Kerala Paristhithi Aikya Vedi, a forum of environmentalists, has urged the newly elected Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala to stop the hurried implementation of the Rs 63,941 crore Silverline rail project, citing that the state can explore more sustainable options. “We request that the new government should take up a basic infrastructure development project in tune with the finitude of Kerala. Hence it is important the Scientific, Technical, Social, Environmental, and Economic Aspects of the Silverline Project should be thoroughly discussed. The government should refrain from the speedy implementation of the project,” the forum urged the government in a statement on May 20. The second Pinarayi Vijayan government was sworn in on May 20.
Silverline is a semi high speed rail project connecting Kochuveli in Thiruvananthapuram, the southern capital district, to the northern border district of Kasaragod. The proposed corridor, to be implemented in a 530.6 km stretch, will connect 11 of the 14 districts of the state. The project is expected to reduce the total travel time to less than 4 hours. Currently, it takes 12-14 hours to travel from the southernmost to the northern districts of the state. A joint venture of the Kerala government and the Ministry of Railways, the project will be executed by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (KRDCL or K-Rail). The LDF government had informed NITI Aayog in November 2020 that the Silverline project is viable and feasible.
However, environmental groups like Kerala Paristhithi Aikya Vedi believe that more sustainable alternatives at lesser cost must be studied before the government commits to the project. “The Silverline project envisages the borrowing of Rs 64,000 crore from various international lending agencies. Alternatives that can be implemented at a cost less than or equal to the interest of this huge money are available and need to be considered in consultation with experts before reaching haste commitment to the project,” Kerala Paristhithi Aikya Vedi’s statement read.
According to the statement, the Indian Railways will be switching over to an electronic signalling system that can ensure a speed of 150 km per hour. “Indian Railways is on the path of modernisation, like adapting to a new signalling system that will inevitably pave the way for reduction in running time. Then it would take only four hours to reach Kasaragod from Thiruvananthapuram. Silverline will run on standard gauge, to which Indian Railways has been generally upgrading. With this, high speed can be achieved in a normal line too,” Ravishankar KV, who is part of the forum, told TNM. The statement also said we need projects that are integrated for current and future needs, and so standalone projects like Silverline would be a waste of money and resources.
“While the Silverline project splits Kerala into two, the region that is connected with the line and that which is left out, along 529.45 km, more of the wetlands and agricultural lands will be destroyed. Also, the construction of the railway line will break hillocks and mountains. We fear that Kerala, which is reeling under alternating drought and floods, would face heightened disasters if the Silverline project is implemented. We should go for sustainable development models from the lessons learned from the consecutive flood and related natural disasters,” the statement further read.
“The Jan Shatabdi Express (which runs between Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode) reaches Ernakulam from Thiruvananthapuram in 2.5 hours. Switching over to the modern system will further reduce the travel time, so Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod can be reached in 4 hours without implementing the Silverline project,” Ravishankar added.
Sridhar Radhakrishnan, another environmentalist who is part of the forum, said, “The Vizhinjam port project was hyped by the UDF government the same way the Silverline project is currently being hyped by a section of society. Now the warnings by scientists and environmentalists about the port project are demonstrably coming true. It’s even becoming an economic sink,” Sridhar told TNM. He warned about the terrible consequences of the state government hurrying with the ambitious rail project.
“We think the Silverline project is the next big-ticket mistake by the state government. This time it will not only hit Kerala’s environment hard but will also push the state into a miserable debt. And in the process, uproot the lives and livelihoods of thousands. Sustainable alternatives based on a futuristic integrated transportation system must be explored before going ahead with this standalone extravaganza,” he added. The forum also fears that the implementation of the Silverline project will lead to mass displacement of people.
“Thousands of families will be left homeless by this project. This mass eviction of people who have not yet tided over the economic impact of the pandemic will create new social backlash. The best course of action is to forgo the Silverline project and take up the modernisation of the existing railway network and diverse sustainable projects,” the statement read.