Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan hinted on Wednesday that those opposing the Rs 64,000-crore Semi High-Speed Rail Project were anti-social elements hell-bent on scuttling development.
He charged that the UDF was getting close to extreme elements within the Muslim community and insinuated that it was these new relationships that were pushing it to conspire against the Silver Line project. Pinarayi did not name the extreme elements but made it seem it was very clear.
"You will know whom I am referring to," he told Muslim League leader M K Muneer, who raised the issue as an adjournment motion in the Assembly.
Opposition Leader V D Satheesan hit back saying that this was the very same strategy employed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "It is usual for Modi to brand his critics as anti-nationals or Maoists or terrorists. This demonisation of opponents is a common trait found in all autocrats, " Satheesan said.
The Chief Minister asserted the Silver Line project was necessary for Kerala. His touted speed as its USP. "You can travel from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod in four hours," he said. He said a commuter could travel from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi in 86 minutes.
The Chief Minister said 1383 hectares of land would have to be acquired for the purpose, including for the rehabilitation and resettlement of the project affected. He said 9314 buildings, including houses, would be affected.
Pinarayi also assured the project-affected would be adequately compensated. In rural areas, those who lose land would be paid four times the market value. In urban areas, it would be twice the market value.
The Opposition's charge was that the project would inflict economic, ecological and social costs that would be infinitely more than the claimed benefits.
Satheesan also said the proposed project cost, Rs 64,941 crore, was suspect. He said the NITI Aayog, after assessing the project, had pegged the cost at Rs 1.24 lakh crore. The Chief Minister had said that the cost of construction was Re 120 crore per kilometre. He said this was far lower than the Rs 250 crore per km calculated for the high-speed rail proposed during the previous UDF regime. Pinarayi said this lower construction cost was also why his government opted for a semi-high speed rail.
But Satheesan retorted, citing the NITI Aayog, the actual cost of the project was Rs 270 crore per km.
Satheesan poked holes in the Chief Minister's optimism about the projecr. Whenn Pinarayi said the common folk would use the train in a big way, Satheesan wondered if a person commuting from Kozhikode to Kochi and back daily would shell out Rs 600 a day. "This means, Rs 18,000 a month. Which common man are you speaking of who could comfortably spend such an amount monthly," he argued.
The proponents of the project say that 46,000 people would use the train daily. Satheesan said that even on the busiest Mumbai-Surat-Ahmedabad corridor, only 37,500 passengers were expected on the high-speed bullet train project.
The government's plan is to secure a loan of nearly Rs 34,000 crore from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). "However, if the centre-state joint venture (Kerala Rail Development Corporation) defaults, the agreement with JICA says that the burden will fall on Kerala alone," Satheesan said.
Loss of property
Though the Chief Minister claimed less than 10,000 buildings would be affected, Satheesan stated at least 20,000 families would be forced out of their homes by the project. Muneer said that many houses, even under-construction ones, were already marked for demolition even before Kerala could secure central approval for the project.
The Chief Minister also conveyed to the House that the Centre had given an in-principle nod for the project. Satheesan contradicted him, saying the in-principle approval was only for a 'standalone elevated rail corridor'.
Satheesan argued that the environment cost would be the most damaging. He said Kerala would be be split right down the centre by a tall embankment. "In nearly 80% of the distance, the rail would be erected on tall concrete embankments," he said.
An environmental impact assessment done by the government itself had said that the embankments could block the natural flow of water and could even cause soil piping (sudden plummeting of earth) in certain areas. "The government report also says that the land use pattern 500 metres to the east and west of the embankment would be altered, " Satheesan said.
The government report has also identified 164 hydrologically sensitive areas along the proposed embankment.
Satheesan also wanted to know from where the government hoped to get the granite required to construct such a long embankment. "We know that the government is struggling to get enough rocks to construct the Vizhinjam breakwater. It could manage to secure just 17 lakh tonnes of granite when the actual requirement was 75 lakh tonnes," he said.
The Opposition Leader then put forward four demands. One, release the detailed project report of the project. Two, do a comprehensive environmental impact study. Three, do a social impact study. Fourth, initiate land acquisition proceedings only after the government secures the approval of the Railway ministry.