts, covering a distance of about 600 km, from north to south.

Given its massive size, geographical coverage and the likely social and environmental impacts, the publication of its techno-economic feasibility reports should have preceded the state government’s decision to proceed with the project. Even at this stage, it is not too late. I would, therefore, urge the chief minister to immediately release the techno-economic feasibility reports to enable wider discussion.

Subjecting this project proposal to a discussion in the Kerala legislative assembly as well as in the public sphere is not only in keeping with the spirit of democratic governance but would also set a precedent. On the basis of such discussions, the government of Kerala will be in a position to take an appropriate decision. Once a project is found to be techno-economically feasible, it is important to follow up with social as well as environmental impact studies.

Public discussions have so far raised several questions and pointed to fears and anxieties that must be removed. Protests have also taken place across the state. It is, therefore, highly desirable to freeze the government of Kerala’s decision and wait till the feasibility reports are published and public opinions and expert comments are heard.

Some questions that we need to ask collectively are: Is this project the top priority in the attempt to build a New Kerala? Given the devastating floods of 2018 and 2019, as well as the continuing climate-related adverse events and the Covid-19 pandemic, shouldn’t our efforts, energy and resources be primarily directed to environmental restoration and strengthening the natural capital (land, water and other bioresources) and the creation of a strong public healthcare system? Given the perilous nature of Kerala’s public finance system, shouldn’t the government’s top priority be to enhance tax collection efficiency, instead of increasing the public debt burden that will, in all likelihood, constrain future developmental and non-developmental expenditure?

There are also some issues in planning for the development of the transport system.

We have five modes of transportation now: Road, rail, air, inland waterways and sea-based coastal transport. There is, however, a disproportionate dependence on the road system. Despite having the highest road density among all the states, the poor condition of Kerala’s roads calls for urgent attention. The state’s water transport system is still underdeveloped and the once-active inland waterway transport system has steadily deteriorated (although efforts are underway to repair and rebuild parts of the inland waterways). It is, therefore, in the fitness of things, especially from a development planning perspective, to take stock of the existing state of Kerala’s transportation system, point out its shortcomings, find ways to address them and seek a balance among the five modes. I would, therefore, appeal to the chief minister to come out with a White Paper on the state of the transportation system for wider discussion. The preparation and discussion on such a document could be completed within the next six months or so.

Many experts, as well as laypersons, have raised important questions about the K-Rail project. India’s technological and managerial strength lies in its vast broad-gauge-based railway network that has a 160-year-old history. By opting for a different technological system — the standard gauge — are we not importing and planting an alien technology whose installation, operation and management will be entirely controlled by foreign corporate entities?

India has already demonstrated the feasibility of manufacturing and operating a new high-speed railway train system called Train 18 (Vande Bharat Express) that is being expanded to cover several routes. Shouldn’t Kerala demand its due share of this new railway train system?

Given the projected ticket prices of SilverLine, the only competition will be with airfares or first-class train fares. However, going by Kerala’s experience in implementing public projects in irrigation, electricity generation and roads and bridges, I fear the cost of the project will go up several times. Some of the irrigation projects are still in the construction mode even after spending several times the initial cost estimate for 30 to 40 years.

Is the estimate of 80,000 people travelling per day a realistic one? It is important to know such crucial details from the feasibility reports.

I have not raised issues relating to social and environmental impacts. However, I feel they deserve to be studied in detail by independent experts. For example, how serious will the impact be on the natural flow of watercourses and land masses that come in the way of the project? Given the massive nature of the construction, the demand for natural resources (such as granite, sand and soil) and manufactured high-carbon footprint materials (such as steel and cement) will be so enormous that they might trigger environmental adversities with long-term social and economic consequences. The project might also trigger a price rise for these resources that could, in all likelihood, upset the initial cost calculations besides adversely affecting the construction industry.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2022 under the title ‘Rail project in question’. The writer is a development economist and an Honorary Fellow and former director of the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum. He was a member of the erstwhile National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector

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