K-Rail or the SilverLine is the most discussed topic in Kerala today. All political parties, environmentalists, voluntary organisations and citizens are debating on the issue. Arguments in favour and against are equally strong and it needs careful analysis of all factors, especially related to environmental protection, socio-economic impact, financial soundness and affordability for a developing state like Kerala. I am not attempting to make a detailed analysis as that can only be carried out by specialists looking at the problems dispassionately.
However, a proposal contained in an article in a local daily recently caught my attention, giving an alternative to SilverLine, the K-Air. This was put forward by a veteran politician and leading personality in the cooperative movement who has set an example by commissioning a world-class cancer centre at Kozhikode under the cooperative banner. The proposal seems sound.
Major cities in Kerala like Kannur, Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram have well established airports and can handle additional flights without any augmentation in infrastructure. If an air service with a 72-seater aircraft on short haul routes connects these cities directly, the travel between them can be covered in 30 minutes to an hour, far less than through K-Rail. With a fleet of five aircraft, about 10 trips a day can be scheduled.
The fare could be Rs 1,000–2,000, comparable to K-Rail. To start such a programme, the investment required would be Rs 500–1,000 crore, a very small fraction of the infrastructure cost of the SilverLine programme. Not only that, these services can be started within six months, either by private airlines or through public-private participation.
From what I understand, K-Rail is going to be an expensive proposal. The preliminary estimate is about `1 lakh crore. This will be funded by borrowing. This means a rough debt burden of about `30,000 per person. Why does the common man have to shoulder this burden to provide slightly better convenience to a few thousand frequent travellers, when the tickets will be charged similar to airline ones?
Quite often, examples of Japan, Korea, China and Singapore are quoted as a justification for the programme. But the traffic between major business centres in these countries have become extremely high and could not be handled even by super highways. That’s the primary reason they went for high-speed rail connectivity even within metros.
Most of the funds for such infrastructure are spent within the country itself, giving a boost to the local economy. They can also afford it since their per capita income is much higher than that of Kerala. India had also adopted such metro rail programmes in major cities including Kochi, not as a prestige project, but to provide relief to the traffic congestion. Programmes for speeding up the existing train service between major cities are also undertaken by Indian Railways.
In Kerala, out of the total funding of Rs 1 lakh crore, Rs 10,000 core would be spent for land acquisition, another Rs 20,000 crore for local construction work, most of which would probably be paid as wages to labourers from other parts of India. The remaining 70% would be spent on machines and equipment from Punjab, UP, Bengal or Tamil Nadu. Thus, the programme will feed the national economy at the expense of money borrowed by Keralites. The project may take about 5–10 years to realise. It will not be affordable to the common man.
The basic transportation problems of people and goods from one end of the state to the other has been debated over several decades. Solutions like developing water transportation, high-speed rail, six-lane highways, etc., were approved at least 10 years back. But their implementation is moving at a snail’s pace and may take another decade before they become a reality.
Take the example of rail transportation: There is a broad-gauge connection from one end of Kerala to the other. The programme for doubling the lines and strengthening them was approved 10 years ago. Yet, very little has been done so far. The reason given is problems with land acquisition. Once that is solved, they can complete the work within two years.
When the project is completed, trains would run on this route with an average speed of 120 to 150 kilometres per hour. The 600-kilometre distance between Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram would be covered in five to six hours, not much more than the four-hour target set for K-Rail. This scheme does not need additional infrastructure and does not disturb the existing ecology.
On the six-lane highway connecting Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram, the state spent nearly five years debating whether to go for 45 metres or 65 metres width. In the end, it was decided as 45 metres, taking into account the scarcity of land in Kerala. During this period, neighbouring states like Karnataka and TN had already implemented six-lane highways connecting Bengaluru, Chennai, etc., to Kanyakumari.
On these highways, an average speed of over 100 kilometres per hour could be achieved. Approval and financial sanctions for the highway was given by the Centre way back in 2016. But even today, we have not crossed the hurdle of land acquisition. After land is handed over, it may take at least three to five years for the highway to be ready. But it is possible to go from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram in less than eight hours on the highway. Similarly, completing the inland waterways project can help in freight movement.
Considering these aspects, the state should mount all its efforts on completing the already-sanctioned projects. Logical real-time intervention is needed to resolve issues in order to achieve these goals. The concerned chief executives should be given clear-cut responsibilities and authority as well as the freedom to work without external interference. Land acquisition being a major problem, special fast-track courts for resolving compensation issues should be set in place.
In order to provide modern conveniences to entrepreneurs from within and outside the country, the K-Air programme could be launched as an immediate solution.
Instead of political battles, arriving at a pragmatic solution is the need of the hour. For this, all stakeholders should sit together, seek professional advice on key issues and converge on an acceptable action plan. Also, it needs cooperation from all quarters to implement the decisions in a time-bound manner, requiring full participation of people cutting across party lines.
G Madhavan Nair
Former ISRO chairma