Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw has categorically ruled out any delay in the Kerala government’s ambitious but now on-hold SilverLine semi-high-speed rail corridor project. The reason, however, may not be to the state government’s liking.
The minister’s statement in the Lok Sabha, in response to Ernakulam MP Hibi Eden’s query, has cast a shadow on the probability of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s prestigious project getting back on track.
Replying to Congress member Eden, Vaishaw clarified that the Union government has not sanctioned the Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod rail project. Hence, the question of it being delayed does not arise, the minister said.
The two cities are at opposite ends of the linear state with a population of 3.45 crore. The project was envisaged to traverse the 529.45 km between Thiruvananthapuram in the south and Kasaragod in the north in four hours.
Vaishnaw said the project’s financial viability could be examined only after the finalisation of technical parameters, and the project’s consideration depended upon its techno-economic viability.
The central minister also revealed that the state government’s Detailed Project Report (DPR), submitted to his ministry, had insufficient technical feasibility details. In-principle approval was granted only for the pre-investment activities.
The approval was for the preparation of the DPR with complete details of the project, including financials, the minister informed the Lok Sabha.
End of LDF’s pet project?
The Opposition UDF and anti-SilverLine protesters in Kerala, meanwhile, viewed Vaishnaw’s statement as an indication of the Centre’s refusal to support Vijayan’s pet project.
The chief minister, however, seemed optimistic about the Centre sanctioning the prestigious project, since similar plans are being implemented in eight other states.
“How can the Union government discriminate against Kerala alone,” Vijayan asked in the Kerala Assembly on Thursday, 8 December, when the Opposition sought clarity on reports saying that the project has been shelved due to a lack of support by the Union government.
The Opposition also projected the sufferings of people whose lands were surveyed and marked to be acquired for the project. The government had initiated a survey along the project’s alignment and planted marker stones on private properties that faced stiff opposition.
Meanwhile, the government abandoned the project’s preliminary works that lacked the mandatory central sanction. On 27 November, the state revenue department recalled all its 204 officials assigned to conduct a social impact study to facilitate acquiring land for the project.
The officials had been tasked with taking over 1,221 hectares spread over 11 districts. They were redeployed to “other essential projects” of the state government.
According to the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (KRDCL) estimates, SilverLine has gobbled up ₹56.69 crore for the groundwork alone over the past three years, besides spending another ₹1.48 crore for planting 6,737 survey stones — the yellow-coloured ones that have now become an object of ridicule in the state.
The government had also shelled out ₹29,29,82,380 as consultancy fees and ₹20.5 crore for paying the salaries of the KRDCL and revenue department officials.
Related: SilverLine comes to a halt
The victims of SilverLine
The landowners, whose properties are earmarked for acquisition, meanwhile, are in a spot even as the project’s future remains clouded in uncertainty.
Though the land has not been taken over, the planted survey stones have eroded the property value. Local bodies refuse to sanction any construction activities, and banks deny loans to landowners against the land as collateral.
Going by Vijayan’s statement in the Assembly, the delay in the Centre approving the project is temporary. He pointed out the initial obstacles his government’s other projects — the Gail pipeline, widening of National Highway-66 and the Edamon-Kochi power highway — had faced.
He believed that the government had cleared the Centres’ doubts and that of the affected communities in Kerala. The SilverLine would usher in a new era of development in the state’s interior, decongest the highways and reduce the overall carbon footprint, he said.
It would also act as a catalyst for the state’s economic growth, he argued.
Vijayan hoodwinking people: KPCC
When contacted by South First, KPCC president K Sudhakaran accused Vijayan of hoodwinking the people by providing false impressions about a non-existent project. He said that Congress would not allow the implementation of SilverLine even if the Centre accords its sanction.
He also wondered how the CPI(M) chief minister could expect a change of attitude from the BJP-RSS dispensation at the Centre if not for backroom operations.
“SilverLine’s alignment has frozen up large swathes of land in 12 among the 14 districts of Kerala, and the government must immediately end the impasse by telling the truth about the project.” Roji M John, Congress leader and Angamaly MLA said.
“People are unable to pledge their property to raise loans for meeting their pressing needs such as medical, wedding and education expenses and business requirements. Banks are unwilling to provide housing loans. There is a building ban on the 10-metre buffer zone on either side of the proposed line,” he said.
John was at the forefront of the agitation against the SilverLine. The MLA termed the project an unrealistic stillborn.
Cases against 500 families
According to information provided by the Revenue Department, 1,221 hectares of privately-owned land have been earmarked for the scheme. Over 500 affected families face criminal cases for engaging in anti-project strikes and removing the survey stones.
Despite the uncertainty over the project, the contentious notification issued under Section 41 of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) is still in force.
According to government sources, the rethink of the Union Railway Ministry over the project is political as the Centre had in 2021 permitted the state to engage the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the financing agency of Japan, to expedite land acquisition for the SilverLine.
BJP leaders in Kerala have mounted a massive resistance against the project, terming it a real estate venture promoted by Vijayan, ignoring the livelihood and environmental challenges it will create.