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In Kerala, Protests Mount Against SilverLine Rail Project, a ‘Mega Disaster’

In Kerala, Protests Mount Against SilverLine Rail Project, a ‘Mega Disaster’

A railway track in the Western Ghats. Photo: NTCA report

  • The 530-km SilverLine project aims to reduce travel time between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod by around eight hours.
  • The project’s MD has said that the Kerala government has assented to work on the rail and that a social impact assessment will be conducted.
  • It faces protests as locals oppose the project’s potential to displace 20,000 families and its environmental impact.

Kochi: In what could be yet another peoples’ movement in the making, local residents and activists are opposed to Kerala’s ambitious SilverLine project, a 530-km semi-high speed rail project that intends to reduce the travel time between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod to four hours from the current 12.

Protestors said they are opposed to the project’s potential to displace around 20,000 families and its environmental impact – especially on the flow of rivers across the state.

The SilverLine Semi-High-Speed Rail Project from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod is being implemented by the Kerala Rail Development Corporation, or ‘K-Rail’, a joint venture of the Kerala government and the Union railway ministry. The railway line will run roughly parallel to the Western Ghats along Kerala’s coast and pass through 11 districts. K-Rail has estimated that the project will cost Rs 63,940.67 crore (including taxes and land acquisition costs). The Kerala government has agreed to foot the entire land acquisition cost, of Rs 13,700 crore. Once completed, the locomotive on this line will apparently run at 200 km/hr, on standard gauge, reportedly based on technologies developed in Japan.

State authorities have also called the SilverLine a “green project” because it proposes to use electricity derived through solar and other renewable energy sources from the Kerala State Electricity Board for its operation.

In an interview in April this year, K-Rail managing director V. Ajith Kumar said the project will “enable a ‘mode shift’ from conventional polluting public transport systems and private vehicles” and that its construction will be completed in a “completely eco-friendly manner”. He also said that as more passengers use the SilverLine, carbon dioxide emissions could drop by about 2.87 lakh tonnes in the first year of operation, and by about a cumulative 5.94 lakh tonnes by 2052.

On December 6, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting his “personal intervention” to sanction the project, which, in Vijayan’s words, would benefit Kerala as well as India for its contributions to both the economy and the environment.

K-Rail has also estimated that the project will directly and indirectly employ around 50,000 people directly and indirectly during its construction and around 10,000 people once it is operationalised.

For all these gains, however, K-Rail will have to acquire 1,383 ha of land, including for track alignments and station yards. Of this, 1,198 hectares will be private land. This is one of the principal reasons the project is expected to face stiff resistance.

No prior intimation

Land is a precious commodity in Kerala, and local residents are protesting what they have said is the state’s failure to inform them before acquiring land. The local revenue department has issued notifications of the survey numbers of the plots that the state plans to acquire – but there has apparently been no other action on the government’s part to answer peoples’ questions or allay their fears.

Work to identify and mark the land to be acquired has also commenced. On December 10, Manorama Online reported that K-Rail had completed fixing boundary stones in 21 villages in just a month. In some places, officials reportedly affixed boundary stones under heavy police protection, while in others, residents locked out authorities from their lands, after which authorities jumped over walls to erect boundary stones.

Ever since they heard authorities are coming even at night to mark their land with stones, it has become impossible to sleep peacefully at night, 40-year-old Manjushri Padanilam, a homemaker in Nooranad in Alappuzha district, told The Wire Science. The plot she owns has also been marked for acquisition; she found out through a notification printed in a local newspaper.

“We are just ordinary women, and our families have small means,” Padanilam said. “Many of us rely on ration rice for meals. A few cents of land is all that many of us have, so this fear that our land will be acquired for the project and that we won’t have anywhere to go has affected us a great deal.”

Earlier this month, K-Rail officials, along with police officers and revenue officials, arrived at Nooranad to inspect the area and erect boundary stones, she said. Some 100 villagers had come together to protest this, and subsequently some of them were taken to the local police station and had 20 cases filed against them.

“We have nothing against the government,” Padanilam said. “The Left won from our constituency, and has been winning consistently.” In the 2020 Kerala local election, the CPI and CPI(M) won 10 of the 17 seats in Nooranad gram panchayat.

On December 10, the K-Rail SilverLine Viruddha Janakeeya Samiti, a state-wide collective that people affected by the project and those protesting it created in November 2020, organised a gathering in Thrissur. The most prominent participant there was activist Medha Patkar, who offered her support to the assembled protestors.

Patkar said the Kerala government should follow the 2013 Land Acquisition Act instead of intimidating people with the police and by placing border stones without permission, consult gram sabhas, and that CM Vijayan should engage in dialogue. “If they don’t hold a dialogue, a fight is inevitable,” she added.

During her speech, Patkar also said the Kerala government is ramming through the SilverLine project at the cost of the state’s wetlands, mangroves, agricultural land and natural habitats. How can a project that leaves thousands of people homeless and destroys so much agricultural land be a ‘green’ project, she asked in an interview.

Environmental concerns

According to the project’s Rapid Environment Impact Assessment (REIA), conducted by the Centre for Environment and Development, Thiruvananthapuram, in only four months, the SilverLine’s proposed route passes through extant paddy fields as well as abandoned paddy fields for most part. However, the assessment doesn’t acknowledge that Kerala’s paddy fields – abandoned or not – are crucial wildlife habitats, so much so that they fall under the ambit of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008. This law aims to conserve these fields as wetlands and prevent their conversion for any other use.

Studies, such as this 2002 effort by the Kerala Forest Research Institute and a 2014 doctoral thesis by Deepa K.M. at the Mahatma Gandhi University, have documented how crucial these wetland tracts are for the state’s wetland birds, including migratory species that flock here in the thousands in winter.

One of the REIA’s specific objectives is a hydrological impact assessment. This portion of the report notes that the project proposes to locate the Kollam station and yards in a flood plain of the Ayathil thodu, or ‘stream’, and that the stream will need to be “realigned and diverted” for construction work. The report then states that the reducing the size of the flood plain will cause “flood havoc”, and designates the station and yards here to be of ‘very high impact’.

A proposed railway yard at Kasargod is in a flood plain as well.

The REIA also specifies that embankments – wherein the bank’s height is increased – will be built for a 293 km stretch along the track. Here, the assessment notes, “Increased incidence and duration of floods may happen due to obstruction of natural drainage courses by the embankment.”

This is one of the main concerns that protestors have, according to S. Rajeevan, K-Rail Silverline Viruddha Janakeeya Samiti’s state general convenor.

“This will obstruct water flow during the monsoon and all 33 rivers that the SilverLine runs across will be affected,” he told The Wire Science. Construction work will require small hillocks to be carved out, and this will again cause landslides in many of these already landslide-prone areas, he added.

An application under the Right To Information Act that Samiti members filed found that the embankments – “which will be like walls” – will be up to 8 m high, Rajeevan said, and that it will fragment villages and natural habitats.

K-Rail managing director Kumar rebutted to The Wire Science that the embankments won’t be like walls and that they will be just like the raised structures constructed for all tracks around the country.

But several environmentalists, organisations and peoples’ bodies have come out to protest the project’s expected environmental impact. An analysis of the SilverLine project by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, entitled ‘Silverline and Kerala’s transport’, wrote that all the existing information regarding the project lead to the conclusion that it is not the “right priority” for the state.

Other experts have already called for a more comprehensive environment impact assessment as well.

Several clearances through

In his April interview, Kumar also said the state government has already approved the SilverLine project’s detailed project report, and he told The Wire Science that the Union railway ministry has also granted in-principle approval.

“We have also received the government order from the state government to go ahead with all the preliminary activities in connection with land acquisition,” he said.

Put together, according to him, these approvals mean everything except the final step of awarding money for land compensation, followed by the acquisition itself.

He also said that the process of land acquisition will be preceded by a ‘social impact assessment’ report, to be drafted by an independent agency appointed by each district collector. This report will determine who will be affected, what compensation they are looking for, etc. – but it can only be drafted once boundaries of the land to be acquired are known. And this is why, he said, boundary stones have already been erected in some districts.

“Unless you mark the boundary, how will you know who will be affected?” he asked. Instead, he dismissed the protests as well as acts of people removing boundary stones inside their compounds as being politically motivated.

When asked why the respective gram sabhas are yet to be consulted, Kumar said every gram sabha, village and panchayat will be heard. “Once the boundary stones are laid, the district collector will appoint an individual agency for the [social impact assessment],” he said. “They will conduct public hearings and listen to the issues that people have.”

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