Kerala's K-Rail: Pinarayi's silver bullet

The K-Rail SilverLine, a semi high-speed rail network that traverses the length of the state, is cm Pinarayi Vijayan’s most ambitious and controversial project. Will it cement his legacy or ruin it?

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Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan; (Photo: India Today)

If there was ever a willing endorsement of the Argumentative Indian, it would be the Malayali on the street. The latest bee in their bonnet is the K-Rail SilverLine, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s pet semi high-speed rail project which, when launched, will traverse the length of the state—Thiruvananthapuram to Kasargod—and cut travel time from the current 12 hours by train to about four.

If there was ever a willing endorsement of the Argumentative Indian, it would be the Malayali on the street. The latest bee in their bonnet is the K-Rail SilverLine, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s pet semi high-speed rail project which, when launched, will traverse the length of the state—Thiruvananthapuram to Kasargod—and cut travel time from the current 12 hours by train to about four.

The ambitious Rs 63,941 crore project of the Ker­ala Rail Development Corporation Ltd (KRDCL) or K-Rail, a joint venture between the state and the Union railways ministry, will have trains running at 200 kmph to cover the 529.45 km distance. An alternative transport system that can reduce the load on the state’s roads has long been an obsessive preoccupation for urban planners. But the opposition camp, including the Congress and BJP and everyone in between, is up in arms, saying the project is ‘ill-conceived and unsustainable’. The affected families who could lose home and hearth are also on the warpath, even as the government goes about with its social impact assessment survey. In fact, the dreaded yellow stone markers, put down to denote the land the SilverLine trains will pass through, have become the new focus of protests—of the 5,500-odd placed so far, more than 300 have been ‘uprooted’ despite the government warning of consequences.

The roadblocks

The protests have not unduly worried the 76-year-old chief minister, who just celebrated the first anniversary of his second term. Pinarayi has weathered similar storms in the past, whether it was over the GAIL (Gas Authority of India Ltd) Kochi-Mangaluru pipeline or the 45-metre highway-widening project. But K-Rail will be the Marxist CM’s biggest challenge yet. It is already two years behind schedule because of the pandemic; there are fears the cost overruns will lead the state into a debt trap. There is also opposition at every turn. Even venerable Left-leaning institutions like the Kerala Sasthra Sahi­thya Parishad (KSSP) have been public in their disapproval, citing the huge costs and the negative environmental impact.

“Our government does not run on the basis of what the opposition proposes or disposes. we are working to make the people’s dreams a reality, and K-Rail is a big part of that”
- Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala CM

But Pinarayi is powering ahead, for he bel­i­eves a first-world transportation sch­­eme like K-Rail will be his legacy in the state. Also, the way the previous big protests withered over time has given him the confidence that the people are with him. It helps that the Left Front government has a brute majority in the assembly and the CPI(M) cadre have some control over the street narratives.

Heading toward Debt?

Project estimates started at a little less than Rs 64,000 crore in 2020, but with the delays, some experts predict cost overruns to be more than 60 per cent. The Niti Aayog, for instance, puts it at twice the official figure: Rs 1.25 lakh crore. But K-Rail does get the thumbs up from some others. An estimate audit done by RITES (Rail India Technical and Economic Services) says the project could be much cheaper—Rs 120 crore/km—than, say, the Delhi-Meerut rail corridor (estimate: Rs 360 crore/ km).

For now, the plan is that the Kerala government will spend Rs 18,150 crore of its own money, with the Centre putt­ing in Rs 6,313 crore. The state will raise Rs 4,251 crore through shares and bonds from the public and Rs 33,670 crore through external borrowings. The state government has approached ADB (Asian Development Bank) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for funds. The latter has agreed to lend Rs 20,000 crore at an interest rate of 0.25 per cent. ADB has also offered loans, at 1-1.5 per cent.

The feasibility report predicts 82,000 riders daily by 2028, but critics say the preliminary study had estimated only half the numbers

But there are critics here, too, who believe the largesse comes at a price. Environmental scientist and KSSP patron Dr R.V.G. Menon says, “The project is economically unviable and based on outdated technology. It may end up like the Kochi Metro Rail, which is still making huge losses. Japan is offering loans at low rates because it wants to sell us its outdated technology. They have shelved the semi high-speed trains.”

Kerala’s public debt, too, stands at Rs 3.36 lakh crore and the state government is yet to find additional revenues to reduce the fiscal deficit. Congress leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan spells it out: “We support the development of the state, but K-Rail cannot ensure it, and the government has not fully explored all the alternatives. Spending Rs 70,000 crore is not a viable option....”

Where are the riders?

According to the detailed project report (DPR) of K-Rail done by French firm Systra, over 158,271 people travel from the north and south of the state in cars, taxis, etc. daily and 88,442 by bus. Another 91,975 persons take the train to cover the distance. Passengers using cars now spend Rs 10 per km while the projected SilverLine charges will be around Rs 2.75 per km (on par with current first-class train fares).

The feasibility report predicts about 82,000 riders a day by 2028. Here, too, there has been some controversy, with critics pointing out that the preliminary study had put rider strength at around 45,000. The final report also took a U-turn, they say, on the broad gauge issue. The K-Rail will now run on standard gauge, which will not align with existing rail systems. Project officials counter that saying 200 kmph trains need standard gauge, and point to Delhi Metro and others, saying this is no anomaly.

Then there are the green concerns. In a land where even Coca Cola and other big corporates have had to shut shop and leave, green activists and scientists have naturally been at the forefront of the protests. They allege that K-Rail will divide Kerala into two, blocking the natural flow of rivers that could prove to be an ecological disaster in the future, especially with the inclement weather patterns in the state. The state has 44 rivers and a large number of water channels and streams. KSSP’s Menon says, “K-Rail will have an adverse impact on the Western Ghats, not to mention our water sources, as the project will need huge amounts of granite and loose soil for construction work.”

But government officials say there is no scientific evidence to support such claims and point to the proposed elevated rail lines in many places to say the rivers are safe. The government has also mapped the flooded areas in the state after the three consecutive floods (2018-20). The CPI(M)’s official stand is that all this is the work of “professional mischief-mongers”. “We honour the concerns of environmentalists and are committed to addressing ecological concerns. But we will not yield to misinformation campaigns or sponsored media ones against the project,” CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan told India Today.

A people’s project?

The state government has demarcated Rs 13,362 crore for land acquisition (1,398 hectares in all). Though the protests are still raging, especially in central Travancore and north Kerala, sources say a lot of the affected people, especially those in the BPL category and others living close to existing rail lines (in many sections, K-Rail will run adjacent to them) are relatively happy with the compensation packages announced. Packages such as Rs 4.6 lakh for the loss of a home apart from entitled compensation, five cents of land and Rs 10 lakh for the poor, etc. have been received well.

A protester uproots a survey stone during a standoff with K-Rail officials in Chottanikara, Ernakulam district

This was more than evident when Union minister V. Muraleedharan of the BJP, out on a Pratirodha Yatra in support of the anti-SilverLine protests, visited an affected village in Kazhakuttom near capital Thiruvananthapuram. In at least some houses, the BJP members were met by mothers who told the TV cameras that they fully supported K-Rail even as the embarrassed minister tried to convince them otherwise. The BJP delegation probably erred in choosing ‘party houses’ for the media event, but it’s still an indication of the massive support Pinarayi enjoys among the common people. K-Rail is a very ambitious project and, as he wishes, it could turn out be his legacy. Or not.