The North-South high-speed transport corridor that has been envisioned by successive Kerala governments over the past two decades has now become a major controversy in Kerala.
Expressway, High-speed Rail Corridor, Commuter Rail and Elevated Highway were all discussed at different levels and reports were prepared. Finally, the choice has been made for a semi-high speed north-south arterial railway called SilverLine which will be implemented by a joint venture between Indian Railways and Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (K-Rail).
After receiving approval in principle from the railways, steps were taken to study the social and environmental impact in detail. At this point, the BJP and Congress, which in their 2014 parliamentary election manifesto promised a high-speed train network in India, came out against the project. They began to uproot the alignment boundary markers at ground level in protest.
A section of state scholars also joined the critics. A common question they raise is how the SilverLine, with its enormous investment burden, becomes a priority for the state government. There is clearly a lack of appreciation for efforts to overcome the infrastructure deficit in the state and transform it from the current low-productivity regime to a knowledge- and skill-intensive technology economy.
Kerala is celebrated for its successful redistribution strategy and far superior results in the quality of life of its citizens compared to the national average. Democratic decentralization was adopted to maintain the quality of public services and improve the productivity of subsistence sectors. But this is not a solution to the state infrastructure deficit created by public underinvestment in the past.
Given the commitment to improve the welfare and social security of ordinary citizens, budgetary resources would be insufficient for investment. You have two choices: one, wait for budgetary consolidation through the improvement of the State’s own revenue before taking up the infrastructure challenge, or two, initiate budgetary consolidation measures but at the same time mobilize off-budget resources through innovative methods and launch infrastructure drive. The second option was chosen.
The upside is that such a strategy would provide a regional boost in the current recessionary conditions and the new infrastructure would allow the state to attract much-needed investment in knowledge-, skill- and service-based sectors.
Many naive questions arise as to whether SilverLine’s large expenditure could be better spent on more pressing social priorities. The answer is no, for the simple reason that it is a project loan approved by the Indian government and therefore cannot be used for any other purpose.
The question would still arise as to why semi-high-speed rail is a priority in the transport sector. Today, Kerala is almost a single-road transport system and there is an urgent need for a rapid transit alternative that can divert long-distance car passengers from the road.
Upgrading the existing broad gauge rail with additional lines and automatic signaling systems cannot provide higher speed even for Vande Bharath trains, for the simple reason that almost 40% of the tracks are curved.
This is all the more true in urban areas, making road straightening prohibitively expensive and socially unacceptable. Therefore, from the perspective of a balanced transport structure, it is important to have at least one semi-high-speed railway line.
An important reason for defending the SilverLine project is the environmental perspective. The carbon footprint of a high-speed train is much lower than that of air and road transport.
Our calculation of the carbon equivalent emission of SilverLine’s construction, including track and rolling stock and traffic operations, is only 15.7 grams per passenger-kilometre while that of a four-lane road is 151.6 grams. The carbon impact of SilverLine represents only one tenth of the routes and it would be around one fortieth of the airlines.
The new line runs parallel to the existing railway line for half of its distance and does not cross any ecologically very fragile area. If there are any such potential local damages, they will be revealed by the detailed environmental assessment and mitigation measures will be taken.
As for the stone, sand and soil needed for the project, around 51,000 km of new railways are being laid in India and the 530 km long SilverLine would therefore only be a small part of the needs. total nationals.
Undoubtedly, the approximately 9,000 families and settlements whose land would be acquired for the project would have real grievances that would need to be investigated in detail so that measures can be taken for mitigation, compensation and rehabilitation. Kerala National Highways are extended to 6/4 lanes and the number of lanes affected would be at least three times that of SilverLine.
There is absolutely no protest anywhere due to a very attractive compensation and rehabilitation package, fully in line with the 2013 law. The same goes for the experience of several other major projects that are currently implemented. The current protests are orchestrated by opponents of the project and will be overcome by patiently explaining the policy and the package.
There have been criticisms regarding the technical and financial aspects of the DPR. Such criticisms will be carefully considered not only by the government of Kerala but also by the Indian Railways, which is the sole authority to give final approval to the project.
It is not for the state government to choose the gauge or the signaling system. All the high speed railways considered by the central government are standard gauge and Kerala alone cannot go for broad gauge.
Critics point to the normal time overruns in the implementation of big projects in the state and hence, it is not advisable for the state government to indulge in such huge projects. Well, there is a time for change for everything. And this is what is happening in Kerala.
(The author is the former finance minister of Kerala and can be contacted at [email protected])