K-Rail – The Emperor of Catastrophes | Dr KT Rammohan | CM Pinarayi Vijayan

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 In many cases, the technologies employed were outdated by the time construction was completed.

Kerala Rail Development Corporation’s (K-Rail, for short), the on-going SilverLine semi-rapid train project that would stretch through Kerala, to allegedly connect the northern and southern ends of the state in four hours instead of the current time. twelve hours, is different from the projects mentioned above. Albeit in a curious way. First, despite the huge financial and environmental costs involved, this is not a well thought out project. Rather, the opposite is true. Even the fundamental question of whether the type of economy and its current and future needs require high-speed travel within the state is not addressed. Even if it is supposed to be justified, there is no obvious effort to consider alternatives which could be much cheaper, albeit a little slower than the semi-high speed train. Second, the disastrous implications of the railway project are not confined to one aspect. It is a combination of technological, economic, social and environmental disasters. Moreover, K-Rail is a fully international debt funded project initiated by a poor 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 Ltd (KRDCL) Managing Director V. Ajith Kumar speaking at a meeting in Kozhikode | Photo: T Prasanth Kumar, Mathrubhumi Archives

Neo-colonialism disguised as Keynesianism

Project cost estimates vary. An official estimate puts the cost per km of track, including the cost of acquiring the land, at a whopping Rs 120 crore per km. The track, proposed to be raised on a combination of embankments and steel pillars, would stretch for nearly 500 km. To lay the track, land varying in width from 15 to 30 meters is being sought to acquire across the state. Additional land would be acquired for new townships surrounding the railway stations. These would be built by private real estate developers. The total land requirement for the project, initially estimated at 900 hectares, now stands at 2300 hectares. The track would cross the densely populated coast and the Midland, displacing dwellings, damaging wetlands and water bodies, cutting rice fields and coconut groves, destroying livelihoods and, not to mention, fragmenting neighborhoods. The kind of input of natural resources that the project would involve is unimaginable. You can almost see the Western Ghats disappear.

The K-Rail is a good classic illustration of neo-colonialism. The project would be funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JAIC). Japanese companies would supply the oars. The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), a state government agency, has been caught in the act by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) for violating constitutional provisions by borrowing directly from abroad, which is said to increase the cost of acquiring land. The local ruling classes enthusiastically welcome the Japanese lender and technology provider.

The ruling classes in contemporary Kerala include the CPI (M) party bureaucrats and the techno-administrative elite, who are in cahoots with the consulting firms, with the third participating in the spoils. Through them, a dumping ground for Japan’s obsolete transport technology of the 1950s and a market for its present surplus finance capital is thus secured in Kerala.

Obviously, this model is far too far removed from the idea of ​​Keynesian public investment that the left government claims to practice. Nor is he comfortable with his highly publicized decentralized development exercise.

Anti-K-Rail
Anti-K-Rail Janakeeya Samithi members gather in Kattilepeedika blindfolded

Aliens

The ruling classes are local only by virtue of birth. They are foreign to the interests of the land and its inhabitants. They are also foreign to the democratic values ​​cherished even in capitalist societies. If not, why is it that the public is denied access to the detailed rail project report? It is strange that the participation of people in a project that would ultimately be financed by their taxes is not recognized. Don’t they have the right to know? Ignoring the ensuing protests even from Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishath (KSSP), the popular science organization closely associated with the ruling party, the Chief Minister said that “Enthu vannalum nadappaakkum” (must implement, come anything).

Political economy is the representation of the interests of one part of society as well as the interests of the whole of society. The ruling classes are doing just that. The scenario is given. Everything is for “development”. Those in the public who oppose the government’s criminal thinking on development are “working against the interests of Kerala”. Some of the party’s cadres, who may dare to express their dissent, are accused of “anti-party elements”.

The government’s arrogance stems from the centralized party structure. The chain of command runs unimpeded from the state level to the lowest local committee. It enforces compliance. This explains why the government is able to move forward with the project, ignoring the objections raised by the KSSP and many left-wing intellectuals. In addition, does any of the incoming funding take the form of bribes? It is well known that the accounting standards of multinational companies allow such payments. Does this explain the excess of enthusiasm of the party bureaucrats and the techno-administrative elite, even in the face of popular protest? How else is the bullet train project gaining priority over pressing issues like land for landless Dalits and solid waste management, the cost of which would be only a tiny fraction of the rail project?

Little voices of history

For now, he is small and weak, but there is a growing voice in the ranks of the party demanding that the project be discussed to the chord at the grassroots. Indeed, discussions are necessary not only in the local party committees but also in each Gram Sabha. This would help people to verify, firstly, the possible benefits and dangers of the project for their own locality and its different sections of the population, and secondly, 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 serves as a guide, it is possible that people will eventually succumb to the cry of the party’s big brother or be gradually lured by the government’s extended financial compensation offer.

Demonstration against the K Rail project in Thirunavaya
Demonstration against the K Rail project in Thirunavaya

An important question is how effective would be the intervention of organizations like the KSSP and micro-organizations scattered across the state that work for the protection of the environment, and intellectuals. Would they be able to mobilize a critical mass of agitators and stop the project? The first two mentioned, KSSP and a host of small organizations, were instrumental in blocking the Silent Valley hydroelectric project during the 1970s. Several prominent poets and scholars were at the forefront of the turmoil at the time. A section of the written press had given him vigorous support.

The times have changed. KSSP is a somewhat exhausted force. Some of its activists had continued the movement as a route to permanent party positions. With the closure of links with the CPI (M), the organization lost much of its autonomy of position. Over time, many members have become inactive even without officially disengaging. It is important to note that the KSSP has increasingly lost the broader perspective of the land and people that was its peak in the 1970s. For example, although it now raises objections against K-Rail, it has always welcomed the KIIFB, without realizing that the latter is part of the same neo-colonial development model. Like the party, the KSSP appears to have viewed infrastructure projects as voice catchers and supported them. Once again, the possibility that hard-line supporters within the KSSP will silence others, thereby silencing the current protest, cannot be entirely ruled out.

For a variety of reasons, the kind of intellectual leadership enjoyed by the unrest in Silent Valley is conspicuously absent today. Print media does not produce the same power as before. The visual media hardly care. With exceptions granted, the media as a whole are active purveyors of the “development dream”. Considering the advertising market, he cannot afford to put the government or the ruling party on the wrong side.

A disaster of South Indian proportions

While K-Rail’s enormous debt burden would be limited to the people of Kerala, the environmental cost would have to be borne by people in other southern Indian states as well. K-Rail would place heavy demands on stone and soil in the Western Ghats and on the sand in rivers. The railway authorities had sought to “console” the conservationists of Kerala that most of the natural resources would be collected in the neighboring states, ie on the other side of the Western Ghats. A host of contractors and sub-contractors, suppliers of rock, earth and sand would link the states. Already, the neighboring district of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu is seriously suffering from the exploitation of granite quarries. This is due to the demand generated by the construction of the new Adani seaport in Vizhinjam, near Thiruvananthapuram.

Western Ghats
Large swath of forest covering the Western Ghat mountains in the Wayanad district of Kerala | Photo: AFP

The agitation against K-Rail therefore cannot be purely a Kerala agitation. K-Rail’s detailed project report, which the government has disguised as “intellectual property” and declared immune from right to information law, is expected to be available in all South Indian languages. Information on proposed geographic sources and methods of natural resource extraction is also needed in the public domain. Finally, the government of Kerala must be told that it has no monopoly rights over the Western Ghats, let alone the banks of rivers in 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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