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Why the Claim That Kerala’s SilverLine Project Will Be Carbon-Free Is a Hoax

Why the Claim That Kerala’s SilverLine Project Will Be Carbon-Free Is a Hoax

Representative shot of a locomotive passing through Kollam, Kerala, January 2021. Photo: Franco Gancis/Unsplash

  • Kerala has claimed the K-Rail project will be green, but hasn’t explained where it’s going to get the requisite 500 million units/year of ‘green electricity’ from.
  • To reduce the payback period of emissions from the construction phase, the project will have to achieve 90% of its estimated ridership – except its ridership projection is unrealistic.
  • The ridership projection for SilverLine is nearly double that of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, which will connect the two busiest cities in India.

Most of the world’s nations have reached a consensus to act to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change through development activities, albeit to different extents and in different ways. But even as ‘sustainable development’, ‘carbon neutrality’ and ‘green technology’ have become key elements of the contemporary development discourse, governments have repeatedly failed to incorporate climate goals into their development strategies. The SilverLine Project, proposed by the Government of Kerala, is a case in point.

Kerala has announced a large infrastructure project, named K-Rail, tasked with connecting Kasaragod in the state’s north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, a distance of 529.45 km, with a semi-high-speed railway line to lower the travel time. The project is a joint venture of the Kerala government and the Indian Railways, with their shares being 51% and 49% respectively.

The total estimated cost of the project is Rs 63,940.67 crore, and will be implemented with the support of Japanese funds and expertise. The preliminary feasibility study and detailed project report (DPR) have been prepared by a French consultancy agency named Systra.

The Kerala government has been surprisingly reluctant to release this DPR, although a media outlet did leak its executive summary. It says, among other things, that SilverLine, with only 11 stations, will be constructed in standard gauge instead of the extant broad gauge.

Authorities have also written that the project will reduce travel time by a third, reduce carbon emissions from road and air traffic and relieve road congestion. They have also asserted that the project will boost freight-forwarding and tourism development and generate large-scale employment opportunities that could provide a fillip to Kerala’s economy.

Experts have already raised several concerns regarding the proposed project. For example:

  1. Can a state like Kerala afford the large financial burden that this massive project, which will be implemented entirely using foreign loans, will bring?
  2. What will the environmental impact of this project be on an ecologically sensitive state like Kerala?
  3. Wouldn’t such an expensive mode of travel be useful only to the creamy layer of society?

These questions are completely justified considering the fact that many of the development projects planned to boost the state’s economic growth have proven to be costly to the public exchequer.

Another key issue we must examine is whether the SilverLine project is conducive to Kerala’s environmental sustainability in light of the recent extreme weather events in the state.

Unlike other Indian states, Kerala’s climate has for centuries been characterised by moderate temperature. But with the onset of the new millennium, the frequency of extreme weather events increased. Severe cyclones, heavy precipitation events, floods, landslides and droughts have become regular occurrences in the state. Heavy rains in 2018 and the subsequent years triggered hundreds of landslides in the Western Ghats.

Anthropogenic factors have as a result been the subject of much public debate. Many experts, activists, policymakers, etc. felt that the state would restructure its development strategies to adapt to new climate goals. Unfortunately, the government has been intent to implement mega-projects that Kerala has never seen before, to the detriment of all such discussions and public sentiments.

SilverLine’s greenness

One of the state government’s claims regarding K-Rail is that the project’s implementation will significantly reduce carbon emissions. It has estimated that 2.88 million tonnes of carbon emissions will be eliminated by 2025 and 5.95 million tonnes by 2052. It has also said SilverLine will “use cent percent green energy”. According to its calculations, 12,872 vehicles will disappear from the road in the first year, and that the project will save an expense of Rs 530 crore on petrol and diesel every year.

According to the DPR’s executive summary, Systra, the French firm, has determined that SilverLine will need 276 million units of electricity for operational purposes in 2025-26, 321 million units in 2032-33, 427 million units in 2042-43 and 497 million in 2052-53. The project document indicates that this electricity will be handed over to the Kerala State Electricity Board Limited to meet the project’s power needs.

But while the government has repeatedly claimed the K-Rail project will be carbon-free and use green electricity, it hasn’t explained where it’s going to get so much green power from.

Anyone with an understanding of India’s energy mix will easily realise the hollowness of this claim. About 80% of the country’s energy currently comes from coal, oil and water sources. If we take coal and gas alone into account, the contribution will be around 70%. And according to India’s Integrated Energy Policy, our dependence on fossil fuels is going to remain high in the next few decades.

Against this background, it’s not at all clear how Kerala – which buys 70% of its electricity from outside – plans to make the SilverLine project a green-power project. Kerala also has no plans yet to seriously increase its investment in renewable energy, without which it won’t be able to supply its electricity board with 500 million units of green power every year.

If existing conventional energy sources are used for the SilverLine project, 3-5 lakh metric tonnes of carbon will be emitted every year. This is in addition to greenhouse gases such as nitric oxide and sulphur dioxide. So unless and until the state launches a separate green energy grid to support SilverLine, its claim that the carbon-free will remain a hoax.

Moreover, all of the figures above are only for power consumption and associated carbon emissions once SilverLine begins operations. We also need to account for emissions from the construction of railway lines, tunnels, bridges, stations and rolling stocks. One 2019 life-cycle analysis of various high-speed railways found that every kilometre of work could potentially emit 13,000-17,000 tonnes of carbon.

Next, in order to reduce the payback period of emissions from the construction phase, the rail project will have to achieve 90% of its estimated ridership. However, the project’s ridership projection is unrealistic. The projection for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, connecting the two busiest cities in India, is 40,000 per day. But the projection for SilverLine is nearly double, at 79,900 per day. According to the first preliminary feasibility study, also prepared by Systra, the expected number of passengers was 37,750 – and which was later doubled, seemingly for no good reason.

Another reason to doubt the 79,900 figure is the ridership projection of the Kochi Metro Rail: when it started operations in 2017, its projected daily passenger traffic was 3.5 lakh per day. But according to current figures of the Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. company, the average number of passengers per day is only 50,000 – i.e. one seventh. Even excluding the pandemic years, the metro suffered financial losses due to fewer daily commuters to the tune of Rs 167 crore in 2017-2018 and Rs 281 crore in 2018-2019.

If the number of passengers on the K-Rail project ends up being less than half the expected rate, the venture will need more than 50 years to pay back the carbon emissions from the construction phase alone. (For exact figures for the whole project, we will need access to the DPR.) And since uncertainty in ridership is part of the modal shift, claims based on the projections may not be credible.

K. Sahadevan is an environmentalist from Kerala.

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