Thiruvananthapuram: The Left Democratic Front government is literally in a predicament after the central government said a firm "no" to the proposal for standing guarantee for Kerala's plan for availing itself of foreign loan for the much-touted Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod semi high-speed rail corridor or the SilverLine Project. It has now become a prestige issue for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to implement the project since he had stated in the state Assembly earlier that the project would be implemented at any cost.
The state government, which has already been neck-deep in burgeoning debt, doesn't have the capacity to take on its shoulders the huge financial commitments to be borne for the SilverLine Project. But the central government's permission is a prerequisite for taking loans from the foreign agencies. In this backdrop, all eyes are on the state government and its next move.
The CPM, which wants to implement the project at any cost, will have to do more explaining especially at a time when the party's earlier stand of opposing the Express Highway is now being widely discussed. Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw reportedly told the chief minister at their official meeting in Delhi that the final clearance would not be given by the Railways unless and until the state government showed that the project would be financially viable.
The loan needed for the project is estimated to be Rs 33,700 crore. The Centre took a firm stand against the SilverLine Project on the ground that a small state like Kerala did not have the capacity to withstand such a huge financial liability. Moreover, various political parties and environmental groups came out openly against the project.
Apart from proving that the project will be profitable, the state government's other challenge is to find ways to put an end to the dissenting notes in order to get the central government's nod for the project. The state government may now explore the option of taking up the financial responsibility of the project on its own instead of depending on foreign loans. The expected cost for the project is Rs 63,941 crore. But the Centre expects an expenditure of 2.10 lakh crore for the project.
The Kerala government was expecting an assistance of Rs 2,150 crore from the Centre. Now that the Centre has rejected the state's request for standing guarantee for foreign loan, the question of allotment of Central fund is also uncertain. As a result, the state government has to start from scratch in order to raise resources for implementing the SilverLine Project.
State ignores doubts over the project
Though from the beginning many organisations came up with stiff opposition to the project questioning the very practicality of the project, the state government did not take it seriously. The government categorically announced that it would go ahead with the project.
When various organisations and political parties stepped up attacks against the government over the project, those in the government, including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, took it up as their prestigious project and openly challenged the detractors by saying that it would be implemented at any cost.
Now, the responsibility rests with the chief minister to convince the CPM-CPI leadership and the state Cabinet about the need to carry forward the project further, especially after getting a red signal from the central government. It has also become necessary to hold a detailed discussion in the LDF over the future of the project. Already, discontent is brewing among a section of the constituent parties in the LDF that the front had not earlier discussed the issue properly.
The main Opposition in the state, United Democratic Front, is opposing the Silverline Project. The 11-member UDF sub-committee led by Muslim League leader M K Muneer submitted a preliminary report, containing 7-point suggestions, to the UDF leadership.
Though some members of the panel, including RSP leader Shibu Baby John, expressed doubts whether any stand taken against the project would be construed as something against development, the sub-committee finally decided to conduct more studies on the project.
The members of the sub committee were M K .Muneer, K C Joseph, V T Balram, Mons Joseph, Anoop Jacob, Shibu Baby John, Mani C Kappan, C P John, advocate A N Rajan Babu and John John.
The main contentions of the UDF sub-committee
1. The Silverline Project, one among the K-Rail Projects, is not suited to Kerala's social, economic and geographical peculiarities.
2. The project's adverse environment and social impact coupled with the deepening traffic issues would cripple the normal life in the state.
3. The project was designed in a most unscientific manner.
4. There is no transparency with regard to the project as many crucial details are withheld from the public sphere.
5. The state government has not yet convinced the civil society about the huge financial commitment involved in the project.
6. The project would cause deep psychological issues among those who will be displaced or those who will be deeply affected by the project without getting displaced.
The UDF's stand is that the government should drop the Silverline Project. But it felt that there should be a viable alternative to this mega project. It pointed out that it was the previous UDF governments which implemented mega projects like Kochi Metro, Vizhinjam Port and the Kochi and Kannur Airports. The UDF wanted the state government to discuss with various political parties and experts about the chances of exploring a viable alternative to the SilverLine Project.
Pro-CPM body too against the project
The Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) is taking a tough stand on the Silverline Project by saying that a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) should be done at the earliest and a Detailed Project Report (DPR) should be laid before the people of Kerala by the state government. The KSSP also wanted that all work on the project be stopped till the discussion on the project is over.
According to KSSP, what is needed is a comprehensive transport policy to improve transport facilities in the state, and a related action plan based on the public transport system in which train transport should be the central focus.
1. The SilverLine Project will come up on a standard gauge line and hence, it cannot be linked with the existing broad gauge line. So, it will be of now use to inter-state travellers. Since it is going to be built much away from the existing broad gauge line, the new rail line will end up as a secluded path.
2. The NITI Aayog under the central government has pointed out that the cost for the project would be double of that of the amount estimated now. The experts say that the project cost would again go up one the work is finished. About 90 per cent of the cost is raised through loans. A total of 74 trips are planned per day. In one trip, the number of total travellers expected is 675. The fare to be collected is Rs .2.75 per kilometer. As per the reports available now, 79,000 travellers are expected daily. So, the question is whether there will be a sufficient number of passengers to travel by spending such a huge amount. Anyway, the project is not going to be viable by way of selling train tickets.
3. The details of the DPR and the comprehensive EIA study are not available. As per the information, a skyline will come up above 88 km of paddyfields. Then it will be a fort-like rail line built at a height of four to six meters. There will be bridges for a total of 11 km, tunnels for 11.5 km and embankment for 292 km. As per the available study, thousands of houses and other buildings will have to be razed to the ground. This would create a huge negative impact on our ecology.
4. Just because some developed countries are having standard gauge, it is not fair to implement it in Kerala as it is not suited to the state's conditions. The Indian Railways is running speed rail projects like Gatimaan Express and Vande Bharat Express, which came up in the public sector. If the broad gauge system in Kerala is strengthened, such trains can be run in the state. Such an arrangement would be complementary to the existing system of the Indian Railways.
5. The people should first get a feeling that the new project would give them a superior facility compared to the existing ones. So to facilitate this, the EIA and DPR of the project should be discussed among people. The discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of the project should be based on the social cost involved in the project. Till, then the project should be shelved.
According to Pinarayi Vijayan, the speed rail project is the most pragmatic one for the state. The necessary orders have been issued for the acquisition of land for the project in six districts. He stated in the Assembly that the HUDCO had sanctioned Rs 3,000 crore as loan for the first stage of land acquisition till Chengannur in Central Travancore. He had also made it clear that the Railway Board had given an in-principle approval for the project.
He claimed the project would affect only 9,314 buildings. About 1,383 hectares of land would be needed for the rehabilitation purpose which is expected to cost around Rs 63,941 crore. Of the total land to be acquired, 1,198 hectares of land belong to private parties.
The amount estimated for the entire land acquisition is Rs 13,362.32 crore. The cost for land acquisition for one hectare is pegged at Rs 9 crore. In villages, the compensation would be four times higher than the market value, whereas it would be double of the market value in towns.
According to Pinarayi, the project will be implemented without upsetting the state's paddy fields, religious places, sacred groves (kavu) and other biodiversity-rich areas. An elevated path is planned from Thiruvananthapuram to Tirur in Malappuram district. Of the 115 km through the paddy fields, 88 km would be a skyline path.
To acquire the land, Rs 2,100 crore would be earmarked through the KIIFBI. Though Pinarayi hinted that financial institutions like Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) would fund the project, the question is how it would be possible in the event of the Central Government showing red signal for the project.
How CPM overruled Sasthra Sahithya Parishad
The CPM is, however, rejecting the arguments of even the Sasthra Sahithya Parishad on the issue. CPM state acting secretary A Vijayaraghavan said that the project was a long-term investment and for that matter, all should refrain from taking a stand that would reduce the pace of development in the state.
According to him, the project should not be seen only in the context of profit and loss basis. The project would create a conducive atmosphere for bringing the much-needed public investment for Kerala's development.