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Is SilverLine on the right track?

The Kerala government is facing political heat over its ambitious 540-km-long semi high speed railway project, SilverLine, which proposes to reduce the travel time between Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragode in the north. The project also aspires to open up verdant hinterlands to development, decongest highways and reduce Kerala’s carbon footprint. The government has pegged SilverLine’s cost at ₹63,941 crore. K-Rail, a Central and State joint venture, will execute the project. Kerala holds a 51% share in K-rail and the Union Railways Ministry holds the rest.

Concerns

The Congress-led UDF, the BJP and environmentalists have said the project poses serious environmental issues. A UDF fact-finding sub-committee found that the 4 to 10 m high steep railway embankment for the track would tear the State asunder geographically. The causeway would run uninterrupted for at least 250 km. The barrier would impede natural drainage and exacerbate floods during the monsoon. The UDF said the government would have to hollow out the Western Ghats to excavate enough granite to raise the rail barrier. It said SilverLine would subsume large expanses of ecologically fragile wetlands and mangrove forests.

The Leader of the Opposition, V. D. Satheeshan, termed it a white elephant. The scheme would foist an irredeemable debt of more than ₹1,24,000 crore on the public, he said. Mr. Satheeshan also accused the administration of not publishing an environmental impact study and being opaque about the project.

BJP State president K. Surendran said the Centre was sceptical about the financial and environmental viability of SilverLine. The Union Minister for Railways had communicated the Centre’s reservations to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. While the Centre envisaged an elevated high speed railway corridor, SilverLine will hug the terrain, require the construction of scores of underpasses and still would not serve the purpose of an MRTS, he said.

The Congress and BJP have said there will be street protests if the government does not drop SilverLine. Both parties have suggested a network of small greenfield airports and an augmented railway network to address public transportation woes.

However, the government seems to have crossed the Rubicon. It recently appointed special revenue officers to expedite land acquisition and ensure the speedy relocation of displaced families and disbursal of compensation. The proposed track will pass through 11 districts. SilverLine would require the acquisition of 1,198 ha of private land at an estimated cost of ₹13,362.32 crore and affect 9,314 buildings. The government has raised ₹2,000 crore from the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) for the initial phase of land acquisition. It is in touch with international agencies to get low-interest loans. The administration is also exploring options to raise money from the open financial market for SilverLine via the KIIFB.

The LDF says the Congress and BJP are ‘anti-development’ for stridently opposing SilverLine. Mr. Vijayan has said the Opposition’s fears are misplaced. He said SilverLine would skirt population centres and use elevated paths to bypass rivers, lakes, forests and ecologically fragile lands and cause minimal displacement.

Allaying fears

A comprehensive environmental impact study would serve public interest. The government should shed the perceived opaqueness about the project’s financial viability, social impact and execution. The government should also allay the fears of families and businesses that SilverLine will displace. It should ensure speedy and adequate compensation for those displaced. Any attempt to bulldoze SilverLine through might lead to social and political upheaval.

anand.g@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 5:05:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/is-silverline-on-the-right-track/article37510693.ece

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