The project, which aims to run a semi high speed train between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod, has been facing severe opposition from environmentalists and those fearing displacement.

High speed train france pixabay imageImage for Representation
news Public transport Tuesday, November 30, 2021 - 15:05
Written by  Cris

Ever since the Silver Line project – a semi high speed rail corridor that connects one end of Kerala to the other – was first announced, it has been mired in trouble. The project passed through successive state governments in the last 12 years, until some progress began in the last two, at least on paper. The stages being covered now – documents passing back and forth between the state and Union governments – has created doubts and concerns among a good number of activists, worried over what it will do to the fragile ecology of the state. Three years ago, Kerala faced its worst flood in a hundred years and since then has been subjected to more floods and landslides. There is also considerable fear about the people who will be displaced during land acquisition for the project. But the government of the day – the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – seems determined to proceed.

Silver Line – that’s a name that came later – is supposed to connect Thiruvananthapuram that lies in the south to Kasaragod up north and take a passenger from one end of the state to the other in four hours. By road or rail, this journey now takes around 12 hours, give or take an hour or two. This is a good 531 kilometers we are talking about and the train running on this corridor is to have a speed of 200 km per hour. The rest of the trains in Kerala run anywhere between 70 to 100 km/hour except in the Shornur-Mangalore part where the speed goes up to 110.

The implementers of the project – Kerala Rail Development Corporation (KRDCL) or K-Rail – estimate the cost of the project to be about 64K crore rupees (63,940.67 crore). K-Rail is a joint venture of Indian Railways and the state government. The Kerala cabinet has approved the Detailed Project Report (DPR) and now it is before the Union government, awaiting approval.

The first step is land acquisition – a total of 1,383 hectares is needed out of which 1,198 is private land – and the state government has given its nod for it, citing the in-principal approval of the Union Ministry of Railways. A worried group of environmentalists has approached the court to halt the proceedings. The reason for the haste in land acquisition before receiving complete approval from the Union government is that it needs to have acquired a good percentage of land to get foreign funding. More than half the total amount to be spent on the project is expected to come from foreign institutions, but as of now, the Union government has not given its support.

Here is a timeline of the project and what has happened so far:

>According to a Manorama report, the high speed rail project between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod was first presented by the LDF government (of 2006-11) as part of its state budget for 2009-10.

>Later, in September 2011, a different government formed the Kerala High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (KHSRCL) to implement the project. By then, another Assembly election was over and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) had come into power.

>Even back then, there were concerns about the project and the then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy assured people that the project will be carried out only after discussions with various people’s representatives and all were satisfied. He also spoke of creating tunnels in the densely populated areas that the rail passes through (his successor would speak of overpasses in a similar vein). T Balakrishnan, chairman and managing director of KHSRCL expected the project to take off by April 2013 and finish by 2020.

>The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) was asked to do a feasibility report and later submit the Detailed Project Report (DPR). Both were delayed by several years. In March 2013, the DMRC was yet to submit the DPR it was supposed to finish months earlier. E Sreedharan, who was the principal advisor of the DMRC at the time, told The Hindu that the delays were caused by the inability to convince the people about the project, which was then deemed to cost Rs 1.2 lakh crore. He also said then that the fear of displacing people was baseless since the final alignment would only be 15 metres.

>In 2014, the project was understood to be revamped so that it will connect Kochi to Kasargod in the first phase. The design then was different from the K-Rail one. The train was to run at a speed of 350 km per hour. The first leg from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi – 190 km – was to be covered in 53 minutes and the second phase from Kochi to Kasargod in 2 hours and 22 minutes. Then CM Oommen Chandy reportedly said that the project was being delayed because of the protests against it.

>Two years later in May, another change of government took place and the LDF was back in power. A July 2016 report in OnManorama says that the DMRC finally prepared the feasibility report for the project. The High Speed Railway line in this report was to connect Kochuveli (south of Thiruvananthapuram) to Kannur, with trains running at the speed of 300 km per hour, covering nine stations in two hours.

>The KHSRCL then began a survey to understand public opinion about the project and to quell any fears about land acquisition. In February 2017, when the survey of 13,447 people was completed, it was found that 86% were in favour of the project. Those who opposed the project were worried about displacement of homes, loss of livelihood, and effect on ecology.

>In 2017, the K-Rail was formed as a joint venture between the Indian Railways and the Kerala government. The KHSRCL was wound up and the high speed rail project was replaced by a semi high speed one. The speed of the train was reduced to less than 200 km per hour and the estimated time to go from Kochuveli to Kasargod was calculated as four hours.

>In 2019, French consultancy Systra did a survey and reported that the semi high speed rail project was financially feasible. It said that the project could slowly recover the cost if it linked Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi airports.  By the end of the year, the project was named as Silver Line and the initial estimated cost was Rs 56,443 crore.

>In early 2020, an aerial survey was conducted to determine the alignment of the corridor. K-Rail managing director V Ajith Kumar said that an agency called Kerala State Remote Sensing and Environment Centre was doing a survey on the houses located on either side of where the rail project would come up and Systra was to submit the DPR.

>Soon, in a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, it was decided to have land acquisition cells in 10 districts where the project was then identified to run through.

>By April 2020, K-Rail approved the DPR submitted by Systra. By then the districts and stops rose to 11 and the present estimate of 64K crore rupees was reached. It was also decided that from Kasargod to Tirur, the new corridor will run parallel to the existing railway track since the curves and bends along the way are less sharp. But this will not be possible for the distance from Tirur to Thiruvananthapuram where the new track is proposed to run on a greenfield alignment.

>A couple of months later the Kerala cabinet, too, approved it. In October 2020, the proposal was tabled before the Union government. Four months later, the Union government asked the state to speed up the land acquisition and hold talks with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which it hoped would fund a large percent of the expenses.

>In May 2021, the Union government’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) sanctioned a Rs 3,000 crore loan for land acquisition.

>As the project went from one stage to another, protests against it kept rising. Kerala Paristhithi Aikya Vedi, an environmentalist group, urged the government to stop the project and look for more sustainable options. They raised such points as the inevitable modernisation of the existing railways which will increase the speed of trains.

Read: ‘Standalone extravaganza’: Green forum urges Kerala govt to stop Silverline rail project

>Sridhar Radhakrishnan, renowned environmentalist, wrote on TNM about the project using standard gauge, unlike the Indian railways that use a broad gauge, which meant no integration or inter-state travel was possible. Even the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), a 60-year-old science movement, pointed out their differences with the project. They said that the project will overshoot the present estimate and run into Rs 2 lakh crore. The KSSP also asked to stop all the project work until the DPR and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) were made public.

>To top it all, more than 9,000 buildings will have to be demolished and thousands of families displaced.

Read: Kerala’s Rs 63,941 cr Silver Line: A dream corridor or environmental disaster in the making?

>However, in October 2021, CM Pinarayi said in the Assembly that the project approval by the Union government is in its final stages. Days later, in another Assembly session, he also rejected concerns raised by the opposition UDF, saying that the project was inevitable for infrastructure development.

>But later in October, the Union government refused to back the foreign funding for the project. In response, the Kerala government in November expressed willingness to take up the financial liabilities on its own.

>The UDF has been protesting against the project, citing the huge amount it would burden the state with, and is planning a march towards the Secretariat on December 18. A group called Anti-K-rail Janakeeya Samithi, formed by those against the project, has also been continuously protesting against its implementation for more than a year.