K-Rail – The Emperor of Disasters


Dr K T Rammohan

The Government of Kerala has to be squarely told that it has no monopoly right over the Western Ghats, and still less, over the river banks of other states.

Dr K T Rammohan, CM Pinarayi Vijayan, Protest against K Rail project at Thirunavaya

Some of the world’s most carefully thought-out and executed development projects have failed. Many turned out to be environmental calamities. Some drained away the exchequer and pushed it into a black hole of debt. In many cases, the technologies employed were outdated by the time the construction was completed.

The ongoing SilverLine semi high-speed rail project of the Kerala Rail Development Corporation (K-Rail, for short) that would stretch across Kerala, to connect, as claimed, the northern and southern ends of the state in four hours instead of the present twelve hours, is different from the projects as mentioned earlier. Albeit, in a curious way. First, despite the huge financial and environmental costs involved, it is not a carefully thought out project. Rather, the opposite is true. Even the fundamental question of whether the kind of economy and its present and possible future needs, call for high-speed travel within the state is not addressed. Even if it is assumed as warranted, there is no evident effort to consider alternatives that could be much cheaper, although a bit slower than the semi high-speed rail. Second, the disastrous implications of the rail project are not confined to any one aspect. It is a combo of technological, economic, social, and environmental disasters. What is more, K-Rail is an entirely international debt-financed project floated by a pauper state government, the financial burden of which would ultimately fall on the people, the common people, who would benefit the least from the project.

Kerala Rail Development Corporation
Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd (KRDCL) Managing Director, V. Ajith Kumar speaking in a meeting at Kozhikode | Photo: T Prasanth Kumar, Mathrubhumi Archives

Neo-colonialism masquerading as Keynesianism

The cost estimates of the project vary. An official estimate puts the cost per km of track, including the land acquisition cost, at a whopping Rs 120 crore per km. The track, proposed to be raised on a combination of embankments and steel pillars, would stretch over nearly 500 km. To lay the track, land with a width varying from 15 to 30 metres is sought to be acquired across the state. Additional land would be acquired for new townships enclosing the rail stations. These would be built by private, real estate developers. The total land requirement of the project initially put at 900 hectares, now stands at 2300 hectares. The track would run through the thickly populated coast and the midland, displacing dwellings, damaging wetlands and water-bodies, slicing away rice fields and coconut groves, destroying livelihoods, and, not to forget, fragmenting neighbourhoods. The kind of natural resource input that the project would entail is unimaginable. One can almost see the Western Ghats disappearing.

The K-Rail makes a good, textbook illustration of neo-colonialism. The project would be funded by the Japan Agency of International Cooperation (JAIC). Japanese companies would supply the train sets. The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), a state government body, was caught red-handed by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) for violating constitutional provisions by directly borrowing from abroad would chip in the cost of land acquisition. Enthusiastically hosting the Japanese lender and technology-supplier are the local ruling classes.

The ruling classes of contemporary Kerala comprise the CPI (M) party bureaucrats and the techno-administrative elite, who are in league with consultancy firms, the third partaker of the spoil. Thanks to them, a dumping ground for the outdated transportation technology of the 1950s Japan and a market for its current, excess financial capital are thus assured in Kerala.

Clearly, this model is far too removed from the idea of Keynesian public investment the left-wing government claims to practice. Nor does it sit comfortably with its much-publicised exercise in decentralised development.

Anti-K-Rail
Anti-K-Rail Janakeeya Samithi members gather at Kattilepeedika with blindfolds

The Aliens

The ruling classes are local only by virtue of birth. They are alien to the interests of the land and its people. They are also alien to the democratic values cherished even in capitalist societies. Otherwise, why is it that the public are denied access to the detailed report of the rail project? It is strange that the stakes of the people in a project that would be ultimately financed out of their taxes are not recognised. Don’t they have the right to know? Disregarding the protest ensuing even from the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishath (KSSP), the peoples’ science organisation that is closely associated with the ruling party, the Chief Minister has declared that "Enthu vannalum nadappaakkum" (Shall implement, Come whatever).

KSSP
Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishath (KSSP)

Political economy is the representation of the interests of a section of the society as the interests of the whole society. The ruling classes do precisely that. The script is given. It is all for 'development'. Those of the public who oppose the government’s criminal thoughts on development are 'working against the interests of Kerala'. A few of the party cadre, who may dare express dissent are accused as 'anti-party elements'.

The arrogance of the government springs from the centralised structure of the party. The chain of command runs unhindered from the state level to the lowest local committee. It enforces conformity. This explains why the government is able to go ahead with the project, disregarding the objections raised by KSSP and many left-wing intellectuals. Further, does some of the finance flowing in assume the form of kickbacks? It is well-known that the accounting standards of multinational corporates accommodate such payments. Does it explain the over-enthusiasm of the party bureaucrats and the techno-administrative elite, even in the face of popular protest? Otherwise, how does the speed rail project gain priority over pressing issues like land for landless Dalits and solid waste management, the cost of which would only be a tiny fraction of the rail project?

Small Voices of History

As of now, it is small and weak, but there is a growing voice from within the party ranks that demands that the project should be discussed threadbare at the grassroots. Indeed, discussions are needed not only in the party’s local committees but also in every Gram Sabha. This would help the people to verify, first, the possible benefits and perils of the project to their own locality and its different sections of people, and second, the expected results for Kerala as a whole. Struggles against land acquisition for the project are now seen in many parts of the state. But if past experience is a guide, it is possible that people ultimately succumb to the shout of the party big brother or are gradually lured by the offer of financial compensation extended by the government.

Protest against K Rail project at Thirunavaya
Protest against K Rail project at Thirunavaya

An important question is how effective would be the intervention of organisations like the KSSP and the micro organisations scattered across the state that work for environmental protection, and the intellectuals. Would they be able to mobilise a critical mass of agitators and stop the project? The first two mentioned, KSSP and a host of small organisations, had a critical role in stalling the Silent Valley hydroelectric project during the 1970s. Several leading poets and scholars were at the forefront of the agitation then. A section of the print media had lent vigorous support.

Times have changed. KSSP is a somewhat spent force. Some of its activists had pursued the movement as a track to tenured party positions. With links to the CPI (M) closing in, the organisation lost much of its autonomy of stance. Over time, many members became inactive even without formally disengaging. Importantly, KSSP increasingly lost the larger perspective of land and people that was its highlight in the 1970s. For instance, although now raising objections against K-Rail, it had all through welcomed KIIFB, little realising that the latter forms part of the same neo-colonial model of development. Like the party, KSSP seems to have viewed infrastructure projects as vote-catchers and supported these. Again, the possibility of the party hardliners within KSSP silencing others, thereby soft-pedalling the present protest cannot be entirely ruled out.

For a variety of reasons, the kind of intellectual leadership from which the Silent Valley agitation had benefited is conspicuously absent today. The print media does not yield similar power as earlier. The visual media hardly cares. Exceptions granted, the media as a whole are active purveyors of the ‘development dream’. The advertising market considered, it cannot afford to rub the government or the ruling party on the wrong side.

A Disaster of South Indian Proportions

While the huge debt burden of K-Rail would be confined to the people of Kerala, the environmental cost would have to be borne by the people of other south Indian states too. K-Rail would place heavy demands on stone and soil in the Western Ghats and on river sand. The rail authorities had sought to ‘console’ Kerala’s conservationists that most of the natural resources would be gathered from neighbouring states, that is, from the other side of the Western Ghats. A string of contractors and sub-contractors, suppliers of rocks, soil and sand would connect the states. Already, the neighbouring Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu badly suffers due to granite quarrying. This is consequent to the demand generated by the construction of Adani’s new sea-port in Vizhinjam, near Thiruvananthapuram.

Western Ghats
Large swathe of forest covering the Western Ghat mountains in Kerala's Wayanad District | Photo: AFP

Agitation against K-Rail cannot, therefore, be purely a Kerala agitation. The detailed project report of K-Rail, which the government has cloaked as ‘intellectual property’ and declared as immune from the Right to Information Act, should be made available in all south Indian languages. Also needed in the public domain is information on the proposed geographical sources and modes of natural resources extraction. Finally, the Government of Kerala has to be squarely told that it has no monopoly right over the Western Ghats, and still less, over the river banks of other states.

[Dr KT Rammohan, political economist and economic historian, was formerly Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam]

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