Kerala's SilverLine railway project plan.
Kerala's Rs 64,000-crore SilverLine project, a 529.45 km rail corridor connecting Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod, with an operating speed of 200kmph — easing the transport between the north and south ends of the state has become the flashpoint of tall claims and controversies.
The project, first announced 12 years ago, claims that it will reduce the total travel time to less than four hours, compared with the present 10 to 12 hours. With nine cars carrying 675 passengers, the train will run 18 trips between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod daily. And it is expected to bring in 2,256 crores from ticket fares with a daily ridership of 79,934 commuters.
Kerala High Court stayed the process of laying boundary stones for land acquisition for Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's pet project. The matter will be taken up again on February 7 for final hearing until which steps for survey not in accordance with the Survey and Boundaries on the land involved in these petitions were directed to stalled.
As per the detailed project report (DPR) prepared in 2020 by Paris-headquartered Systra, the estimated cost of SilverLine is around Rs 64,000 crores.
Neither the lightning speed nor the expected revenue in crores is impressing the critics, especially environmentalists and economists.
What Will Be The Environmental Impact Of The Project?
Claim: A note uploaded on K Rail website says that the rail projects are the most energy efficient and least polluting transportation models now available in the world.
Global transport emission in 2018 is around eight billion tons of CO2, which is about 24% of the total CO2 emissions from energy. Out of this, 75% of the transport emission comes from road vehicles, whereas CO2 emission from rail is 1%. It also adds that the land required for constructing this rail project is half of that of national highway and can carry 3 times the national highway traffic, that too without any pollution. The requirement of natural resources like earth, boulders and sand, etc. will be relatively very less, it claims.
What we found: When 'completed' by 2025-26, the Kerala government's semi-high speed SilverLine project (K-Rail) will cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem and push the state into an unrecoverable debt trap, experts say.
Analysing the 3,700-page DPR, Sridhar Radhakrishnan, an environmentalist based in Kerala, told BOOM that the SilverLine project would be causing irreversible damage to the ecology.
"In 2018 and 19, Kerala witnessed floods, which had claimed hundreds of lives. In 2021 too, we again saw floods and landslides. The loss in property amounts to cores. Kerala is a fragile land, which cannot afford any more such massive projects," Sridhar said.
"The project will be building 1- to 8-meter-high embankments for some 292km, which is 55 percent of the route. Additionally, there will be tunnels, bridges, and viaducts. These constructions are going to hurt the Kerala environment severely," Sridhar added.
Interestingly, the DPR in possession with BOOM notes that it has identified 164 Hydrological Environment Impact Zones (HEIZ) on scrutinizing the proposed alignment. And the DPR recommends considering these 164 points seriously and providing appropriate cross drainage to avoid flood risk.
Meanwhile, Mini Mohan, a green activist, said that the construction would cause severe damage to wetlands and paddy fields in the state.
"The DPR says that the Kollam SilverLine station and yard will be built in a water-logged area. Additionally, the DPR says that to build the station and yard, a nearby river and its tributaries have to be deviated through the boundary with adequate dimensions to convey the floodwaters. Aren't we going to shake the equilibrium?" Mini asked.
The DPR says that there will be a change in topography and land use of the corridor due to the acquisition of agricultural land, commercial and/ or residential land for the proposed SilverLine alignment.
"During the construction phase, the existing land use characteristics of the acquired land will be changed to transportation land including rail lines, stations, parking areas, rest areas, etc. This will lead to the loss of productive soil and agricultural land. Cutting of trees that fall within formation width of 18 to 25 m may reduce the ecological balance of the area, and also trees and bushes will be cleared for the construction of associated infrastructure," the DPR reads.
"The DPR also mentions that the SilverLine alignment passes through several mangrove patches especially in the northern districts of Kerala. Mangrove areas with dominant species of Avicenna sp. having conservation value will be affected by the construction of the Silverline project. Mangrove Fauna may be impacted by the destruction of water holes and habitats such as bird nests and breeding sites along the new alignment route," Mini added.
According to the DPR, the land required for the alignment (Viaduct, embankment, Cutting, etc.) and stations together works out to 1383 Ha. This includes 185 Ha of Railway land and 1198 Ha of private land.
In addition, temporary land will be required for casting depots and for the movement of material and machinery vehicles during the construction period.
The DPR has estimated around 11,535 crores to purchase land and structures for the project.
Can Kerala Afford The Financial Burden?
Claim: On January 12, Kerala Chief Minister had said that raising fund for the project would not be a hurdle adding that various global agencies including Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have already offered financial support to the mammoth initiative.
On January 6, Kerala Finance Minister K N Balagopal had told Asianet News that the SilverLine project will give a boost to Kerala economy and in 40 years, the project will bring in profits.
In December 2021, he said that the state government will approach the centre for a loan of 2,000 crore for the project.
What we found: KP Kannan, economist and Honorary Fellow at Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, said that with Kerala's current debt situation, the state should not take up this project.
Kerala is one of the few states in India that has to borrow money to finance its revenue deficit. As per the budget for 2021-22, the outstanding debt of Kerala will be Rs 3.27 lakh crore by the end of this fiscal. Kerala's Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) for the year is projected to be Rs 8.76 lakh crore. That means the outstanding debt of the state is equivalent to 37.3 percent of GSDP.
"That is to say, the fast-growing Kerala economy has a government that has to borrow to meet its day-to-day expenses such as salaries, pension, and interest payment on past debts. This has created a situation where borrowing for capital expenditure constitutes a smaller share of borrowing," Kannan said.
The total public debt for the first four years of the Left Democratic Front government from 2016-17 to 2019-20, which represents the pre-Covid situation, was around Rs 1.05 lakh crores. And only 38 percent of this amount went into capital expenditure.
"Theoretically, borrowings have to be paid by the concerned public enterprises. However, much of these borrowings are paid back by the state government as the guarantor. This is because a good part of these contingent liabilities is incurred as a result of borrowings of the perpetually indebted and loss-making public utilities. These contingent liabilities are a little more than direct public borrowing," Kannan added.
When asked whether the SilverLine will be completed in Rs 63,000 crores, Kannan said that "there is no way that the K-Rail will be able to complete the proposed semi-high speed rail project as per this initial estimate."
"Apart from inflation, the authenticity of this figure is widely questioned. The media reports that the NITI Ayog has said that the project will cost at least Rs.1.2 lakh crore has not been denied by the state government. In addition, Kerala has no record of completing even medium-sized projects without incurring the enormous time and cost overruns," Kannan added.
Talking about the government's claims of raising money for the project, Kannan said that "the state plans to take loans from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Asian Development Bank (ADB)."
"But it will certainly come with some other price tags such as choice of technology, technical know-how, consultancy, and so on. The balance amount will have to be borrowed from internal sources at a much higher interest cost," Kannan said adding that one is also unable to understand why the government of Kerala reportedly informed the government of India that it need not share the burden of borrowing despite being an almost equal partner in KRail (49 percent of equity).
"This has already led to a decline in the credibility of the state government and given rise to all kinds of speculations," Kannan added.
Will The Train Be As Fast As It Claims To Be?
Claim: K Rail document claims that the train will cross around 590 Km in four hours at a speed of 200 km per hour.
What we found: Talking to BOOM, Alok Kumar Verma, a senior official retried from the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers, said that no geological survey has been done as the DPR was hurriedly prepared after the in-principal approval by the Railway Board attained.
Alok, who was in the initial team of K-Rail planning, said that even a preliminary geological mapping was not carried out.
"Some geotechnical investigations were done at locations, which don't seem to be representative of the actual ground conditions, a point made by Southern Railway also in its comments on the DPR, in the absence of geological mapping," Alok added.
According to Alok, an extremely unusual feature of the current alignment for the highspeed line is that about 350 km total length the alignment is full of reverse horizontal curves, and numerous vertical curves because of change of gradient at about 200 locations.
"The result of these changes in gradient is that though the elevation of the line is all through seven in the narrow range of 10 to 80 m above mean sea level, the cumulative rise, and fall of the line is about 1300 m, about 25% more than on the entire Kashmir Rail Link from Katra to Srinagar where the gain in elevation is about 1,000 m. This could lead to dangerous parasitic motions in trains as these are not designed to travel on such lines," Alok said adding that this could limit the speed on the line to 80 to 120kmph.
"As someone who has dealt with several alignment surveys and feasibility studies for constructing lines in some of the most challenging terrain that Indian Railway has ventured into in the past eighteen years, I have been saying since last July that Railway Board should withdraw the in-principle approval (IPA) that it had granted in December' 2019 to this project for building a line to carry high-speed trains at 200 kmph in the Mid-Highlands region of Kerala at the foot of the Western Ghats mountains," Alok said.
On January 22, BOOM had sent queries to K-Rail, but we haven't received any responses from them yet. The story will be updated when we receive one.
Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist and author of Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf (Penguin 2021)
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