Despite landslides, floods, Kerala pursues its Silverline project dream

Silverline semi high-speed railway line project
Representational image

Thiruvananthapuram: There was speculation that the destruction of life and property left behind by the October floods and landslides would force the Kerala Government to keep the Rs-65,000-crore Silver Line project on hold. Truth is, the urgency shown by the government to make the project happen has survived the disaster.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan met Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnav on Friday and urged him to speed up the clearance for the Semi High-Speed Railway line from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod. 

Kerala's plan is to secure financial assistance of Rs 33,699.80 crore from global lending agencies like JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the German investment bank KfW.

The project funding had originally been envisaged as a debt-equity of 85:15 with the Ministry of Railways (MoR) taking up almost 5 per cent of the equity. But the Ministry of Railways has consistently been non-committal about taking up the equity. It had said that it was already struggling to find funds for its expansion plans.

Sources said the Railway Minister reiterated his Ministry's stand during the talks held today. The minister even said that his ministry was trying to work out ways to make the project more feasible, a clear message that the proposed project would have to be reworked.

In fact, the Southern Railway (SR) had found that the Silver Line project clashed with its operations in more than half of Kerala, from Ernakulam to Kasaragod. It had even asked the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (KRDCL), which implements the Silver Line project, to "immediately" modify the proposed alignment of the semi high-speed project.

The Ministry of Railways had also questioned the proposed deadline (2025-26) and the cost of the project. "It will take at least two years after funds for land acquisition are arranged and hence land may be available only by December 2022. It may not be possible to complete and commission the project of this magnitude in 27 months thereafter," the Southern Railway had written to the Kerala Government in 2020.

Kochi Metro Project, where the land acquisition was much less, took 48 months to complete the first stretch. The SR, therefore, wanted targets to be more realistically fixed.

The SR had also termed the project cost of Rs 64,941 crore "inadequate". "The alignment of the project is through green areas, mainly paddy fields. The 'safe bearing' capacity of such soil, especially of paddy fields, will be low, requiring pile foundation for retaining walls. This will increase the project cost," the SR note to the government last year said.

NITI Aayog, the country's policy think tank, too had said the project cost would be double the estimate. Even by its conservative estimate, the project cost would be a whopping Rs 1.33 lakh crore. NITI Aayog had also raised serious doubts about the project's funding model.

Technically NITI Aayog can only recommend but the influence it has over government decisions is far beyond its given powers. In the case of Silver Line, for instance, NITI Aayog's reservations have evidently swayed the opinion of the Ministry of Railways.

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