The hotly-debated topic in recent times in Kerala is the K-Rail project. K-Rail is a government-proposed speed-rail corridor connecting Kasaragod in the north and Thiruvananthapuram in the south. K-Rail promises a 200 km per hour speed, and is expected to cover a distance of 529.45 km in less than four hours — at present it takes the Indian Railways 10-12 hours to cover this distance.
The Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) is in a tearing hurry, and the Chief Minister has taken a tough stand to pursue this project. This speed comes at a heavy price: it is estimated that more than 10,000 families will be displaced, and of the 1,383 hectares that need to be acquired, 1,198 hectares will be private land.
The state government’s obduracy has raised many eyebrows at the regional and national levels — which leads us to the question: Does Kerala need a K-Rail?
Kerala presents a mixed growth and highly-urbanised ecosystem with a larger metropolis. The remittance economy and the migration from the interiors helped the state bridge the gap between the rural and urban systems. The service sector contributes to 70 percent of Kerala’s GSDP. This, in fact, resulted in minimising the need for mass travel on a regular basis, and limited mass employment in concentrated cities. Even the definition of urbanisation has been tweaked in Kerala to accommodate the countryside and the villages. This leads to the question: who travels long distances in Kerala, and with what frequency?
The average number of passengers commuting daily on trains between major cities (Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Thrissur, and Kozhikode) in the state from some of the minor cities/towns is estimated to be 38,935 (Mukundan, 2020). Though these numbers do not give a complete picture, the current demand for connectivity can be assumed from this data.
In Kerala, the average trip lengths are of short distances. Those skilled and qualified are on the lookout for the job in the neighbouring states, thanks to Kerala’s political economy. As per the proposed K-Rail plans, those who commute by the speed-rail will have to switch modes of transport (to train, bus, or private vehicles) to complete a journey. This is because many of the proposed stations are not in the city/town centres. Given the time taken to switch between modes of transport, the cost of travelling, first/last mile connectivity challenges, and the inconvenience it causes, it is doubtful whether many would prefer K-Rail to save an hour or two. The viability and the future of the existing Indian Railway network in Kerala is another question that needs to be looked into.
A claim put forward by those in favour of the project is that it makes the state capital Thiruvananthapuram more accessible. Let’s look at this as well.
In the past, it has been observed that the majority go to the state capital to visit mainly three offices/establishments: the secretariat, the Technopark, and the Regional Cancer Centre and other medical facilities. In the era of 5G and e-governance, isn’t it a better idea to invest a fraction of the estimated Rs 64,000 crore project in bringing the government to ones fingertips, rather than expecting people to physically reach the secretariat? The government should reach where the people are, and not the other way around. In the case of accessing quality medical facilities, why demand that patients travel to Thiruvananthapuram — instead, the aim should be to support and improve medical facilities at the local level.
The same logic applies to the focus on employees travelling daily towards Technopark. With the option of remote working here to stay in some form, coupled by the digital advancements in the years ahead, daily commuters’ numbers will not be justifiable for the capex investment and displacement the project creates. If travel to the capital city is taken as an example to measure the need for such a speed rail from the demand side, the other district headquarters have even lesser to offer, further complicating the justification for K-Rail.
Considering that Kerala’s population is almost evenly distributed between urban and rural areas, and that there is already a widespread use of alternative modes of transportation, it would be a challenge for K-Rail to attract commuters from the interior to the limited number of stations (11). This is one of the learnings from Kochi Metro in these years.
Kerala has the highest road density in India. Kerala has an ageing population, and it would constitute 20-plus percent of the elderly population in another decade. With the increased exodus of the younger generation from Kerala in recent years, the state will face a different set of challenges in the coming years. In an already-punctured economy, the State has to prioritise providing higher quality education, avenues for the employment generation, and a protected environment.
Unfortunately, the proposed K-Rail does not tick any of these boxes. Instead, it goes against the very idea of decentralisation that Kerala is known for, while encouraging involuntary movements by inducement.
This article was written by Dr D Dhanuraj and Nissy Solomon.
Dr D DHANURAJ is Chairman and NISSY SOLOMON is Senior Associate, Research at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
This article was first published in Money Control on 11 January 2021