The SilverLine project is anti-development

It poses a threat to Kerala’s ecological security, and could end up as a white elephant

Six months after I first proposed in these pages that the Kerala government review its SilverLine rail project, critical voices have only grown in strength. The Chief Minister, however, has publicly affirmed his intention to proceed with it nevertheless, alleging that its opponents are against ‘development’. This response is no different from that of the Narendra Modi government when its economic policies are queried, and which nurtures its own vanity project, a superfast train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The stance is hardly credible though.

Concerned voices

Dissenters on the SilverLine project include ecologists, engineers, lawyers and activists to reckon with. Madhav Gadgil, E. Sreedharan, Prashant Bhushan and Medha Patkar are perhaps the best known among them but the list also has on it concerned citizens, who all want the best for their country. It also includes the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, which is significant, as the body is perceived as a fellow-traveller of the Left parties now in power. Recently, Mr. Sreedharan, perhaps India’s most famous railway engineer, has described the proposed project as an invitation to environmental disaster, mainly through flooding. He had also expressed surprise that the Government has not yet made public the detailed project report, a standard practice, which brings transparency to large-scale public infrastructure projects. (Since then the Kerala government has hurriedly uploaded a related document on a restricted site.) Professor Gadgil, India’s pre-eminent ecologist, has spoken of SilverLine being against the interests of the people of the State, on grounds of the ecological damage it is likely to cause. Based on his unmatched knowledge of Kerala’s topography, he has both explained how this could happen and pointed to the experience with the railways elsewhere in India, suggesting that the prediction is not mere speculation.

A distant government

The response of the Pinarayi Vijayan government to calls to reason on SilverLine has been disappointing. By stonewalling the concern expressed by citizens, a government shows itself to be distant and authoritarian. The dissenters are, after all, equal stakeholders in Kerala as anyone else, with the moral right to be heard on a matter with a bearing upon the ecological future of the State. In a democracy, the government must be guided by public opinion rather than attempting to manufacture consent on its schemes, as Kerala’s present government is doing. There are several instances of the state in India changing its mind when public opinion is arrayed against some grand project of its, but one stands out. In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi, a charismatic and strong leader, responding to a long-drawn agitation against a hydel project in Palakkad district, declared that the Silent Valley threatened by it will be protected. It took a little longer for the project proposal to be dropped altogether, but it finally was.

A high cost

While it is the threat to ecological security from it that has been flagged by our scientists and engineers, there is also the concern that the SilverLine project may end up as a white elephant. It is always difficult to figure out how much people are willing to pay for a new service to be publicly provided, in this case faster transportation. Even if a survey were to be conducted, the truthfulness of the stated willingness to pay would remain moot, undermining the reliability of the numbers in any project report. It is perhaps for this reason that light rail projects in many parts of the world have ended-up making a loss. Even if break-even does materialise, the rate of return could end up being lower than anticipated. This often happens due to the cost overrun observed in such projects. A reason for this is that rather than padding costs, governments, determined to have their high visibility, technological marvels, manage to somehow ensure that the project cost is pitched unreasonably low.

In the case of SilverLine, it has been hinted that the cost of the complementary infrastructure, such as underpasses, may not have been incorporated, and that they may be substantial. It is for this reason that independent external scrutiny of the detailed project report is essential. Global accountancy giants have in the past proved to be unreliable as a source of disinterested advice when high fees are at stake, but we are fortunate that there is available in India financial expertise of the highest class. It is hoped that advice from this source is sought, with the Kerala government having shown a surprising dependence on international management consultancy firms for advice in the past. With a public sector that still receives budgetary support, a State already strapped with high per capita public debt cannot afford to be saddled with another white elephant. Yet, financial viability cannot be taken as the sole criterion in investment planning. There is no universally accepted method for imputing a monetary value to the environmental threat posed by a project with so great a geographic reach as SilverLine, spanning as it will do the entire length of the State. It is essential that our judgment be deployed in this case.

What Kerala does need

When a proposed project meets pushback, its purveyors often respond with the challenge “So, what is the alternative?” In the present case, though, this would only beg a deeper question, which is whether Kerala needs another railway line at all. As the two extremities of the State are already connected by road and rail, a light rail built at an astronomical cost is hardly necessary, even when it promises to save some travel time. The State already has the highest road density in the country. It is odd, then, that the Government sees a second railway as the priority for the State today.

On the other hand, there are several projects deserving of public investment. Among them would be the transition to a steady power supply based on green energy, the provision of safe drinking water and urban sewerage, and building infrastructure for the scientific disposal of waste. These projects would address our most pressing needs today, yield high social returns and contain progressive environmental degradation in the State. They are the ‘alternative’.