Will the Kerala govt go ahead with Silver Line Project amid protests?

While environmentalist activists and local residents who will be displaced continue to protest against the Silver Line project, the Opposition has also been firm in its resistance.
Replica of a train used for Kerala K-Rail story
Replica of a train used for Kerala K-Rail story
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On Saturday, February 12, a climate cafe was organised by a group of environmentalists in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram. Sridhar Radhakrishnan, who has been vehemently opposing the Left government’s showpiece Silver Line project, led a session about its adverse impact. The cafe is the latest in the mounting protests that the state has been witnessing against the semi high-speed railway line project.

The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has showcased Silver Line as an ambitious infrastructure development project. The railway line is expected to connect the northern and southern parts of the state in four hours. The 540-km stretch from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod is to be developed by K-Rail (Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited) at a whopping Rs 63,941 crore. Environmentalists say its ecological impact on the state, which witnessed devastating deluges in 2018 and 2019, will be unviable. Local residents along the proposed railway line who will be displaced are also opposed to the project.

Recently, Sathyadeepam, the mouthpiece of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese of the Syro Malabar church, in a scathing criticism termed the project ‘Mao Line’. “The government has taken a Mao Line (apparently referring to Chinese communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong) in implementing the K-Rail. Both the Chief Minister and the party (the CPI(M) have taken the Mao line reiterating that only the K-Rail – which has brought thousands of people to the streets in protest – is the only way to address stagnation in development,” the article reads.

Local protests

Residents whose land will be acquired for the project oppose it for fear of losing their house and livelihood. The latest protest was at Keezhmadu panchayat near Aluva in Ernakulam district where the residents and people’s representatives foiled an attempt by K-Rail officials to lay survey stones on February 10. The proposed railway line passes through three wards in the panchayat which consists of acres of isolated rubber estates.

“Some of the families living in the area are those who were evicted for the Sea Port-Airport Road in Ernakulam. They haven’t been properly compensated yet. They can’t afford another eviction at any cost,” Mandalam Youth Congress Vice President Muhammed Thahir told TNM.

He alleged that the officials turned up to lay the survey stones without any prior intimation. “There are 350 to 500 acres of rubber estates. They are isolated and the narrow roads adjacent to them are not usually used by people. We came to know that the officials were there after a local resident told us. Even if the government pays proper compensation for the project, it won’t be enough for us to buy land not too far away from here or a decent house,” he added.

In December last year, K-Rail officials had faced strong opposition from the residents in Alappuzha’s Nooranad while trying to assess the water level of the paddy field for the alignment of the rail line. The face-off with the local people made the officials step back.

The Union government’s stand

The Railway Board told the Kerala High Court on February 4 that it was advisable to stop the land acquisition proceedings for the project at this stage and that feasibility of its current alignment has not been agreed to by the Ministry of Railways. The Union government informed the court that there were serious concerns regarding the project. It argued that the project will be an obstacle to the expansion of Angamaly railway station, which operates railway sidings for the Food Corporation of India.

Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had told the Parliament that KRDCL has been asked to furnish certain technical documents before the project’s feasibility can be decided. “Sufficient details for technical feasibility are not available in the Detailed Project Report (DPR). KRDCL has therefore been advised to provide detailed technical documents such as alignment plan, particulars of railway land and private land, crossings over existing railway network, duly depicting affected railway assets through Zonal Railway for detailed examination of the project and to arrive at conclusion about the feasibility of the project.”

The High Court had last month issued an interim order staying all further proceedings of erecting concrete structures based on a writ petition by three people whose land would be acquired for the project. However, the government got a relief on Monday February 14 after a Division bench of the High Court dismissed the order of the single bench that directed stopping the social impact study for the project.

Opposition firm in its stand

The Congress-led opposition, the United Democratic Front, has also been firm in its stand on Silver Line. Opposition Leader VD Satheesan on Sunday, February 13 said that the government’s stand of not answering the queries of the opposition about the project is mysterious. In a Facebook post, Satheesan said that the government not publishing the full DPR is a challenge to democracy.

“While examining the drawing of the alignment, only details of 115 km have been included. Drawings from 115 km to 530 km have not been included. Also, there is no complete data on many of the stations (in the railway line) in the DPR. There are no clear details about the project’s techno-economic feasibility,” the post reads.

Activists Daya Bai and Medha Patkar have also voiced dissent against the project.

What is the way ahead?

Talking to TNM, MT Thomas Mathew, patron of the K-Rail Action Council, said that the government is moving ahead in a unilateral way ignoring the voices of opposition. “As per the HC interim order on a couple of petitions, K-Rail officials can’t enter the land till February 18. If the government wants to go ahead with the project, that would be the MaoLine approach like Sathyadeepam said,” he told TNM.

However, he believes that the government will have to withdraw the project if it takes a democratic approach. Thomas cited examples of high-speed railway corridors and the Aranmula airport, which had to be given up owing to protests.

The LDF government, during VS Achuthanandan’s stint as Chief Minister, had planned to develop high-speed rail corridors between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod, and Kochi and Palakkad. The feasibility study was completed during the time of the Oommen Chandy-led United Democratic Front government in 2012. The Aranmula international airport project, undertaken in Pathanamthitta district, was opposed by activists and village people as it was projected to be an ecological disaster. The LDF government  cancelled all orders related to the proposed airport project in 2016. An express highway project between Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram, proposed during the time of the UDF government headed by AK Antony, also had to be withdrawn due to opposition from the LDF.

The HC while staying the proceedings in January said, “You (government) messed it up by doing this. This issue rose because of your haste.” The court’s observations aptly summarise the developments in the project hitherto. 

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