By the side of a road, concealed by weeds, at Nooranad village in Alappuzha district of Kerala is the only physical marker of a large infrastructure project in the offing. In 2019, locals say, a few men in the dead of night planted the rectangular stone block.
“When we asked them what the block was for, they said it was to mark the widening of the road. They also took some soil samples for testing,” says Manjusha, whose house is located by the side of the road. “It was much later that we found out that it had been installed for the survey of the K-Rail project. If this is a sincere project that will benefit all, why lie? Why be so secretive?”
Over two years later, across Kerala, mistrust has only grown against ‘SilverLine’, a pet project of the Pinarayi Vijayan government to build a semi-high-speed railway corridor.
Undertaken by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (or K-Rail), the plan is to provide a corridor where trains will clock speeds of 200 kmph between the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, in the south to Kasaragod, a mofussil town in the north, reducing the time taken to cover the 530-km distance from 12 hours to under four. The government says it will help decongest Kerala’s roads, provide a sustainable commuting option, and along the way, develop ecosystems that will enable infra-progress.
But, for large sections of the state, the Rs 63,940 crore project is a disaster in the making. Among the questions being asked are: how a debt-ridden state can afford the project; what the ecological cost would be on a state tackling climate change; would the train service be affordable given the cost of building it; and what the plans are to rehabilitate those displaced. The loudest concern though is the lack of consultation.
“In 2020, on the day of Uthradam (the eve of the main day of the Onam festival), we opened the local newspapers to find land survey numbers published as part of the K-Rail route alignment. That is how we found out that our homes would be razed,” says Subeesh, who does odd painting jobs and whose two-year-old home falls on the proposed route. He says he called up the local village officer, but he had no clue.
On coming to know her house would be demolished, Manjusha says she told her kids: “I might kill myself, but I couldn’t bear being on the streets with you, homeless.”
Many like her have turned to Santhosh, the Alappuzha district president of the ‘Samsthana K-Rail SilverLine Viruddha Janakeeya Samiti’, which is leading protests across the state. On December 1 last year, a Samiti protest against officials who had come for a survey had turned violent. At least 20 Samiti members, including Santhosh, were beaten, detained and booked on charges of violating Covid-19 protocols and disrupting government work.
In Kerala, the third-most densely populated state in the country (as per the 2011 Census), land acquisition is one of the biggest problems in infra projects. With land at a premium, families run up large loans to build houses. Last year, domestic agency India Ratings, citing an All India Debt and Investment Survey, said that at 47.8%, Kerala had the highest incidence of indebtedness among urban households.
Manjusha, who shares her home with her elderly parents, husband and two children, says she doesn’t expect to pay off her loan till her death.
Indira Bhai, one of the senior-most protesters in Nooranad, says it is not about the money. “Even if they give crores, we don’t want it.”
D Dhanuraj, chief executive and founder-member of the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), a think-tank based in Kochi, says the government can’t think that all it has to do is “sell” a dream to the public. “The public is more informed these days and asks questions,” he said.
In an article for the CPPR, Dhanuraj and Senior Associate Nissy Solomon argued that in Kerala’s ‘highly urbanised ecosystem’, where 70% of the GDP comes from the services sector, urban and rural systems are closer than ever. These factors have “minimised the need for mass travel on a regular basis”.
Disputing this, T M Thomas Isaac, former Kerala finance minister and senior CPM leader, points out that high-income Kerala has been seeing fastest growth in vehicles. “Whatever roads we have, even with widening to six lanes, there will be congestion in the next five years. We need a rapid transport system that will take long-distance cars off the streets. And SilverLine is the answer.”
CPM Rajya Sabha MP Elamaram Kareem said the argument of financial unviability was misplaced. “The cost of such a project does not come from the state budget. Foreign funding agencies are willing to give out long-term loans at low interests. As far as land acquisition goes, one share of it is Railway-owned land. This is a joint venture of the Kerala government and Indian Railways. Plus, all the money is not required at the outset… Moreover, the Detailed Project Report says that as operations start, the revenues can be used to pay off the loan after five years.”
Kareem accused “fundamentalists” among environmentalists of opposing all development projects. “Here, if the rail route goes through wetlands and paddy fields, we will have an elevated stretch. Every 500 metres, there will be underpasses or overhead roads… There won’t be any environmental damage,” he said.
Protests over environmental risks have earlier led to the grounding of several big-ticket projects in Kerala. While some, like the Vizhinjam port and the GAIL pipeline for LPG transmission were pushed through by governments overriding protests, others such as the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Plachimada, an airport at Aranmula and a dam deep inside the Silent Valley forests had to be scrapped.
K P Kannan, a development economist, says the government could have looked for alternative transport models. “We already have four airports (within the state) and two on the borders (Mangalore and Coimbatore). There is a railway system from Kanyakumari to Mangalore and beyond. There is an inland water system… The government is not interested in that. There is the possibility of coastal shipping for large cargo,” he said.
Kannan also fears that the standard gauge technology from Japan for SilverLine might end up making it a “standalone railway system”. “It will have no linkage with our mainstream railway network.”
E Sreedharan, called the Metro Man for championing some of India’s biggest railway infra projects, calls the project “ill-conceived” and “lacking technical perfection”. Sreedharan, who contested the Kerala Assembly elections last year as a BJP candidate, said recently that the corridor must use broad gauge instead of the standard gauge technology. He also accused the CM of “hiding facts” and “underestimating costs”.
However, Vijayan doesn’t seem inclined towards a rethink, and has in fact held ‘vishadeekarana’ (explanatory) meetings spelling out the benefits of the rail project. “In development projects, there will be some opposition. The important thing is that the state’s interests must be protected,” he said at a meeting.
Critics say these meetings are not being attended by ordinary citizens but those in influential positions aligned with the Left. The CM does not take questions at the meetings, and talks about general aspects rather than specifics, they add.
A source who is in on the consultations says, “Ministers themselves are saying they don’t want (this project). But how can you convince the CM? They don’t have the guts.”
At the ground level, like in Nooranad, CPM workers and leaders refuse to talk about the project. A source said they are neither pushing the project nor resisting it.
That doesn’t comfort Manjusha. “Both my parents are die-hard supporters of the Left. I grew up believing those ideals. But today, I feel betrayed.”