New Delhi: Barely one year into its historic second term in office, the CPM-led Left Front government in Kerala is poised for a head on collision with the Congress-led opposition United Democratic Front over Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s pet project, the Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod semi-high speed rail link, Silver Line. The ongoing Rs 64,000crore (current estimate) 529.45 –kilometre Silver Line semi high-speed rail project of the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (K-Rail) cutting across Kerala is expected to connect the northern and southern end of the state in four hours instead of the present twelve. The trains on the new line are expected to travel at a speed of 200 km per hour against the existing 80-90 km per hour. It is considered a lighter version of Narendra Modi’s ambitious Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project which too had run into a controversy where the CPM, incidentally, is part of an agitation against the project.
The project needs a minimum of 1,383 hectares of land that will include large tracts of wetlands, forest areas, backwater regions, paddy fields, residential and shopping areas with high density of population. Thousands of people will be displaced, will turn homeless, businesses will have to be resettled and new houses built. As per NITI Aayog estimates, the compensation for land acquisition alone would be around Rs 28,157crore. Agencies including Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Hudco, Rail Finance Corporation and Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) would lend out the money required for the implementation of the project. This would mean a huge burden on the existing fragile financial situation of the state. Since K-Rail has been set up as a joint venture company between the State government and Ministry of Railways for implementing the project, technically the Silver Line has to be ultimately cleared by the Railway Board.
But the way the CPM is going ahead with the implementation of the project brushing aside affected peoples’ objections, many feel that it has all the ingredients to make it Kerala’s own version of the Singur-Nandigram land acquisition agitation a decade and a half ago that led to the end of 34 uninterrupted years of Left rule in West Bengal. It is a curious situation. While Pinarayi Vijayan is unfazed and is branding anyone who opposes the project as ‘saddists’ who are anti-development and anti-Kerala, his party, CPM, brands all those who are against Silver Line as those opposed to Pinarayi Vijayan as an individual. And the government and party spokespersons, instead of assuaging the fears of the common man, keep telling the people of Kerala how great Pinarayi Vijayan is in bringing such a project that would change the skyline of the state. The opposition, meanwhile, reminds the government that it cannot bulldoze development over the will of the people.
On the face of it and not going into the technicalities, the project seems to be ill- conceived. Even experts are pointing out that the so-called feasibility study undertaken by the government is very shoddy. The refusal of the government to place the Detailed Project Report (DPR) in public domain seems to justify the charge. The government argument that making the DPR public would endanger the project has failed to convince experts. Metro Man E Sreedharan, who hails from Kerala, has termed the project “an idiotic decision”. According to him, the government is simply fooling the people by underwriting that cost and not revealing the detailed project report of the Silver Line project. “It was also mentioned that DPR of major projects are not made public. This is a total lie. I had prepared DPRs for at least 10 major projects and none of the DPR was kept away from the public. Why should the government fool the people by underestimating costs and hiding facts,” the man who unarguably revolutionised public transport in the country’s metros said in a statement.
However, his comments are being rubbished both by the government and the party as that of the opinion of the BJP as Sreedharan had contested the last Assembly elections on a BJP ticket and was even projected as its chief minister candidate. This is seen by many as arrogance on the part of the chief minister, and says that the government is conducting in such a manner at its own peril. However it is said that Sreedharan has sounded the Prime Minister “about the technical issues of the project” and has told his critics in the CPM that he would have done the same if the project was conceived by a BJP government. But the Centre is unlikely to shoot down the project since the Modi government has always promoted such mega projects. In fact it would be a great opportunity for the party to take even the credit for the project once completed successfully, though the state BJP is making half-hearted statements opposing the project.
But the Pinarayi government is sure to face huge resistance from the general public and environmentalists at the ground level. There is a fear among the people that the project would literally divide the state vertically since a wall erected on both sides of the track will have around 13-15 metres height. Thousands of people will be displaced with no clear-cut rehabilitation plan on paper. Environmentalists have warned of a major ecological disaster, especially in the light of recurring floods in the state. Part of the Western Ghats too will be affected, which means neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka too will be affected ecologically. It is said that the government has not taken all these into consideration and is bent upon the project only to justify its goal of development.
Noted environmentalists such as Medha Patkar have called for a mass protest at the ground level by people cutting across party lines. Addressing a campaign organised by the K-Rail SilverLine Virudha Janakeeya Samithi last month, she said “If we have to change the development paradigm, we need people’s struggles. Legal battle along with ground-level struggles is needed against K-Rail”. She further asks, “It is said that a Left government that did great work during the floods and the pandemic has given a statement that the K-Rail is a green project. How can such a project, which leaves thousands of people homeless and destroys so much agricultural land, be considered a green project?”
Kerala environmentalist activist and noted engineer R.V.G. Menon, a known Left journeyman, says the project would have “adverse impact on the Western Ghats as it would require enormous amounts of granite and loose soil”. Writing in the prestigious vernacular Mathrubhumi weekly on whether Kerala should get on the K-Rail track, he and colleague T.P. Kunjhikannan has advocated that the project is not suited to accommodate all sections of people envisaged in a new Kerala. It is not in agreement with the Kerala model of development, they feel. Elsewhere, R.V.G. Menon has urged the government to cancel out the project and “prove its commitment to the people of the state regularly impacted by the mindless environmental destruction by huge projects with little or no benefits to the whole state”.
Despite all these reservations, Pinarayi Vijayan and his government are determined to go ahead with the project. It has now rather turned out to be a prestige issue for the chief minister and some say that Vijayan wants to leave a mark on his legacy with the K-Rail. His refusal to convene the state Assembly or an all-party meeting to discuss the matter has only widened the chasm between the opposition and the government. The Chief Minister’s decision to address meetings of ‘Poura Pramukhar’ (roughly translated:Important members of civil society) has added to the opposition ire. Most of those invited to such meetings are said to be known CPM sympathisers. Instead of addressing those affected, Pinarayi Vijayan is accused of behaving like a ‘feudal lord’ or a king summoning a bunch of courtiers lecturing them about the necessity of such a project.
All these are falling on deaf ears. Vijayan is set to go off to the US for treatment of his so far undisclosed ailments. He is said to be away for ten days from January 15 and is supposed to run the State administration through video-calls. Meanwhile, the opposition Congress has vowed to physically remove the survey stones erected forcibly (without the permission of the owners of the property) under the surveillance of the police and party cadre in some of the 11 districts through which the train is supposed to pass. And the CPM leaders have threatened to confront Congress workers face to face, not a pleasant situation to think of. If this happens, then Kerala is in for a major turmoil.
OVERHEARD: In Pinarayi Vijayan’s “NavaKerala”, the new norm is a tooth for a stone! (On CPM leader M.V.Jayarajan’s warning to Congressmen to take care of their teeth before pulling out the K-Rail survey stones.)