CM stands firm on SilverLine, refuses to answer pointed opposition posers

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan speaking in the Assembly. Screengrab/MMTV

The three-hour discussion on K-Rail Semi High Speed project in the Assembly on Monday went along expected lines.

The Opposition raised questions about the specifics of SilverLine - project cost, environmental impact, data fudging, north-south wall. The government largely ignored these specifics and relied more on development rhetoric.

The ruling bench strategy was essentially to brand the UDF as a group out to scuttle Kerala's development and position itself as the only formation with the vision and the gumption to implement big development projects.
Is SilverLine predatory?
Opposition leader V D Satheesan called the SilverLine project a "predatory transport system". He quoted from the detailed project report (DPR) to say that the semi high speed project would become viable only if other modes of transport were underdeveloped.

According to the DPR, Satheesan said travellers would opt for the semi high speed rail only if Kerala's highways were not widened, road and highway tolls were increased and the ticket charges of the traditional rail travel were hiked.

The Chief Minister left these charges untouched.

Can Kerala bear the cost?
Satheesan disputed the validity of the project cost of Rs 64, 000 cr. He said NITI Aayog had in 2018 itself estimated that the project cost would be Rs 1.33 lakh crore. By now it would have escalated to Rs 2 lakh crore, he said.

"This is a state that did not have the money to even provide milk and eggs to school children. Given such a state of affairs, are we in a position to borrow such a huge amount," Satheesan said.

(From left to right) Opposition leaders PC Vishnunath, VD Satheesan and Ramesh Chennithala. Screengrab/MMTV

The chief minister said that the project cost was Rs 64, 000 cr and all other figures were false. He did not elaborate why his government holds on to the figure even though it was drawn up at least four years ago.

Further, Pinarayi said that Kerala's debt, which was 36.98% of the GSDP in 2021-22, was considerably better than the debt position of states ruled by the Congress and the BJP.

What's more, the chief minister said that the loan taken for SilverLine need not be paid back in a year. "It needs to be repaid only in 40 years. By that time, the Kerala economy would grow in size to easily absorb the repayment, " he said.

Will Silver Line divide Kerala?
The opposition leader reiterated the oft-repeated criticism that the semi high speed rail would divide Kerala into two by constructing compound walls on either side of the rail. The chief minister chose not to touch upon the issue. But when the opposition leader insisted, he told the House that there would be no such compound wall.

Fact is, the DPR clearly states that there would indeed be 7-metre high compound walls on either side of the embankment for 292 kms of the rail. Such a wall is necessary to prevent humans or cattle from getting sucked into the track when a train travels at the high speed of 200 km per hour.

Interestingly, the first speaker on the LDF side, A N Shamseer had conceded that there would be a wall. "This is to protect people," he said.

Are DPR figures fudged?
The opposition leader then flagged the wildly fluctuating ridership figures in the preliminary feasibility report (PFR) and final feasibility report (FFR). In the PFR, the number of daily travellers was estimated to be 45,650. "But in the final feasibility report, which came out just two months later, the number nearly doubled to 82,000," Satheesan said. "How did this happen and on what basis, " he asked.

The length of embankment too witnessed a dramatic change in two months, Satheesan said. In the PFR, the extent of rail on embankment was just 89 kms. In the FFR, it became 236 kms. "How could such a change happen in just two months, " he asked. "This is data fudging, an immoral and criminal act, " he added.

The chief minister merely said that Satheesan was attempting to mislead.

Will entire Western Ghats be enough?
The availability of natural resources required for the construction of the project was the other big concern. Satheesan said the construction of Vizhinjam Port had been delayed because of the shortage of rocks. "In the case of Vizhinjam, the breakwater is just 3000 metres. The SilverLine is 5.37 lakh metres," he said and added: "From where are you going to source the natural resources required for the project. Even the whole of the Western Ghats would not be enough."

The chief minister did not address the question directly but still gave a logical counter. "Development projects cannot be postponed citing resource shortage. In 2020-21, 484 railway projects worth Rs 7.5 lakh crore and stretching over 51,165 kms across the country are in the construction stage. K-Rail is just 529 kms, " the chief minister said, and added: "Why would the fear of resource availability be applicable only to the K-Rail."

Will Silver Line ravage Kerala?
The opposition leaders, citing the DPR, pointed out the ecological impact of the project. Muslim League leader M K Muneer quoted from the DPR that said that flood-prone low-lying areas would be reclaimed for the project and the rail would pass through CRZ-notified areas. "It also says that the volume of sand and rocks necessary for construction would not be fully available from Kerala. The DPR also says that the water quality along the project area would deteriorate," Muneer said.

In turn, the chief minister said that the project would not pass through forest areas or through any areas notified as extremely sensitive in the Madhav Gadgil Committee report.

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