A view of the Kollam junction railway station, Kerala, March 2015. Photo: Arunvrparavur/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Kerala is planning to construct a high-speed railway line that connects the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram in the south and Kasaragod, located 550 km away near the northern border. The state government is to manage this project through a new organisation called the Kerala Rail Development, Corporation as a joint venture between the state and the Union railway ministry. The state expects to avail loans from the Housing and Urban Development Corporation, the Rail Finance Corporation and the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board.
The new project will comprise a two-line alternative rail route and will have 11 stations. Branded the ‘silver line’, this semi-high-speed rail is expected to reduce travel time between Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram to four hours, down from the current 12.
The project, already approved by the NITI Aayog and the Railway Board, has sparked environmental and displacement-related concerns in the state. Environmental collectives, including the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, have become the newest organisations to demand that the government reassess the rail corridor.
The project cost is currently estimated to be Rs 63,941 crore. Out of this total outlay, the compensation for acquiring land, of about 1,300 ha, will itself be around Rs 28,157 crore.
The state government has not come out clearly on the rationale for building a high-speed alternate rail in Kerala, to the tune of being one of the biggest infrastructural investments in Kerala’s history. Does it think an alternate mode of transport will de-congest the roads, or if the speed of such bullet-like trains will boost business in Kerala’s cities? None of these arguments would make sense in Kerala, the state with the lowest index in business investment. The economic viability of the project is also in question, especially in an already well-connected state with five airports, plus two just outside the border in Coimbatore and Mangalore.
The project will require the state to acquire 1,383 ha of land and will cut through many of the state’s ecologically fragile coastal ecosystems, including wetlands, forest areas, backwater regions, densely populated areas and paddy fields. The line will also cuts through a number of ecosensitive heritage sites such as the Madayipara biodiversity park in Kannur, the Kadalundi bird sanctuary in Kozhikode, the Ponnani-Thrissur Kole wetlands and the historical Thirunavaya ponds, lakes and wetlands in Malappuram.
As a result, the construction and operation of the railway will quite likely degrade, fragment and ultimately destroy these ecosystems. The construction activities will also hasten soil erosion, land degradation, flooding and habitat destruction, decimate water bodies, hamper the movement of the dependent biological entities and, indeed, the livelihoods of many of the local inhabitants.
During construction, soil will have to be compacted and excavated, and moved from one location to another to erect embankments. This will have many effects on the environment. For example, the sediment eroded from rail embankments will clog the waterways and affect the vegetation. Another challenge is that underpasses will have to be built to allow for movement under the railway because the railway will have to be raised over many long stretches of low-lying land. But these underpasses will also redirect surface water and rainfall, leading to the erosion and siltation of water sources.
It is surprising that the state government did not entrust an independent body with conducting a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and thus also address how the project’s stakeholders will develop measures to mitigate the ecosystem challenges.
The state has gone through several environmental disasters triggered by cycles of extreme rainfall events and droughts. These disasters, most likely related to global changes in the Earth system, have generated substantive discussion within the state on what sort of developmental model Kerala should aspire to, against the backdrop of climate change. Most importantly, the state must reflect on how its water bodies – rivers, ponds, wells and wetlands – can be saved from further encroachment and pollution.
Linear infrastructure projects like railway lines can’t be introduced in a state like Kerala without considering the unsustainable pressure they will impose on the land and its carrying capacity, that too while being economically non-viable. If implemented in its current form, Kerala may well be staring at a double whammy.
C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.