The high-speed North-South transport corridor that has been under consideration of successive governments in Kerala during the last two decades has today become a major controversy in Kerala.
Express highway, high-speed rail corridor, suburban train and elevated highway have all been discussed at different levels and reports prepared. Finally, the choice has been made for a semi high-speed greenfield North-South arterial railway styled as SilverLine to be implemented by a joint venture between Indian railways and Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (K-Rail).
After receiving the in-principle approval of the railways, steps have been initiated to study the social and environmental impact in detail. At this juncture, both the BJP and Congress, who in their 2014 Parliament election manifesto promised a network of high-speed trains in India, have come out in opposition to the project. They have taken to uprooting the markers for alignment demarcation at the ground level in protest.
A section of scholars in the state have also joined the critics. A common question that the latter raise is how the SilverLine, with its huge investment burden, becomes a priority for the state government. There is clearly a lack of appreciation of the effort being made to overcome the infrastructure deficit in the state and transform it from the present low productivity regime to a knowledge and skill intensive technology economy.
Kerala is celebrated for its successful redistributive strategy and far superior outcomes in the quality of life of its citizens when compared to the national average. Democratic decentralisation has been adopted to sustain the quality of public services and improve the productivity of livelihood sectors. But it is not a solution for the infrastructure deficit of the state created by public underinvestment in the past.
Given the commitment to improve the welfare and social security of ordinary people, the budgetary resources would be inadequate for the investment. There are two choices: one, wait for the fiscal consolidation through improvement in the state's own revenues before addressing the infrastructure challenge, or two, initiate steps for fiscal consolidation but at the same time mobilise resources outside the budget through innovative methods and launch the infrastructure drive. The second option has been chosen.
The advantage is that such a strategy would provide a regional stimulus in the present recessionary conditions and the new infrastructure would enable the state to attract much needed investment into the knowledge-skill-service based sectors.
There are many naive questions raised on whether the large outlay on SilverLine could be better used for more urgent social priorities. The answer is no, for the simple reason that it is a project-tied loan approved by the Government of India and therefore cannot be used for any other purpose.
The question would still arise about how a semi high-speed rail is a priority in the transport sector. Kerala today is nearly a mono-road transport system and it is an urgent requirement to have a fast mass transit alternative that can wean away long-distance car passengers from the road.
Modernisation of the existing broad-gauge rail with additional lines and automatic signalling systems cannot ensure greater speed, even for Vande Bharath trains, for the simple reason that nearly 40% of the tracks are curved.
This is more so in urban areas, making straightening of the track prohibitively costly and socially unacceptable. Therefore, from the perspective of balanced transport structure, it is important to have at least a semi high-speed greenfield railway line.
An important reason for advocating the SilverLine project is from the environmental perspective. The carbon footprint of a high-speed rail is much lower than that of air and road transport.
Our calculation of the carbon equivalent emission of the construction of SilverLine, including that of the tracks and rolling stock and running operations, is only 15.7 gram per passenger kilometre while that of a four-lane road is 151.6 grams. The carbon impact of SilverLine is only one-tenth of roadways and it would be around one-fortieth of airlines.
The new line runs parallel to the existing rail track for half the distance and does not cross any highly ecologically fragile areas. If at all there is any such potential local damage, it will be revealed by the detailed environment appraisal and mitigation measures will be taken.
As for the stone, sand and soil required for the project, around 51,000 km of new railway track is being laid in India and so the 530 km-long SilverLine would constitute only a small share of the total national requirement.
Undoubtedly, around 9,000 families and establishments whose land would be acquired for the project would have genuine grievances that would have to be studied in detail so that steps are taken for alleviation, compensation and rehabilitation. Kerala's national highways are being expanded to 6/4 lanes and the number of affected would be at least three times higher than those by SilverLine.
There is absolutely no protest anywhere because of a very attractive compensation and rehabilitation package, fully in compliance with the 2013 Act. Same is the experience of several other major projects that are currently being implemented. The present protests are orchestrated by the project opponents and will be overcome by patiently explaining the policy and the package.
There has been criticism regarding technical and financial aspects of the DPR. Such criticism will be carefully considered not only by the Kerala government but also by the Indian railways, which is the sole authority to give the final approval of the project.
It is not for the state government to choose the gauge or the signal system. All the high-speed rail under consideration of the Central government is on standard gauge and Kerala alone cannot opt for broad-gauge.
The critics point to the normal time overruns in the implementation of large projects in the state and therefore, it is inadvisable for the state government to indulge in such huge projects. Well, there is a time for change for everything. And that is what is happening in Kerala.
(The writer is ex-Finance Minister of Kerala and can be reached at email@example.com)