In Kerala, the tug of war is now between “development and environment protection”. With the state coming under continuous threat of nature for the last some years, environmentalists and likeminded people have raised concern about several of the Left Government’s ambitious projects like semi speed rail “Silver Line” and the Sabarimala Airport.
In the midst of floods and landslides across the state, the Left Government under Pinarayi Vijayan, is quite resolute in going ahead with Silver line despite all opposition.
On October 22, 2021, when Central and Northern parts of Kerala was under the grip of landslides followed by floods, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan met Union Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnav in New Delhi to get the final sanction for Silver line. However, the Union Railway Minister conveyed the Centre’s inability to bear the liability of the loans to be availed from international agencies for the semi high-speed rail project. The Centre is known to have taken such a stand as it felt that a small state like Kerala would not be able to withstand such a huge liability (Loan from International agencies is tipped for 33,700 crore).
SILVER LINE PREVAILS OVER ENVIRONMENT
The semi peed railway connecting the northern and southern parts of the state needs acquiring 1,383 hectares of land that cuts through the State’s ecologically fragile coastal ecosystems. It traversed through forest areas, backwater regions, wetlands, densely populated areas and paddy fields. A pet project of the Left Government, the rail line would have devastating effect on the eco-sensitive heritage sites such as Ponnani-Thrissur Kole wetlands, Madayipara Biodiversity Park in Kannur. Thirunavaya ponds, lakes, Kadalundi bird sanctuary in Kozhikode and wetlands in Malappuram.
When looking at the project, a major portion of the Silver Line is designed as a fully fenced large bund, named embankments. These mud-rock-concrete structures come in a width of 15 to 30 m and will line 55 per cent of the total distance of the alignment (292.73 kms of the total 529.45 Kms). As per the proposal, they would have a height of 1 to 8 metres above the maximum flood line (MFL). The embankment as the environmentalists point out would dig a division between the east and west of the state. No doubt, the construction of the will also drill holes in the already fragile Western Ghats as tonnes of rock and soil is needed to build these embankments. .
Another contention raised is the cuttings that form 101.74 kms (19 per cent). These cuttings or channels are made through hills and mountains to a height of up to nine metres. The Silver Line also has 24.79 kms of cut and cover through hills. Then comes the bridges, tunnels and viaducts that cover the rest of the rail line.
As per reports, the Silver Line is dotted with watershed. The embankments would have its impact on the watersheds. The project would also affect a large area of paddy field. There is also fear of a change in land use around 500 metres towards each side of the rail corridor.
A WHITE ELEPHANT
Kerala estimates the project to cost 63,941 crore. However, Niti Ayog has said that the cost would go up by more than Rs 1.33 lakh crore. The Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat has projected the cost to be more than Rs 2 lakh crore. In addition, if the project were not completed within the stipulated period, then the state exchequer would drain.
Kerala is already feeling the pinch of a slowdown because of falling remittances from the Gulf after the COVID 19 pandemic. Moreover, the state public debt is expected to cross Rs 3.27 lakh crore. Considering all these, Silver Line is slated to become another white elephant.
Meanwhile Opposition Congress has come out against the project. Opposition leader V D Satheesan questioned the state government for moving ahead with a project for which no social or environmental impact analyses have been done and for which the Union Government has not given clearance.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also came out against the project, stating that the state was going ahead without any thinking.