The Kerala Rail Development Corporation, on behalf of the state government, on Thursday, April 28, organised a panel discussion at Thiruvananthapuram on the proposed SilverLine semi-high speed rail corridor. The debate was an attempt at providing a platform for expressing different views on the multi-crore project, even as the process of laying survey stones triggered intense protest at Muzhappilangad in Kannur district.
The discussion, with three panellists supporting the Left Democratic Front (LDF)-led government's ambitious project and one expert opposing its implementation, was carried out at a hotel in the state capital amidst widespread criticism that the authorities were not lending an ear to the woes of the common people and the views of the critics.
Kuncheria P Isaac, former vice chancellor of the Kerala Technical University, kick-started the debate strongly supporting the semi-high speed rail corridor saying better transportation facilities including faster trains and expressways were a necessity for the southern state. He noted that most people chose to travel during odd hours by road to beat the traffic, which was one of the reasons for increasing road mishaps in the state. “Though the Rs 64,000-crore worth SilverLine may not be financially viable immediately, this is something which could become a boost to the economy of the state over a period of time. If we could construct the Idukki dam and still it stands, we can do this as well,” the expert added.
Echoing similar views, SN Raghuchandran Nair, president of the Trivandrum Chamber of Commerce, said it was high time the state changed its mindset about the development of public transportation systems. "Now, we are forced to spend our precious time on the road. Fuel prices are also pretty high. Projects like the SilverLine should be implemented to find solutions to the traffic issues facing the state," he said. Such projects would help attract more business ventures into the state and rejuvenate the tourism sector, Nair added.
However, he pointed out that it was inappropriate to plant survey stones as part of the social impact study of the project without people's consent. “All concerns and doubts of the public should be addressed and cleared before its implementation,” Nair said.
Subodh Jain, a retired Member-Engineering, who also spoke in favour of the project, stated that it was not feasible to implement the proposed project in the broad gauge format. Observing that something has to be done with regard to Kerala's transport needs, he said one thing that is very encouraging is that everybody agrees that doing nothing is not an option. The primary objective of the project should be to wean people away from the private mode of transportation such as cars, he added.
However, RVG Menon, a prominent environmental scientist and an arch critic of the SilverLine project, expressed strong reservation about the multi-crore project saying doubling of the existing rail tracks and modernisation of the signalling system was the best possible alternative. While looking from the people's perspective, the proposed SilverLine has several issues, he said. "The main issue is that it is planned in standard gauge. There are semi-high speed trains running on broad gauge lines in the country. Why can't we experiment with faster trains in our state?" he asked.
The expert, who was the only person included in the panel discussion opposing the project, also sought to know who decided to choose standard gauge instead of broad gauge in the state and on what parameters such a decision was taken. Flaying the state government and the K-Rail Corporation for depending on Japanese technology for the project, he said that if the indigenous trains and technology were used, it would have generated more jobs and boosted the local economy. Menon also criticised the conduct of the debate after the government’s announcement that the project would be implemented at any cost.
Earlier, the panel discussion had run into a controversy with two eminent panellists backing out citing lack of clarity in the invitations extended to them. Alok Kumar Verma, a retired Chief Bridge Engineer who prepared the preliminary feasibility report of the SilverLine alias K-Rail project but later raised objections, and environmentalist Sridhar Radhakarishnan announced their pull-out from the two-hour-long discussion.
They were inducted in the panel as part of those speaking against the initiative. The development followed the withdrawal of social observer Joseph C Mathew, a known critic of the state's ruling LDF government, from the panel by the organisers.
Meanwhile, local people including women along with the opposition Congress activists staged a protest in front of the police vehicle when they tried to take a house owner into custody for objecting to laying of the survey stone in his property in Kannur. Though the K-Rail officials managed to install the stones amidst protests with police escort, the house owner removed it later and said the family did not have any prior information about the procedure.
Last week, the survey stone laying process for the project resumed after a gap of almost one month, triggering a fresh round of clashes between locals and anti-SilverLine activists with the police across the state. The SilverLine rail corridor, envisaged to cover a 530-kilometre stretch from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod, is estimated to cost around Rs 64,000 crore. The project aims to make transportation easy along the entire north-south of Kerala and reduce travel time to less than four hours as against 12-14 hours presently.