CHENNAI: Protests over the controversial K-rail project in Kerala have taken an ugly turn with police-public clashes being reported in several places. The protesters are furious and claim that the project could have serious economic, social and ecological impact.

The K-rail Silverline is an ambitious project expected to run from Trivandrum to Kasargod for about 530 kilometres. It is a standalone, standard gauge, two-way rail with no interoperability.

The project proposed by the LDF government has been heavily criticised by activists who claim it conducted no proper survey on the multi-fold impact of this project and that there is a lot of data fudging and undemocratic dealings involved. Environmental activist, politician and writer Neelakandan CR told The Citizen:

“The initial budget of the project was 64,000 crores. In 2019, they submitted a feasibility report by French company Cistra to the Union Railway Ministry and they have given an in-principle approval. But it was not clear whether the approval was for an elevated track or a standard gauge. So in 2020, they submitted the Detailed Project Report (DPR). It was kept a secret till then. The people were worried about how the alignment would be and what places would be affected.

“Since the DPR was not available to the public, there were protests. We were worried about the financial, ecological, material and social impact of this, we anticipated all these problems. The DPR was not even given to the legislators. 140 legislators of the Kerala assembly were in the dark.

“It was a long fight. It was only last year, when one MLA raised a question in the assembly and said the privilege of the legislature was denied, that they published everything on the website, including the executive summary. It was only then the activists and the general public got the exact picture.”

He explained that people started agitating initially because of the land acquisition.

“In Kerala, land is a scarce commodity. Land cost is very high. Just by cash compensation you cannot get anything, because whatever price you get for your land, the land you want to buy will cost three times more. The rail is going through highly populated areas and at least 20,000 to 30,000 people would be affected.”

Activists have also found several irregularities, illegalities, violation of railway rules, environmental rules and fudging of data. “For example, how many passengers will travel on it? The DPR says they conducted a survey conducted by a company. But when we enquired about the company, it could not be found anywhere. We have sent letters, we want to know how they arrived at the particular figure. The number of passengers is very important to understand the financial viability.”

“Moreover, all the construction costs are fudged. The project is going to be done completely on loan, because Kerala is totally bankrupt. The public debt is already around 4 crore. There are questions raised by many economists in Kerala as to how much of an impact this would have on the state’s economy.”

The railway line could also have a huge ecological impact. “55 per cent of the rail is embankment. Kerala had severe floods in the last couple of years. What will the condition be if there's another flood? Earlier when the floods happened, the rescue operations were happening through the eastern side. Now the rescue will be delayed because of the embankment,” Neelakandan said.

“There’s no proper hydrological or geo-technical survey done. You’re blocking wetland and paddy fields, floods will definitely increase. They say the best way to construct the rail in Kerala is overheads and via ducts. But they use embankments to reduce costs and that will affect the people. People are really worried. Not just the people who are losing their land. In fact, the people who lose their land may be safer than those who live on either side of the rail.”

He added, “Most of the material for the project would have to happen through quarrying, which again would result in landslides. People in hilly areas are worried that landslides could happen.”

People are also agitated that the project only mentions cash compensation for those affected by land acquisition, with no talk of rehabilitation. Many fear that they will lose their livelihoods and get separated from their neighbourhoods and community, be it places of worship or their children’s schools.

What fuelled the protests in many areas though was the “highly undemocratic” process of laying yellow stones in houses to mark them for acquisition, Neelakandan said, for which the Kerala government is using dubious legal provisions.

“They cannot apply the 2013 Land Acquisition Act here because the central government has said that the technical and financial feasibility of this project is not decided yet. Getting an in-principle approval doesn’t mean you can go for land acquisition. If the project is dropped a few years later, the stone you laid will still be in my house. That land will never be considered for any loan by a bank. Local body will not be given any permission to construct.”

Claiming to echo the voice of Keralites he added, “We have hope in the Left. But that was the case in West Bengal too. It all ended one fine morning because of Nandigram. We don’t want this to become another Nandigram. This is not a political struggle.”

K-Rail: Stone-laying halted temporarily as protest mounts | Latest News  India - Hindustan Times