K-Rail: The rise of disaster capitalism in Kerala


The Police force, which is being deployed to crush the struggle against K-Rail, is an apparatus. The repressive apparatus of the state. The Party Congress, which is to be held from April 6th to April 9th, must raise some pertinent questions to the Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, who sits at the helm of this regime.

CM Pinarayi Vijayan, Police removing people protesting against SilverLine

Naomi Klein, the Canadian writer, wrote 'The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism' in 2007. Naomi exposes one of the most brutal faces of capitalism in this book. Naomi's incisive account tells us how capitalist forces use natural and man-made disasters to rake in huge profits. She unravels the depth and width of the unholy relationship between the corporates and the state, by exploring how the multinational corporations made use of the Iraq war of 2003 and the hurricane Katrina of 2005.

The disasters, that shock the people, open up huge opportunities before the corporates and the state. The shock and fear, created by the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, was unparalleled in the history of independent India. But, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh used this as a perfect cover to unleash the neo-liberal economic policies across the nation. It was not just a coincidence that the Nehruvian policies which Congress followed till then were undermined and neoliberal economic policies were implemented as the seeds of communalism sprouted up and began spreading the roots in the country. The Kargil war during the Vajpayee govt should also be read along these lines. And we must also remember that Gujarat became the lab of neoliberal policies in the aftermath of the riots in 2002.

Kerala takes up what Chile buries

Some view the Rao govt as the regime that pulled India from the verge of a severe financial crisis. It requires a detailed analysis and critique which is beyond the scope of this article. One major consequence of the Rao government's economic policies has been the increasing inequality. There was a flood of foreign capital into India in the wake of the participatory notes, which P Chidambaram, the then Finance minister in the Manmohan Singh Govt, pursued vigorously. India witnessed the real estate boom, which saw land prices going through the roof. This will become clearer if we compare the land prices before and after 2004. Neoliberal economic policies leave everything to the market. These policies were nurtured and promoted by the 'Chicago Boys' led by Milton Friedman, the American economist.

Milton Friedman and Co were the economic advisors to the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew the Salvador Allende Govt in Chile in 1973. Chile came to be known as the cradle of neoliberalism with this coup. The Chicago Boys promised a paradise of economic progress to the Chileans. But, the neoliberal policies shook the basic foundations of the Chilean economy. Gabriel Boric, the newly elected President of Chile, made a stunning statement during one of his electoral campaigns: ''We will bury neoliberalism in its birthplace.''

Gabriel Boric | Photo: AFP

Now, the critique is that the Pinarayi Govt is taking up what Chile is trying to bury. Kerala is also witnessing the practice of disaster capitalism which turns disasters into opportunities that bring in profit. Multinational corporations know pretty well how to make use of disasters. It is not at all a secret that the corporates leveraged the demonetisation by the Modi govt in a huge way. Covid pandemic too gave the corporates new opportunities. Modi govt speeded up the process of privatisation at a time when the Indian people were reeling under Covid and the related lockdowns. The Modi govt could easily plan the sale of the public sector institutions like Railways and LIC because the covid pandemic wrecked the lives of people to the core.

Don't forget Gita

When there is an earth-shaking disaster the people surrender themselves before the strong leader. This was the major reason behind the second coming of both Narendra Modi and Pinarayi Vijayan. Pinarayi got the first opportunity during the flood of 2018. People of Kerala didn't pay attention to the allegations that the flood was caused by the mismanagement of the dam by the government machinery. And the opportunities that were opened up by the Covid ensured the historic return of a left government consecutively for a second term in the state.

Gita Gopinath

One was forced to narrate these as introductory remarks because of the way the Pinarayi govt is handling the anti-K-Rail protests. K-Rail is not a project that has come out of the blue. This is a concrete example of how a left government takes up the neoliberal economic policies initiated by the Rao - Manmohan team. And two disasters - Flood and Covid- set the premises for this.

One of the first appointments that the first Pinarayi Vijayan govt made was getting Gita Gopinath as the economic advisor. In hindsight, we can realise that the act of appointing Gita, a proponent of the neoliberal policies put forth by Friedman and Co, was not at all innocent. Pinarayi govt went ahead with this move despite the critique from the left camp itself. In the end, Gita herself gave it up when she was appointed as the chief economist of the IMF.

When CM changes the policy

The focus of the recently held CPM state meet at Kochi was the new Kerala vision document presented by the Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan. It is not clear if Gita Gopinath has helped the CM in preparing this document. What we know is that this document is the public acceptance of neoliberal policies by all means. The content of the document is not completely out to the public. It will become the official line of CPM only after it is approved by the party congress to be held in Kannur next month.

As per reports, one of the key points of the document is the stand on private investment. Pinarayi Vijayan has explicitly pointed out that the higher education sector in the state requires private investment to scale greater heights. But it is widely known that the private universities, which will be a reality once the new vision document is implemented, won't be delivering social justice including reservation. Even Though Yechuri says that social justice will be ensured, that will, in all likelihood, be a line drawn on water.

In fact when a party like CPM decides to change their key policies that should be presented by the party secretary. But it was CM Pinarayi, who presented this crucial document at the party-state meet. This itself disproves the claim by the party leadership that it is not the govt that leads the party but the party that leads the govt. The Silverline project, which aims to connect the southern and northern ends of Kerala with a semi speed railway line, is an experiment by the Pinarayi govt in terms of taking up the neoliberal policies. A perfect example of implementing the new vision document even before presenting it at the party-state meet. And the timing can't be missed. The Pinarayi govt came up with the project at a time when Kerala was shocked to the core due to the onslaught of covid.

We should also recall the Sprinklr and EMCC deals that the Pinaryai govt tried to implement during the crisis of covid. These two deals were not transparent. There was the shadow of crony capitalism on these two. The allegation was that EMCC International, with whom the state-owned Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC) signed the memorandum of understanding, had not even a proper address. Let us also remember that the government was forced to cancel both these projects due to the timely intervention by Ramesh Chennithala, the then opposition leader.

Deluge of campaign for K-Rail

There has been an unprecedented campaign for K-Rail across the state. It is nothing surprising given that the corporates and the state always unleash such campaigns when they decide to convert disasters into opportunities. Social media platforms including Facebook and Whatsapp are flooded with the campaign materials of pro-K-Rail literature. CPM cyber teams have been successful in deploying 'experts' from even Sweden, Denmark and Japan to bat for K-Rail. Silent Valley would have been a page in history if it were today.

The pro-K-Rail campaigners raise seemingly innocent questions like why don't the public hand over the land for K-Rail just like the similar transactions earlier for airports, highways and dams. Why can't we sell our property if we get three or four times more than that of the market price? The CPM cyber teams keep on asking. Anybody, who has sold at least one cent of land in Kerala, knows that the market price which is shown in the registration documents never reflects reality. It won't be enough even if one gets a price four times more than that of the market price to buy a similar property at some other places.

It's not at all easy to give up the land that one is born and brought up in. It's not just a heap of soil and concrete. It's the space that made us what we are today. When we give up such a space we are losing an entire world of relations and bonding. The Pinarayi govt is brutally suppressing the people who are not ready to give up their land. But the CPM cyber teams have no empathy towards these protestors who are fighting for their rights to live in the land of their forefathers.

The most significant question is this: ''Do we need K-Rail?'' Who are the beneficiaries of this semi speed rail corridor which requires a hefty sum of almost Rs 2 lakh crores for completion? The protestors including Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad point out that the social, economic and environmental impact of K-Rail will be beyond comprehension. Climate change is not something that is felt in the Amazon rain forests alone. It has become a local reality as well. It is indeed shocking that a left government is going ahead with this project turning a blind eye to these vital questions. This only shows how strongly the forces of crony capitalism have cast their spell over the state govt.

Gita Gopinath
CM Pinarayi Vijayan | Photo: Mathrubhumi

The debt trap that is awaiting Kerala

It is reported that K-Rail will require Re 2 lakh crore by the time it is completed. Most of this will be loans from different agencies. K P Kannan, the former director of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, has made some remarkable points in an article in this regard. Kerala is facing a huge revenue deficit. The gap between revenue and expenditure is alarmingly big. It was 19% 10 years ago. Now it has gone up to 48%. In a nutshell, this means that when we spend Rs 100 we are getting only Rs 52 in terms of revenue. The rest is met through borrowings. There has been an observation that borrowing is not an issue. Apparently, that is right. But if you are spending the loans on salaries, pensions, and interest repayment, and not on capital expenditure the loans will soon turn into a trap. We must also remember that Kerala has a public debt of Rs 3.5 lakh crores as of now.

We can repay loans only if we get the revenue out of the borrowings. That means we should be able to spend the money constructively. Unless and until K-Rail turns profitable loans will remain loans and the debt will be going up. Even the hardcore fans of K-Rail don't believe that the project will turn profitable in near future. It indicates only one thing that by all means, K-Rail will be a debt trap for Kerala. And the AKG centre won't come forward to save the state from this trap. Ultimately, we, the common people will be forced to pay more for petrol, diesel, land registration and liquor. Prices will be going up and the lives of ordinary people will get more and more miserable.

Pinarayi Govt is saying that the Silverline project will be completed with loans from Japan International Cooperation Agency and Asian Development Bank. And it is pointed out that the interest rates for these are very less. But we shouldn't miss the hidden costs. Even if the interest rates are low the state will end up paying more money as the period of repayment is longer. The second fact is that the loan is not in rupee but dollars. The value of the dollar in another ten years will be much higher if we consider the present-day trends and we will have to pay a bigger amount in future.

Does anyone recall the Rebuild Kerala Initiative project announced by the Pinarayi Govt in 2018 in the aftermath of the flood? The grand promise was to rebuild Kerala in three years by spending Rs 31,000 crores. This is the fourth year now. And RKI is still nowhere in the picture. The Silverline project is being taken up in the midst of all these undelivered goals.

KSSP says there is an alternative

People will be ready to give up the land and house where they were born and brought up only if there are convincing causes. But it looks like the Pinarayi govt doesn't have any such compelling reasons to place in front of the people for this project. Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad and engineering experts like RVG Menon point out that there are alternative plans to accomplish what K-Rail aims. Doubling of the existing railway lines and modernisation of the signalling system are two key steps that will give more speed to the trains. But the government is not at all listening to these sane voices. It is a pertinent question why the government is not ready to hold discussions with KSSP and experts like RVG Menon on this subject.

Mahila Congress activists taking away the survey stone during protest | Photo: B Muralikrishnan

The Real estate lobby and the crony capitalists won't have any interest in these alternate plans. Their eyes are on the huge profit that the malls and other real estate ventures to come up along the SilverLine will bring in. The CPM govt tried the same in Nandigram and Singur years back. But They couldn't succeed then. The wrath of the people has destroyed CPM almost completely in the state of Bengal. The Kerala unit of CPM might have been emboldened to repeat the same mistake because of the impression that the covid pandemic has numbed the people's spirit to revolt. Look at the way the Pinarayi govt is dealing with the anti-K-rail protests. On the one hand, the CM is saying that all grievances will be addressed but on the other, the protesters are removed forcibly by the police. The government is determined to implement the project. So it will resort to any means to silence the protests. The one agency that the government will be depending upon more and more to implement the new vision document will be the police force.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck wrote the novel 'The Grapes of Wrath' in 1939, almost 68 years ago before Naomi Klein brought out 'The Shock Doctrine'. The novel narrates the story of the people who were evacuated from Oklahoma during the days of the great depression. There is a heart-wrenching scene in the 5th chapter of the novel. A tenant is standing in front of his house, which is about to be demolished by a tractor deployed by the bank. The tenant knows the driver of the tractor. He asks the young man if he is the son of Joe Davis. The young man nods his head.

The old man asks the driver how he can act against the people whom he knows. The young man responds: ''I get three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner—and not getting it. I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day.'

'That's right,' the tenant said. 'But for your three dollars a day, fifteen or twenty families can't eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for three dollars a day. Is that right?' And the tenant threatens to kill the young man if he drives the tractor over his house.

The young man's response to this is an eye-opener: ''Suppose you kill me? They'll just hang you, but long before you're hung there'll be another guy on the tractor, and he'll bump the house down.'' The young man is just a tool, behind him there is the bank and the state.

The police force, that is being deployed to suppress the anti-K-Rail protests, is a tool, the tool of the Govt. The CPM party congress that is going to be held next month at Kannur should raise some pertinent questions to the CM Pinarayi Vijayan. The delegates should ask for whom the state govt is implementing the Silverline project? They should ask who will be benefitted from this project. They should also ask why the government is not considering the alternate plans put forth by KSSP. And they must tell CM Pinarayi in his face that it is not by drowning the people in tears and misery that a ruler earns his or her place in history. The right to dissent is the soul of democracy. And it goes without saying that the Pinarayi Govt's move to suppress the anti-K-Rail protests is nothing but a move against democracy itself.

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