December 14, 2021
On the right track?
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Good morning. According to scientists from the University of Central Florida, our understanding of a planet needs some serious changes. As per the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a planet is anything that orbits a sun, has enough mass to make it spherical and has mostly cleared its neighbourhood. Turns out, this definition is based more on folk astrology than actual science. That’s where heliocentrism comes from. What we should be looking for in a planet is geological activity, not the orbital path. One’s relationship with a star should have nothing to do with scientific classification – Pluto, you are a planet!
📰 FEATURE STORY
Debate on Kerala’s SilverLine Project
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “You and I come by road and rail, but economists travel on infrastructure.” Political leaders the world over, whether they be heads of state or cities, rightfully talk about infrastructure every chance they get. Investment in infrastructure is a gateway to jobs, growth, and more investment. However, it doesn’t come without its pain points and opposition.
In Kerala, that is what’s happening concerning its SilverLine project. The semi-high-speed rail corridor is at the centre of controversy. On the one hand, activists, engineers, and citizens are against it due to environmental implications and whether the government should focus on it now. But the state government wants the project to go full steam ahead in the name of development for the state.
The SilverLine rail project has been 12 years in the making. It is a 532-km corridor to be built at ₹63,941 crores. It will traverse through eleven of the fourteen districts in the state, with Alappuzha, Wayanad, and Idukki being the exceptions. The trains will travel at 200km/h, and there are plans to connect the corridor with the international airports at Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.
One feature of the project is the electric multiple unit (EMU) trains. Each can have nine cars. The goal is that this project can reach a daily average ridership of 80,000 passengers. Here’s what this corridor will accomplish – cut travel time between the two ends of state from twelve hours to less than four.
Here’s a brief timeline of the project. It was first proposed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government as part of the 2009-10 state budget. In 2011, the Kerala High-Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (KHSRCL) was formed. They would be in charge of implementing it. At the time, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) was in power. For the feasibility report, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) was given that responsibility.
In 2014, the scope of the project was increased. The original Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod route was extended to the Kochi-Kasaragod stretch. When the LDF came to power in 2016, another expansion was added to connect Kochuveli to Kannur. At the beginning of 2020, an aerial survey was conducted using an aerial remote sensing tool to map the houses along the proposed route. In October 2020, the Kerala cabinet approved the proposal.
Overall benefit to Kerala
One of the concerns about the project was finances. Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw was worried about the financial position of the Indian Railways. However, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in his letter to the centre, allayed any fears. He said the state will meet the cost of land acquisition and liabilities on foreign loans used to pay for the project. So, on the financial aspect, the state has things covered.
There are understandable concerns about existing residential infrastructure. Vijayan has said the project will affect only a little over 9300 buildings. Next comes land acquisition and compensation. The amount estimated for acquiring land is ₹13,362.32 crore. The cost for one hectare is estimated at ₹9 crores. Regarding compensation, it will be four times that of the market value for villages and double of the market value for towns.
The project also won’t affect the state’s paddy fields, groves, places of worship, or any biodiversity-rich areas. For example, the route planned from Thiruvananthapuram to Tirur in Malappuram district will be an elevated path. The Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA) report of the project stated that given it runs parallel to the Western Ghats, its environmental impact needs to be assessed. However, it also pointed out the project does not pass through any notified areas.
As mentioned earlier, the reduced travel time is a big plus for people. However, the project does have near and long-term benefits. The project itself can generate employment opportunities for thousands, given its scale. Then take into account how much future potential such a transport corridor can have for the movement of people, whether it be for tourism or otherwise. It can serve as a multiplier.
Environmental, feasibility, and financial concerns
Does Kerala need such a costly project to ease its transportation woes? D. Dhanuraj, chairman of Kochi-based Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), doesn’t think so. He says the state government shouldn’t embark on an infrastructure project of this scale. The worry is it would severely affect the state’s finances and the environment. It would be better to expand and improve existing infrastructure.
On the project’s overall cost, the Centre estimates it would cost ₹2.10 lakh crores, and NITI Aayog estimated it at ₹1.3 lakh crores. Kerala expected it would receive ₹2150 crores as assistance from the central government. That request was denied. The state shouldering the burden of such an expensive project is a risk. In the current fiscal, the state’s public debt is projected to be ₹3.27 lakh crore. Add to this, the pandemic has resulted in reduced remittances from the Gulf.
On the environmental front, a thorough environmental impact assessment is necessary. The Thiruvananthapuram-based research institute Centre for Environment and Development’s (CED) Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) shouldn’t be taken seriously. First, the institute isn’t an authorised agency for doing EIAs. Second, a Comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (CEIA) needs to cover all seasons. The EIA was done through only one season. The Southern Railway also objected to land acquisition by the Railway Board.
The government still needs to convince people of the project’s necessity. Last week, police were confronted by protestors in Kottayam, led by Mini K Philip, district secretary of Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist). They were protesting the land acquisition in the area for the project. One towering authority on all things rail had his say. Metroman E Sreedharan called the project an ‘idiotic decision.’ Among the reasons he cited was the alignment chosen and the finances involved.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Judges cannot be shielded from citizens’ questions
For the Left:
Hindutva vs Hinduism: Contours of a false narrative
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Finally, understandable lessons (Rajasthan) – For the first time, government schools in the tribal districts of Banswara, Baran, Dungarpur and Pratapgarh are teaching students in local dialects. According to the Tribal Area Development (TAD), since last September, the project is already showing remarkable progress in “learning outcomes”. An official even said that this is helping build the students’ confidence which then improves their performances. Under this initiative, even their textbooks have been drafted by language experts to make things easier for the children.
Big plans for education (Assam) – The state government is all set to evaluate 46,251 schools in the next year. Under this initiative, called “Gunotsav”, the government will evaluate the schools in two phases – one from April 5-7 and the other from April 20-22. This will basically provide an “accountability framework” for a better quality of education for the children of Assam. It covers government schools, provincialised ones and those run by tea gardens.
Priests against right-wing groups (Uttar Pradesh) – On December 6, right-wing groups in the state got busy demanding the “installation of a Krishna deity inside the Shahi Idgah mosque” in Mathura. On Sunday, the Akhil Bhartiya Teerth Purohit Mahasabha called for “stern action” against this. According to its national president Mahesh Pathak, stunts like this could “have an adverse impact on the economy of Mathura since the inflow of pilgrims and devotees to the temple town could be affected.” He also mentioned that “right-wing groups were running BJP’s agenda.”
Mismanaging temple wealth (Odisha) – According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the wealth of “Hindu religious institutions” is being grossly mismanaged in the state. Turns out, 4,503.87 acres of land, that are supposed to belong to 13 temples, are in “illegal occupation”. This is out of a total of 12,767.679 acres, which means that 35.28% of temple land is, as of now, illegally occupied. Along with this, the CAG also found that about 9 kg of temple gold was in “unauthorised custody”.
Drug busts and DJs (Kerala) – Clocking the recent rise in drug busts at “DJ parties”, the hospitality industry might be turning away from the ragers. The festive season usually calls for a different rave around every street corner. But this year, narcotics-related headlines have only been causing our DJs some serious distress. Right now, the community is focusing on forming guidelines that would keep DJs from becoming “unsuspecting victims to drug rackets”. Kerala Disco Jockey Association’s secretary Jonathan de Rozario also said that from now on, law enforcement will be informed of events beforehand to prevent such instances.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
1,400 – The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project that our PM just inaugurated is responsible for the “amicable rehabilitation” of around 1,400 people. Over 300 properties were also acquired and purchased around the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple for the same. All of this was done to make Varanasi’s pilgrimage scene a little less taxing.