Fact Check: How true are Kerala govt’s claims on the ambitious SilverLine project?

TNM parsed through the project report of the SilverLine project and two laws that are crucial to making the project happen, to verify the government’s claims. This is what we found.
Man carrying survey stone in Chottanikkara
Man carrying survey stone in Chottanikkara
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The SilverLine project of Kerala, a 530 km semi high-speed rail corridor pegged at a cost of Rs 63,940.67 crore, connecting Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram, aims at easing the transport between the north and south ends of the state by reducing the total travel time to less than four hours. The SilverLine project, since its inception, has faced serious criticism from economists, environmentalists and technologists. The DPR of the project too faced intense scrutiny by experts, as the figures in the document were at variance with two feasibility reports. Niti Aayog, which did not agree with estimated project cost in the DPR had said that the state would have to bear a financial implication of Rs 1,26,000 crore.

The LDF government in Kerala though has denied the allegations and made many claims, including that the people whose properties are being acquired for the project will be given four times the market value. How true are these claims — do they stand up to scrutiny?

TNM parsed through the Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the SilverLine project and two Acts that are relevant to the current controversy over the process of land acquisition: the Kerala Survey and Boundaries Act, 1961 (Surveys Act); and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (Land Acquisition Act); to verify these claims.

Are people getting 4X compensation for their properties?

The Kerala government has repeatedly said that those affected by the SilverLine would be compensated four-times the market price. But does this claim stand up to scrutiny?

The answer is: not really. While some of the affected people may get 4X compensation, not everyone will make the cut, as per the formulas spelt out in the Detailed Project Report.

The Land Acquisition Act envisages a unique formula with a multiplication factor while calculating the compensation for the land, to ensure that people living in rural areas receive a fair price for their land. The multiplication factor has been set as one in urban areas — that is, the formula will multiply the market value by 1 for land acquisition in urban areas. Rural areas situated up to 10 km from the urban area will fetch 1.2 times the price. The factors are 1.4 (10 km to 20 km), 1.6 (20 km to 30 km), 1.8 (30 km to 40 km) and 2 (40 km and above). In addition, a solatium equivalent to 100% of market value of the land multiplied by the factor applicable, will also be paid to the evictee.

Further, if there is a building on the land, compensation will be paid after assessing its value. There is also provision for payment of 12% annual interest rate from the date of the SIA to the date of award.

So this is how the formula works:

a = Market value of land

b = Multiplication factor according to where the land is situated

c = Value of assets on the land

Solatium = (a*b)+c

Final compensation = [(a*b)+c] + [(a*b)+c]

Further, a 12% annual interest on this compensation will be provided, starting from the date of the Social Impact Assessment of the project.

Using this formula, it’s only people who live 40 km away from an urban area who will get four times the market value as compensation, because the multiplication factor is the highest for them. For instance, if one cent of undeveloped land is acquired at a distance of 40 km from an urban area, and the market value of this piece of land is Rs X, the compensation amount as per the above formula is Rs 4X. However, if one cent of undeveloped land is acquired inside an urban area, and the market value of the land is Rs X, the compensation using the above formula will amount to Rs 2X — which is nowhere near the 4X claim made by the government.

What about the buffer zone properties?

The SilverLine DPR had asked the state government to freeze all developments within 30 m on either side of the project corridor. Anyone who holds land in which all development is to be frozen would have to obtain an NOC for construction. However these property owners are not eligible for any compensation.

But while Saji Cheriyan, Minister for Harbour Engineering and Fisheries, has said that there is no provision of a buffer zone in the DPR of the SilverLine, the claim is contradicted by V Ajithkumar, MD of K-Rail. Ajithkumar said that the zone was 10 metres on either side of the corridor. Saji Cheriyan retracted the statement after CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan corrected him.

A report by The New Indian Express, quoting an RTI document obtained from the K-rail said 20 m is the safety zone necessary for the alignment. This includes 15 m from the central line of the extreme track and another five metres from the SilverLine boundary.

The survey process

Survey officials aided by the police started laying survey stones in properties identified for the project across the state in December 2021 — including inside the homes of people. The activity was paused after a stay order from a single bench of the Kerala High Court on January 12, 2022 However, the stone-laying inside the compounds and houses resumed after a division bench quashed the stay on February, 14, 2022. The resumption of survey activities continue to elicit widespread protests and heated altercations between police and protesters, supported by the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ministers and leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and officials of the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Pvt Ltd (K-Rail), said that the survey stones are being laid for the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) of SilverLine project. But is it actually necessary to lay stones inside people’s homes for the assessment?

Not really, according to legal experts.

The government has said that it is vested with ample powers to issue notifications under Section 6 of the Kerala Survey and Boundaries Act, 1961, for conducting a survey of the properties, which is a prerequisite under the Land Acquisition Act.

However, legal experts say that the spirit of the Land Acquisition Act, enacted to ensure a humane, participative, informed and transparent process for land acquisition, does not endorse the government’s current style of trespassing into homes to place survey stones.

The Survey Act meanwhile classifies a ‘survey mark’ as “any mark or object, erected, made, employed or specified by a Survey Officer to indicate or assist in determining the position or level of any point or points.'' Critics are of the view that if the intention was to conduct an SIA, marking the properties or landmarks with paint would have been sufficent, instead of trespassing into the homes of people.

Who is laying the survey stones?

There is also abject confusion regarding who is installing survey stones. A report by the daily Malayala Manorama had stated that according to K-Rail officials, the responsibility of laying survey stones is with the Revenue Department but this story was later disowned by the agency through a social media post. Kerala Revenue Minister K Rajan told media persons that  they were not conducting the survey and were merely facilitators. State secretary of the CPI(M) Kodiyeri Balakrishnan however said K-Rail was in charge of the process of laying survey stones and the Revenue Department had no role in it.

Was informed consent taken?

According to the Land Acquisition Act, the prior consent of at least 80% of affected families is needed for land acquisition. For public-private partnership projects, the consent requirement is 70%. The Act says that the process of obtaining the consent can be carried out along with the SIA study. It also mandates a public hearing in the affected area, after giving adequate publicity about the date, time and venue for the hearing, to ascertain the views of the affected families to be included in the SIA report.

As per the Survey Act, if a survey is ordered in connection with the acquisition of any land for public purposes, the notification may be published in the Gazette or in two daily newspapers which have wide circulation in the locality. Such a notice is deemed valid and there is no need to intimate people separately. But if the survey is being undertaken under the LAAR Act, notices must be served to owners. One of the major allegations levelled by people affected by the SilverLine project is that survey stones are being laid without prior notice.

Gazette notifications with survey numbers of the plots likely to be acquired for the project have been published under Section 4(1) of the LARR Act for the preparation of Social Impact Assessment study and are available on various government websites. As per the Act, the notification for commencement of SIA shall be made available in the local language in the respective local bodies and the offices of the district collector, sub-divisional magistrate and Tehsil. While section 12 of the Act empowers officers of the state to carry out a preliminary survey of land and make necessary marks (nowhere does it say survey stones) it lays down certain conditional clauses including publishing of notices in the affected areas and  providing a notice of seven days in writing to landowners. If the owner is absent, a notice of at least 60 days is needed. Though notices were published on government websites, property owners were not intimated.

On August 18, 2021, Revenue Department issued orders (G.O.(Ms)No.163/2021/RD) for creation of the office of a Special Deputy Collector at Ernakulam and 11 Special Tahsildar offices, one for every district through which the semi high-speed rail corridor would pass through, for acquisition of 955.13 hectares of land. The LA offices were created on the basis of a request by the Managing Director of KRDCL. This shows that the state government wanted the LA process to happen simultaneously with SIA, as a pre-investment activity for raising loans from financial institutions, citing an In-Principle approval from the Railway Board. The order also says that the government will proceed with Land Acquisition as per provisions of the LARR Act, 2013 only on receipt of the SIA report. Contrary to the claims by the state government that the current survey is under the LARR Act and the state Revenue Department is not involved, media reports have shown that 6(1) notifications under the Kerala Survey and Boundaries Act 1961, were issued by administrators in all the 11 districts through which SilverLine is passing through.

Has the Union government given a go-ahead?

One of the points of contention that protestors and opposition leaders have raised is that the Kerala government has not received a go ahead from the Union government for the project. Union Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw, while replying to a question in the Lok Sabha recently had stated that the project has not been sanctioned. But K-Rail MD V Ajithkumar claimed that the project has got the go-ahead from the Union government.

However, a letter dated January 15, 2021, sent by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, requests him to “engage with JICA to move forward to finalise the designing of packages which would facilitate co-financing” and “that “land acquisition and other clearances may be expedited by the PIA.'' While JICA stands for Japan International Cooperation Agency; PIA is the acronym for Project Implementation Agency. The letter indicates that the Union government is supportive of the infrastructure project and wants the state government to go ahead with the land acquisition for the project. JICA had agreed to fund the project at an interest rate of 0.25%.  It may be recalled that during his recent visit to India, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged an investment of $42 billion in the country over the next five years.

The actions by K-Rail and the Revenue Department shows that the state government wants to fast track the process of land acquisition for the project by running all the preliminary activities parallel to the Social Impact Assessment study.


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