In a state with a fragile ecosystem that’s frequently battered by floods, landslides, and crumbling roads, can the landscape handle a project of this magnitude?

A railway track during sunset with trees on either sideImage for representation
news Environment Thursday, July 15, 2021 - 15:52

The next hyper infrastructure project is here. Kerala is debating the biggest, most costly project that has ever been proposed – the Silver Line Semi High Speed Rail Corridor. Two questions are being asked: will our landscape and the fragile ecosystems be able to bear the impact, and can our state and its people bear the massive cost, economically and ecologically?

The Silver Line is proposed as a stand-alone, standard gauge, electric, fully fenced rail line corridor from Kochuveli in the South to Kasaragod in the north, covering 11 districts and stopping at 11 stations. K-Rail, a joint venture of the state government and the Indian Railways, is the proponent of the project. The Silver Line is to run 529.45 kms through the beautiful, yet fragile ecosystems of Kerala in just four hours at a maximum speed of 200 kms per hour. The average speed comes to 132.5 kms/hr. The project is planned to be commissioned in five years at an estimated cost of a whopping Rs 63,941 cr. This project is hence the biggest development dream Kerala has ever had. The Pinarayi Vijayan government believes this project has the potential to bring the entire stretch of Kerala into the 'development' map.

But battlelines over this project have already been drawn. A state-level anti-Silverline protest committee is active even during the COVID-19 lockdowns, running campaigns and protest meetings, offline and online. People who could lose their homes and farms and those who are opposed for environmental and even technical reasons are protesting. Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), Kerala Paristhithi Aikya Vedhi (KPAV) and other environmental organisations have opposed the project, raising eco concerns and questioning the technical feasibility as well as financial viability of the project. Big development projects have a bleak environmental and economic legacy in Kerala, and such experiences rub on to most such projects. Post the 2018 deluge, any “development” is seen in the backdrop of climate impacts, floods and even cyclones. For certain, there is a growing understanding about the natural flow of water and the need for protecting ecosystems. The government itself proposed the idea of a "room for the river" which plans to make space for rivers to flow freely. Quite evidently, the floods that literally submerged half the state, the recurring landslides, soil piping incidents, roads crumbling down the hills have all taught us some basic facts – that while this water defines the state’s landscape, it could also turn into our biggest nightmare, if we wrongly engineer on natural ecosystems. For instance, the pathetic state of affairs in the rice bowl of Kuttanad is a classic case of hundreds of wrong “engineering” projects on a unique wetland ecosystem.

It is in this context that we shall evaluate the Silver Line project. The state government has started the process of land acquisition for the corridor, upon the clearance from the Union Government. But the main project document, the Detailed Project Report or DPR is still not public. It is reliably learnt that K-Rail has not yet finalised the DPR. Meanwhile, K-Rail has made the alignment (the route) of the corridor public, leading to speculations by people who may lose their land and those who are moving in to grab prime land around the project. K-Rail estimates that 9314 buildings would have to be demolished. It is known that at least 10,000 families may have to be relocated. Once the Environment Management Plan (EMP) is complete, this number could be double the estimate.

Earlier in 2020, the Thiruvananthapuram-based research institute Center for Environment and Development (CED) completed a Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA) on the project. The research institute was not an authorised agency for consideration of doing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). Moreover, such a massive project would need a  Comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (CEIA) that will cover all the seasons in a year, and not an REIA done through just one season. K-Rail argues that as per law, railway projects do not need EIAs, but they still did one. Considering the fragile landscape and social conditions of Kerala and the magnitude of the project, a CEIA is imperative. The government has initiated the process for a detailed EIA and also a Social Impact Assessment (SIA). Meanwhile, the land acquisition and evictions shouldn’t be going ahead without completing the EIA and SIA, and placing them along with the DPR for public consultations. In a recent resolution the KSSP has demanded that all project activities should be stopped till the DPR and EIA is done and made public and all alternatives evaluated.

The present REIA itself reveals much about the impacts of the proposed project. The report however summarises the positive aspects of the project, ignores the major negative aspects or suggests plans to mitigate them and concludes with a green signal to this project. This needs some delving.

A major part of the Silver Line is designed as a fully fenced large bund, called embankments. This is what the opponents of the project call “a wall across the state.” But the Chief Engineer of the K-Rail, in a webinar named "Green Rail" organised on World Environment Day, refuted this and explained that “about 88 kms run through viaducts, 11 kms through tunnels and 13 kms on bridges, the rest of the line runs on embankments and cuttings.” This was very misleading. The REIA shows that what he called the “rest of the line” - the embankments and cuttings form nearly 80% of the total route of the project.

Embankments in the project are mud-rock-concrete structures with concrete retaining walls, with a width of 15 to 30 m. This forms 55% of the total distance of the alignment, that is 292.73 kms.  These embankments would have a height of 1 to 8 metres above the maximum flood line (MFL).  This is a lot of height, literally a small fort across Kerala. Of the rest of the alignment, 101.74 kms i.e. 19% are cuttings, large channels made through hills and mountains to a height of upto 9 metres. Another 4.6% distance, ie. 24.79 kms is made of cut and cover, which are same as cuttings but are through hills that are more than nine metres in height and would be covered. Together, all these form about 78.6% of the total distance of the corridor.  The tunnels, bridges and viaducts would cover the rest of the 21.4% of the total distance. There is no doubt that the project will look like a fort that separates the east and the west of Kerala. Bridges would be provided for people to cross over and drains for water to flow.  While people may eventually get used to such impediments to their free movement, it will be difficult to stop water overflow, especially the torrential rains and floods, that are an annual feature now.

The REIA recommends that “embankments should be minimised.” They have identified 164 hydrologically-sensitive areas in the 530 km stretch of the project and predict serious hydrological impact in such areas. This is nearly one on an average, every three kilometres.

This in Kerala’s landscape means literally every watershed in the vicinity of the project. The rail corridor can be expected to block rain water drainage and aggravate the impact of floods. The report also talks about the project affecting paddy fields and flood plains. The corridor also cuts through the mangrove forests of north Kerala. But the report suggests reducing the environmental impact by planting new mangroves after the construction. Neither the project proponents nor the scientists seem to be knowledgeable on matters related to landscape, ecology and ecosystems.

The REIA of CED also warns of the threat of soil piping, meaning water flowing into the land through pipe-like fissures formed in the soil, and causing landslides. Some mitigational engineering solutions have been proposed, but these are inadequate to handle the threat, such as when there is a flood like in 2018 or 2019.

The REIA also suggests that there will be change in land use in the project area, around 500 metres towards each side of the rail corridor. This means the area and people living 500 metres on both sides of the corridor would be directly affected through mobility, access to resources and even livelihood. Ironically, Kerala does not even have a land use policy, and the draft of such a policy that was first presented in 2010 is still gathering dust somewhere in the Revenue Department. Such fundamental processes in the state, I suppose, are semi slow speed!

The K-Rail has also not determined the quantity of granite and soil needed for the project construction. However, the REIA mentions that construction would use excavate from the cutting and stone from the quarries. There is no doubt that the hills surrounding the project area will be mined for earth, laterite and stone. Such operations would also affect the ecology and the lives and livelihoods of those who live around it. Both the EIA and SIA should cover these aspects as well. Meanwhile, the REIA reveals very clearly that going ahead with such a project design is inviting an ecological collapse of the state.

Now let us also take a quick look at the other concerns the project raises. The rail line is a stand-alone standard gauge project, with no integration possible with the present railway projects, which are all broad gauge rail systems. The Silver Line railway stations are away from present railway stations and road or rail networks, making it costly to build new last-mile connectivity. K-Rail proposes to raise loans to spend on this project alone. But the corridor would be viable only with such last-mile connectivity in place. That will again cost a few ten thousand crores. Rail experts like Alok Kumar Verma, who retired as Chief Engineer at Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE) and one of the first to review the project, says the project cost could rise upto Rs 1 lakh crore. He feels this project is “technologically unviable and is a capital intensive project.” The Niti Ayog that cleared the project estimated the cost at Rs 1.33 lakh crore. In Kerala’s condition, such a project will incur massive costs for land acquisition, expectedly at least Rs 20,000 crores. The cost of implementing a decent EMP would also run to a few ten thousand crores. The KSSP in their booklet on the project estimates that the cost of this project could be Rs 2 lakh crore. And it is anybody’s guess that this project cannot be completed in five years time. Every dime spent would only add to the already burgeoning public debt, in a state with dwindling sources of income and increasing expenses owing to natural disasters and pandemic lockdowns.

Experts in the travel and tourism sector have questioned the feasibility of the project. This is a loss-making venture, and would have to be under a perpetual viability gap funding (VGF) from the government. They are suggesting alternatives that should follow a comprehensive transportation policy, strategy and plan. K V Ravishankar, Managing Editor of Tourism India says, “Kerala must speed up all the ongoing rail projects to allow the lines to run Vistadome coaches and high speed trains like the Gatimaan Express, that continue to use the broad gauge track. The standard gauge track without any future nor expandability is a foolish idea and it is surely not ‘atma nirbhar,’ as the whole of the Indian railways is built on indigenously made broad gauge.” He also bats for more sustainable and financially viable alternatives.

Kerala seems to be in a habit of bulldozing through technically unviable, financially intensive and ecologically destructive projects. The Vizhinjam International Port is a classical case study. The project has unleashed an environmental disaster, and is also facing a financial breakdown. Many scientists, environmental groups and fisherfolk had right from the beginning voiced their opposition to this project, and were characteristically ignored by the political parties and bureaucrats. The arguments of the public ran the same narrative as in the case of the Silver Line. In the last five years, hills have been quarried for rocks to be deposited into the sea to build the sea wall for the port. But everytime the coast is hit by a cyclone or high tidal waves, the walls collapse, wasting precious resources. Only a quarter of the sea wall has been built, and the project has already shot its timeline by nearly two years. It has also eroded the fishing and tourist beaches, including Kovalam and Shankhumukham. Hundreds of fisher families have lost their homes to the sea. The Vizhinjam project, which was hyped to make Thiruvananthapuram a paradise, has now become a centre-point of disaster.

The parallels are clear. The Silver Line project is a disaster in the making, but there is a difference. Vizhinjam was a very local disaster that hit a few coastal villages in Thiruvananthapuram. The Silver Line with its pan-Kerala sprawl would be the biggest environmental disaster and economic drain that Kerala has ever seen.

Sridhar Radhakrishnan is an engineer and environmental activist. 

Views expressed are the author's own.

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