Thousands of people hailing from almost all the districts of Kerala joined a protest march in front of the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram on 27th October 2021. Organized by the state level ‘K-Rail Silver line viruddha janakeeya samithy’ (anti-K-Rail Silver line people’s struggle committee), they registered their vehement protest against and expressed anguish over the ill-conceived mega project ‘silver line’ of the Kerala government. Along with the affected people who will be displaced from their land and livelihood if the project gets materialized, hundreds of environment activists and public figures participated in the march. The movement was raised to such a height that its impact was tremendous rousing more and more people to express their support to it. Sensing the public mood, even the leader of opposition in the Kerala state assembly, various opposition party leaders and the also president of the Kerala BJP could not but declare their solidarity with the cause of the movement.
The previous CPI (M)-led government led by Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan had mooted the proposal to construct a semi-high speed railway line from the southern-most district Thiruvananthapuram to the northern-most district Kasaragod. They floated a joint venture company ‘K-Rail’ with the Railway board and Kerala government as partners for implementation of the project. This particular project was named ‘Silver line’ as it was conceived as a standalone railway project on standard gauge (width between rails being 1435mm) not connected with the broad gauge line (width 1676mm) of the southern railway. Transport and environment experts started questioning the viability such a project right from the beginning. But once re-elected, the CPI (M) chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan asserted that they have received people’s mandate to go ahead with the project. So he declared that the new CPI (M)-led LDF government would carry out the project ignoring anything that might happen and whoever might oppose it. The catchword that the government and its associated were vociferously airing was that the travel time between the end stations could be reduced to 4 hours instead of the present 12 hours. They also estimated that the total daily passengers would be around 80,000 in 2025 and would shoot upto 1,60,000 in 2052. Their argument has been that this silver-line project would be a welcome substitute of the existing passenger vehicles using fossil fuels resulting in reduction of carbon emission by 351940 tons per year. But the basic traffic study was not published until the pressure from public and experts became formidable. Again, what they published, of late, was found to be devoid of any scientific merit.
A French company SYSTRA was entrusted the job of preparing the detailed project report (DPR). Even though the DPR was prepared and discussions initiated with international lending agencies, it was not made public. A rapid environmental impact assessment study also was conducted dubiously by a firm widely believed to be without sufficient professional competence. From the limited information available from the website of K-Rail, the EIA report and the statements of authorities, it became gradually clear that the proposed 529.13 km long track would be upto a height of 8 meters on the embankment, pass through many tunnels and newly constructed bridges at an estimated cost of Rs 64,000 as per calculation in 2019.
Experts in traffic and transportation engineering have sought an explanation as to how this stand-alone railway line would solve the transportation problem in Kerala. Since it would not be connected to the interstate railway line and existing broad gauge line, the utility will be meagre. In fact, Southern railway has already announced that the speed of trains running on the existing tracks would be increased to 160 kmph by 2026 by modernizing signal system and laying additional track adjacent to the existing line wherever necessary. The necessity of this mega project by spending such an enormous money through loans just for extending the speed by just 40 kmph also remains unexplained.
What agonized the public in general and environmentally sensitive intelligentsia of Kerala is the environmental havoc this project would be going to produce on the ecologically fragile land which Kerala has become recently. Kerala is like a long narrow strip with the average distance between the Western Ghats on the eastern side and Arabian sea on the western side being around 50-60 km. The rain water takes as short as 4-6 hours to reach Arabian sea from the far East. So the embankment of height around 8m and length 292.45 km would essentially act as a barrier across the flow of water. Naturally there would be flooding on the upstream side of the embankment. This massive embankment would divide Kerala land into two parts all along the length making it almost difficult, if not impossible, to cross from one side to the other. K-Rail authorities say that there would be underpasses at every 500m intervals. In the event of heavy rain including cloud bursts which have become common in Kerala now, these underpasses would be like orifices for water flow.
The availability of huge quantities of raw materials for construction, like red earth, granite and sand is another issue of great concern. Excavation of hillocks in midland Kerala for earth is a hot environmental issue now itself. Water scarcity, ground water depletion and contamination are some of the problems associated with these excavations. Quarrying operations for granite stones is also facing stiff opposition from people nearby due to similar problems. So the fear is looming large that for these raw materials, the much exploited and ecologically sensitive western ghats would again face demolition of a good part of it.
Though the project managers projected a cost of around Rs 60,000 lakhs, the Niti Ayog had estimated the cost to be as high as Rs.1,26,000 lakh crores. That raised a question whether the projected cause was deliberately shown to be less than 50%. Considering the present market rates, some quarters fear that the final cost would exceed Rs 2,00,000 lakh crores that too if completed within the stipulated time. But the CPI (M) government still sticks on to the old figures obviously to get sanction from the central government. 90 percent of the cost is expected to be met by borrowing from international lending agencies like JICA, ADB, WB etc. The claim that the K-rail, once operationalized, would meet cost of running from its own revenue generation projection, is also flawed. The project completion time, expected number of passengers, traffic volume etc. are not based on credible scientific analysis. Hence, these are all imaginary figures. Ultimately the huge burden of repaying the huge loan will be on the future generations. This again is against the concept of sustainable development.
Most prominently, the issue of eviction and rehabilitation is tormenting the affected people. It was stated earlier that the total land to be acquired would be 1383 hectares out of which 1198 hectares are private lands. Though the project managers assure that the maximum width of land to be acquired is 25m, transport and engineering experts question it considering the height of embankment and the speed of the train. The authorities have kept it secret as to how much land would come in the buffer zone where the landowners would be restricted to carry out their own activities. Lately reports are coming that owners of land 100m away from the stipulated route are denied permission for building new construction.
There were multiple evictions in recent years in Kerala for the so-called developmental activities. In the case of national highway development, Vallarpadam container terminal construction etc., the people have seen how the authorities forcibly grabbed the land and bulldozed the properties of the evicted people. It has now become a duty of the evicted people to produce all the documents prescribed by the authorities and run from pillar to post to get the meager compensation for their loss. Is it not the responsibility of any civilized government with minimal compassion to treat the evicted people with respect and rehabilitate them comfortably as they have sacrificed their land for social development?
Under these circumstance, people started getting organized by forming struggle committees. Our Party, SUCI(C), took a leading role in the formation of such committees all along Kerala. Around 200 local level committees and 11 district struggle committees have been formed and the process is continuing. And there emerged a democratically formed state level struggle committee enjoying the confidence of all sections of affected people. Umpteen number of protest programmes were organized in almost all parts of Kerala. As the culmination of these initial activities, the Secretariat March was announced and people turned up in thousands. Through this March people gave a powerful warning to the state government that going ahead with this anti-people project would be detrimental.
Dr. Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, Metropolitan of Niranam Diocese of Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church while inaugurating the March said that this project would not be for development but for appropriating the share of plunder of public money.
M.P. Baburaj president of the state struggle committee presided over the function. A large spectrum of prominent political leaders and activists including V. D Satheesan opposition leader of Kerala legislative assembly, Kodikkunnil Suresh Member of parliament, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Dr. M.K. Muneer, K. Rema, K.P A Majeed, Mons Joseph, Anoop Jacob, N.A. Nellikkunnu, Kuruntholy Moideen, Najeeb Kanthapuram all members of Kerala legislative assembly, Muslim league high power committee member Sadikh Ali Shihab Thangal, BJP Kerala state committee president K.Surendran, environmental activist C.R. Neelakantan, Mini.K.Philip, member state committee SUCI(C) and many others were present. Comrade S. Rajeevan member state secretariat of our Party and the general convenor of the struggle committee welcomed the gathering and gave a thorough analysis of the project, its ill-effects and the necessity of prolonged movement.
This ill-conceived project once again proved the pro-monopoly inclination of the present the CPI (M)-led LDF government of Kerala. Like any other bourgeois government, they are creating avenues for profitable investment by the big monopoly houses and multinationals at the cost of the people’s interest. They are least bothered to look after the real needs of the people and are least concerned about pressing environmental issues. Even after the strong resentment from the people, the government is all set to go ahead with the land acquisition procedures on the pretext of social impact survey. It is pathetic that they did not learn any lesson from the Singur-Nandigram movements which unseated them from power in West Bengal.
After the great victory of the long hard struggle of the peasants against the Black Farm Laws and move to totally privatize electricity sector by the BJP government at the centre the enthusiasm among the struggling people and their committees leading them have multiplied manifolds and they are preparing for another long and spirited struggle. Our Party with all its strength is wholeheartedly with the people and committed to make this just struggle victorious.