SilverLine Project: 5 concerns Pinarayi Vijayan will have to address before he steams ahead

Semi High Speed SilverLine project
Semi High Speed SilverLine project has emerged as the most disruptive political issue in Kerala. Representative image/Manorama

The Rs-63,941-cr Semi High Speed SilverLine project has emerged as the most disruptive political issue in Kerala.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seems to have found in the SilverLine project a magical solution for all of Kerala's transportation woes and says he will implement the project, come what may. The opposition UDF, led by the Congress, says it will not allow the chief minister to take the project even an inch forward.

Even as the opposing forces stand face to face, poised to charge at each other, cracks seem to have developed in each of these formations. In the LDF, the CPI has second thoughts about its blind support to the project. It wants certain apprehensions taken care of. The CPM-affiliate Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad had long before expressed its disapproval.

The UDF, and especially the Congress, had in recent times never looked as cohesive as when it was opposing the SilverLine project. But Shashi Tharoor's refusal to junk the semi high speed project had the effect of a balloon burst. The Congress aggression, suddenly, looked wasted. Perhaps inadvertently, Tharoor strengthened the hands of the chief minister. KPCC chief K Sudhkaran threatened Tharoor with expulsion.

Now, with the UDF going all out to block the project and doubts getting publicly aired even by those within the Left fold, the CPM has decided to go for a massive public relations exercise to remove doubts about the project. In addition to organising seminars and distributing pamphlets and leaflets in houses explaining why SilverLine is inevitable, the chief minister himself will address the public on January 4.

(L) Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (R) The route through which the SIlverLine passes through. Photo; Manorama

Nonetheless, it remains a fact that the chief minister had ignored many of the issues raised by the opposition inside the Assembly. Now that he has decided to talk directly to the people of Kerala, here are five SilverLine-related concerns Onmanorama feels the chief minister should satisfactorily address.

Will the project divide Kerala into two, trigger floods?

It is said that over 300 of the 530 km of the SilverLine will be on a raised embankment that will cut through the centre of Kerala, splitting the state into two. Such an embankment blocking the flow of rivers and streams and thereby causing far more devastating floods than Kerala has known till now cannot be ruled out.

Metroman E Sreedharan called the construction of high walls an "idiotic decision". "To prevent trespassing, high walls have to be constructed on either side of the tracks, blocking free passage and drainage. In effect, an equivalent of a China wall will divide Kerala from North to South," he said.

It is a fact that the project area cuts through almost all the water sources of Kerala. The 'rapid environment impact assessment' (rapid EIA) done for the project admits that the potential for ecological devastation is so high that it requires a more comprehensive assessment than what it had carried out.

"The rail line proposed is running almost nearer to the coast for the considerable part of the alignment. However, this rapid EIA does not cover the Tsunami/Tidal effects in detail, it is imperative to consider the same during the comprehensive EIA."

Metroman E Sreedharan
Metroman E Sreedharan. File Photo

The rapid EIA, which is now available on the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (K-Rail) website, itself has identified 164 hydrologically sensitive areas along the proposed embankment. What is to be noted is that the rapid EIA was conducted in 2018. Rainfall patterns have drastically altered after this.

In short, the Kerala government is still in the dark about the project's ecological impact.

Is the project cost a brutal underestimate?

According to NITI Aayog, the country's policy think tank and whose rankings Kerala takes great pride in, says the project cost would be more than double the estimated cost of Rs 63,941 crore. Even by its conservative estimate, the project cost would be a whopping Rs 1.33 lakh crore.

The proposed per-kilometre cost of the project is Rs 120.77 crore, which NITI Aayog says is "severely low when compared to similar projects." E Sreedharan called it a “brutal suppression”.

For Delhi-Meerut RRTS (regional rapid transit system) Project, which, like the Silver Line, is a semi high-speed regional rail but lengthier, has a per-km cost of nearly Rs 370 crore.

For metro rail projects with even leaner specifications, the average cost of completion works out to Rs 269 crore per km, which is more than double the cost estimated for the SilverLine project.

NITI Aayog says the per-km cost for the SilverLine project should be pegged higher than even Rs 250-300 crore. Even if the per-km rate is pegged at Rs 250, the project cost for the proposed 529.45-km line would be Rs 1.33 lakh crore.

Even the NITI Aayog estimate now looks obsolete, as they were drawn up during the pre-COVID era when the economy was up and running.

How many families will be displaced?
The chief minister says less than 10,000 families will be displaced. However, the opponents of the project, including E Sreedharan, say the number of families displaced would be more than 20,000.

The land acquisition costs in the detailed project report (DPR) is also found to be a huge underestimate. The plan is to take over 1,383 hectares of land, of which nearly 85 per cent (1198 hectares) is private land.

Opposition leader V D Satheesan
Opposition leader V D Satheesan. File Photo

According to the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), the cost of land acquisition is highest in Kerala. The NHAI estimates an expenditure of over Rs 22,000 crore for acquiring 1200 hectares in Kerala while in the SilverLine DPR the cost estimated to acquire a larger area of 1383 hectares is only Rs 13,000 crore.

Further, NITI Aaayog itself had analysed land rates in 50 project affected villages in nine districts of Kerala and came to this conclusion: "Cost of acquisition assessed in DPR (detailed project report) is underestimated.”

Is SilverLine a practical option for the common man?
The Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the SilverLine project estimates that the ridership, or the number of daily trips taken, to be 79,934 in 2025-26 (this year was adopted as the year the SilverLine will become operational in the understanding that the work on the project would begin in 2020-21). By 2029-20, the ridership is expected to swell to Rs 94,672, by 2041-42 to 1,32,944 and by 2052-53 to 1,58,946.

This looks wildly optimistic as the traffic volume that has been forecast for the proposed high speed rail (bullet train) passing through the super busy Mumbai-Surat-Ahmedabad bullet train is less than half of what has been projected for SilverLine.

While SilverLine expects nearly 80,000 trips when it starts chugging, the Mumbai-Surat high speed rail expects just 32,000 trips when it becomes functional by 2023. If the Mumbai-Surat high speed rail DPR used nearly 7,000 samples to arrive at the figure, the SilverLine DPR had used just 380 samples.

The standard SilverLine fare is said to be Rs 2.50 per kilometre. Here is what opposition leader V D Satheesan asks: "Pinarayi says the common man is going to use the semi speed rail in a big way. Imagine a working woman travelling from Kozhikode to Kochi. She will have to shell out Rs 450 just one way (considering that 180 km is the Kozhikode-Kochi rail distance). And both ways it will be Rs 900. So if she travels to work at least 20 days a month, she has to spend Rs 18,000 a month. Which common man can afford such a travel cost?"

Are both freight and passenger traffic viable?
The SilverLine DPR banks heavily on freight traffic to bring in adequate sustainable revenues for the project. The NITI Aayog, however, feels that the very 'mixed traffic' (passenger and freight) design could make the project unviable.

In a note to the Kerala government, it has said that the need to cater to the more demanding freight traffic would call for more severe infrastructure specifications than has been laid down in the DPR. "It will render the cost extremely prohibitive," NITI Aayog says.

Further, it would turn out to be hugely costly to transport goods along the corridor. This is because there will be no interoperability between the SilverLine and the Indian Railway system.

The freight trains on SilverLine will move only along this corridor and, if goods have to be transferred to the trains on the IR track, transshipment terminals will have to be constructed. "This will make the transportation cost-prohibitive and defeat the very goal of cost-efficient freight transportation," the NITI Aayog communique to the government says.

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