No silver lining

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The government of Kerala has recently proposed a transport project called “SilverLine Rail Project” which connects south and north Kerala. The project is also called “semi-rapid railway project” with an operating speed of 200 km/h. The rail is designed using ‘standard gauge’ technology and will act as a stand-alone track. The proposed project highlights reduced travel time, low carbon emissions, airport connectivity and faster economic growth as key benefits. However, there are three major economic, social and environmental concerns.

Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the environmental impact caused by the SilverLine project in Kerala is a matter of concern. The Minister was responding to the question raised by Hibi Eden (INC) in the Lok Sabha. The minister said final approval will only be granted after a detailed technological and financial feasibility study of the project has been completed. As Kerala faces threats of flooding, the Union government will only approve the project after analyzing the environmental footprint of SilverLine in the state, Eden demanded. The detailed project report does not imply that the railways have acquired land for the project. The Department will review whether the State has acquired sufficient technology for the SilverLine and the condition of the land. Project expenses should also be assessed.

When Eden alleged that survey stones were being laid for a project which had not yet received final approval, the Minister replied that he had no comment on this as it is a usual procedure carried out by state governments.

Kerala’s SilverLine project, a 529.45 km rail corridor linking Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod with an operating speed of 200 km/h, was intended to facilitate transportation between the northern and southern parts of the state. Instead, it has now become a flashpoint for controversy.

Kerala Rail Development Corporation (K-Rail) is a joint venture between the Government of Kerala and Indian Railways. The latter holds a 49% stake in K-Rail Corporation. As a result, the railways are concerned about sharing the project’s foreign loan debts. The project, first announced 12 years ago, claimed it would reduce total travel time to less than four hours from the current 10 to 12 hours between the two cities. With nine cars carrying 675 passengers, the train will make 18 daily trips. And it is expected to fetch Rs 2,256 crore from ticket fares, with a daily attendance of 79,934 commuters.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijay dismissed arguments against the state’s ambitious SilverLine railway project as “baffling” and reiterated his commitment to see its completion. “If not now when?” asked the Chief Minister, challenging the widespread claim that Kerala is not yet ready for such a project.

While acknowledging the grief of those who lost their homes and lands to the project, Vijayan said the government’s intention was not to hurt anyone. “We are just building our children’s future,” Vijayan said. He also added that government compensation for those who lost their properties was four times the current market value.

The Kerala government is determined to proceed with the laying of the bollards, which has sparked widespread protests. He plans to take legal action (destruction of public property) against those removing the stones. Protesters will be arrested after registering complaints against them. Those who are arrested would only get bail after depositing the amount equivalent to the value of the public asset. So far, only 6,083 stones have been laid over a distance of 182 km (of the 530 km track) in the face of protests. The tax office sets the limits with the support of the police.

CPM Secretary of State Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the party planned to launch a campaign to dispel protesters’ “misconceptions” about the SilverLine project. Party leaders, including representatives of the people, will be responsible for discussing the issue directly with the public. Party members will inform landowners that land will only be acquired after providing deserving compensation. The state secretary said the campaign by visiting the respective houses should be carried out by the district committees before the Party Congress in April. In rural areas, landowners are guaranteed to get four times the market price for their land. If the owner is not satisfied with this amount, a price will be fixed later after discussion with the representatives of the people acceptable to both parties.

Kodiyeri pointed out that similar protests were organized even during the land acquisition for Kannur airport. Then the issues were settled after talks called by the tax officials with the locals. Similarly, the project will only be carried out after addressing public concerns.

In Kerala, apart from this project, several ambitious projects are in progress or at the proposed stage at the moment. The state will set up a full-fledged international airport about 48 km from the famous Sabarimala pilgrimage center. The airport would be the small state’s fifth, while its fourth airport (established at Kannur) has yet to emerge as an economically viable project. The proposed airport project, however, has been suspended by the Kerala High Court. Construction of the airport would entail the razing of several mounds on which pineapples are grown. The mounds are crucial for the local environment, he said. Large-scale commercial activity within the framework of the airport would damage the fragile ecology of the Pampa and Sabarimala parts of the Western Ghats, which are already under pressure, he pointed out.

Two years ago, the South Bench of the National Green Tribunal had set up a committee to examine the environmental impact of the removal of sand from the Pampa River that the state government authorized, citing the possibility of overflow of the river during possible floods in the next few years. month. A major controversy erupted when the state government invoked the National Disaster Management Act for the ‘desilting’ of the river at Thriveni at the entrance to Sabarimala and transporting the sand for commercial purposes. The state forest department had issued an order rescinding the previous order issued by the district collector authorizing the removal of the sand. When Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan backed the collector’s decision on sand removal and expressed his displeasure with the Forest Department’s law, the issue captured statewide attention.

Kerala faced many environmental issues during the floods of 2018 and 2019. This year in the Anamalai hills of the Western Ghats (where the famous hill station Munnar is located), there were 14 landslides. major pitches in one place since the second week of May. , when the monsoon rains started. The local community and environmentalists attribute it to the indiscriminate mining and unscientific expansion of the Kochi-Dhanushkodi National Highway which runs through Munnar.

These issues are sparking protests across the country. In Chhattisgarh last year, members of tribal communities marched 300 km to draw national attention to the fact that the government is opening up more parts of Hasdeo Aranya, a dense forest whose people depend on for their survival and livelihoods. Yet both Union and state governments have allowed mining to continue in the area.

In Goa, people are questioning the purpose of three development projects that would mean the felling of more than 40,000 trees in two protected areas in the state. The projects concern a railway line, a transmission line and a national road. For Kerala, there may be no silver lining in the project unless environmental and social issues are addressed.

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and Legal Bureau of India


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