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What is the SilverLine Project that has Polarised the People of Kerala?

By: Annanya Rana
09 Feb 2022 12:58:29 PM CSMC, Chitkara University, Punjab

Despite protests across Kerala against the SilverLine project – a semi high-speed rail line corridor from Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod – the CPI (M)-led state government remains firm in its implementation. However, it must be noted that the SilverLine has yet to be approved by the Union government. 

 

The people of Kerala are polarised over the proposed 532-km railway line. K-Rail (Kerala Rail Development Corporation) says that the line will connect mega port city Kochi with the rest of the state in under two hours. Places, such as Kasargod in the north and the capital Thiruvananthapuram in the south, which used to take 12 hours earlier, will take only four hours to reach via the SilverLine.

 

According to the Kerala government, the primary objective of the SilverLine is to ease the pressure on Kerala’s heavily choked 1,800 km highways. Due to its undulating topography and sensitive hydrology (prone to recurrent floods), especially along the Western Ghats, road construction in Kerala is a slow process, requiring years of study. 

 

Even railway construction has been a problem over the years, with K-Rail laying down winding tracks featuring sharp curves. This means that the average speed of a train on these lines is just around 45 kmph. Such slow railway services mean that roadways automatically bear the onus of transportation. With the SilverLine, train speeds will go up to as far as 220 kmph, which would allow quicker transport and more frequent trains.

 

However, the project has run into controversy over its ecological impact, the people displaced by its construction and the alleged financial unviability. Protesters, including opposition parties and activist groups, allege that the rail line would cause great environmental harm as it cuts through wetlands, rice fields and hills. They are also concerned by the embankments over which tracks are lined that could block natural drainage and cause floods during heavy rains.

 

“The noise and vibration generated by the SilverLine project may disturb the fauna, including domestic livestock, especially in the nighttime. There is a potential of the direct impact of SilverLine trains hitting avifauna since the trains will be running at a speed of 200 km/h on viaduct at a height of 10m‐15m,” noted the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA) report by the Centre for Environment and Development

 

The overall cost of the project is estimated to be around Rs 63,940 crores. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funding agency agreed to finance the SilverLine project at a 0.25% interest rate over a forty-year period. To this end, the agency is reportedly ready to shell out a Rs 33,000 crore loan for the project while the state government is negotiating with Asian Development Bank (ADS) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for funding further support. 

 

“These funding agencies are ready for a 40-year tenure loan with a moratorium on interest payments for the 1st five years. K-Rail is confident of repaying the entire loan amount within 20 years”, V Ajithkumar, managing director of K-Rail. Proponents point to the benefits of fast high-quality connectivity. 

 

The project is set to have each train carry between 9-12 compartments with a maximum capacity of 675 passengers who can opt for business or standard class settings. 

 

However, dissidents primarily cite the burden of debt that the state is already facing. Other worries hinge around the generous rehabilitation of about 10,000 families from the 1,200 hectares of private land it needs to acquire and also the environmental concerns. A petition was also signed by 17 opposition MPs from the state who said that the project was an “astronomical scam in the making” and would sink the state further into debt.