Chennithala alleges consultancy scam in Silver Line Project, wants land acquisition to be put on hold

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Ramesh Chennithala

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has come up with yet another allegation of consultancy scam against the Pinarayi Vijayan government. 

Chennithala on Tuesday said the Kerala government's decision to go ahead with the land acquisition for the Rs 64,941-crore Semi High-Speed Rail Corridor (Silver Line Project), without getting central approval and overriding the objections of revenue minister E Chandrasekharan, was nothing but another attempt to pocket a fat commission from consultancies.

He said it has become quite typical for the Pinarayi Vijayan government to announce major projects without taking any preliminary steps. "In the cover of this, they appoint consultants and then pocket their commissions from the money given to consultancies," Chennithala said and added: "This is exactly what happened in the case of the E-Mobility and KFON projects."

The Paris-based Systra has been given the consultancy for the Silver Line Project for Rs 27 crore. Chennthala said that Systra was a highly controversial company that was prohibited from working in countries like Tanzania and Ghana by the World Bank. 

The opposition leader said a secretary-level meeting convened by the Chief Secretary on November 20 had decided to go ahead with the land acquisition proceedings. "If the Chief Minister signs the order, then 20,000 families will be evicted from their homes and 50,000 business establishments would have to shut shop," Chennithala told the media in Thiruvananthapuram.

Chennithala said that no environmental impact assessment or social impact assessment studies, very crucial for large projects, were done. He said the Kerala government was going ahead with the project even after the Union Finance Ministry had rejected the Silver Line project in August. 

The screening committee of the Ministry, after a detailed deliberation on August 18, 2020, had decided to drop the proposal and advised the Kerala government to first complete the ongoing rail projects before taking up new ones. 

The Union Railway Minister, Piyush Goel, in a letter sent to Kerala government in 2018, had also brushed aside the proposal. Instead, he said his ministry would support only a 'stand-alone elevated corridor'. The Niti Aayog, too, had given it thumbs down.

Kerala's transport secretary Jyothilal, in an affidavit filed in the High Court, conceded that the finance ministry had rejected the proposal and said that the government was going ahead with the land acquisition on the “assumption” that it could secure the approval of the Centre.

"What's more, the revenue minister (E Chandrasekharan) has stated very clearly in a file that the land acquisition should not begin without the sanction of the centre," Chennthala said. 

The opposition leader wanted to know how the Kerala government could go ahead with a project without the Centre's approval. "How is the state government hoping to find the money for the project when the centre wants the project dumped," Chennithala said.

He said the original plan was for the Centre to meet 20 per cent of the total project cost of Rs 64,941 crore, which is Rs 13,000 crore. The state was to pitch in 28 per cent, Rs 18,200 crore. And the remaining 52 per cent (Rs 34,000 crore) was to be mobilised from foreign funding agencies.

"The state government is not in the least concerned how the money for the project is going to come. They are bothered only about the commission," Chennithala said. He also alleged that the LDF government had sabotaged the original Bullet Train proposal conceived by the former UDF government for the Silver Line Project. 

Silver Line, a high-speed rail corridor connecting Kochiveli and Kasaragod, was approved by the Kerala Cabinet on June 10. A detailed project report was subsequently drawn up and submitted to the Railway Board for its approval for without it the construction of even an inch of the railway line is not possible.

However, the Railway Board has only given IPA (In-Principle Approval) for taking up pre-investment activities. A sanction from the Central Cabinet and the Niti Aayog too are necessary for the implementation of the project.

The Union Finance Minister had, in the last budget, announced categorically that no new projects will be considered till March 31, 2021, given the circumstances posed by COVID outbreak. Only six semi-high speed/bullet trains have been sanctioned in the last budget and Silver Line is not one of them.

Without waiting for the Centre's nod, the Kerala government had already begun to acquire land for the Rs 67,000 crore project.

Malayala Manorama broke the news on July 26 that Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (KRDCL), a joint venture between the Kerala government and the Ministry of Railways, has moved to acquire the land for this ambitious project, paying up to four times the market value of the land.

It was also reported then that a private agency has been roped in to help the government acquire the land when it ideally should have been done by the Revenue Department. This was immediately nipped in the bud.

It must also be said that Kerala had tinkered with a similar high-speed train project before. This was finally dropped in the year 2018 and the company itself was dissolved. The Rs 100 crore of public money that the government had spent on the project, it seems, achieved nothing.

But if taken up, the Silver Line will be Kerala government's most ambitious project till date.

The Silver Line corridor will connect Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod through trains with operational speeds of 200 km per hour, covering the 529.45-km journey in four hours. These trains will cover the busy Thiruvananthapuram-Ernakulam stretch in 90 minutes, which at present takes more than four hours.

Silver Line will run parallel to the existing railway line from Kasaragod to Tirur, while an alternative green-field alignment has been chosen for Tirur-Thiruvananthapuram stretch.

The Silver Line trains will have stopovers at Kollam, Chengannur, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Tirur, Kozhikode, and Kannur en route to Kasaragod. It is expected to be operational by 2025.

Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran had earlier said that the project will greatly help the state to recover from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 outbreak and will generate job opportunities during and after the completion phase.

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