Open letter to Kerala CM: Silver line, no silver lining

K Rail Silverline

Dear Shri Pinarayi Vijayan Ji,

A few years ago, I attended a wedding somewhere between Thiruvalla and Changanassery. Soon after the reception, an elderly person approached me. After some initial pleasantries, he asked me where my car was parked. I told him that I came by bus. The moment I said this, he disappeared from there.

I have two explanations for his strange behaviour. He might have thought that I was a useless fellow, who did not have a car. Or, he might have expected a lift when I told him that I was from Kayamkulam.

Recently, one of my relatives organised a gala marriage reception at Ranni. An unusually large number of people, including the former and present MLA of Ranni were present. The reception continued late into the evening. Such a reception was unthinkable a few decades ago when people were eager to catch the last bus to reach home.

I can bet that everyone who attended the wedding reception had his own private vehicle, either a car or a two-wheeler. My father was a private bus operator. I was happy to see our buses full. Even now, when I see a bus, I automatically check whether it has enough passengers.

I will share one anecdote with you before I come to the subject. V.I. Idicula, who was popularly known as Vayala Idicula, was the MLA of Ranni. Once, my father took him to Thiruvananthapuram to meet the Transport Minister. They went by KSRTC bus.

My father was fond of telling us that when the minister saw Vayala Idicula, he stood up, left the table and walked towards the visitor to receive him.

Now, can you imagine a panchayat president, let alone an MLA, travelling by bus? Yes, there was a time when C. Achutha Menon, as party secretary, travelled by bus.

You would have noticed that the number of private buses in Kerala has considerably decreased. You know better than me that the number of KSRTC buses is no longer what it was three-four decades ago. It was a pleasure to travel in its fast passenger, express and deluxe buses.

Yet, buses have few passengers, except in the morning and the evening when they are filled with students and teachers. I can bet that most private bus operators will stop their business in a few years’ time.

I am personally for public transport. I believe that the development of a country should be measured in terms of how dependent the people are on public transport.

The UDF candidate, who contested against your candidate Kadakampally Surendran at Kazhakkuttam, told me once that in Brussels buses were more dependable than private cars and taxis. Traffic jams did not affect the buses as they had dedicated lanes, which no car would dare to encroach upon.

Kerala’s progress can be compared to that of the US. It does not have a proper public transport system. Only a few cities like New York, Washington, and Chicago have metros. Our metros are far better than theirs.

The lack of a public transport system does not affect the local people, as everyone in the US has a car. Kerala is comparable to the US in this respect.

There used to be a shuttle train service between Kayamkulam and Kottayam. It was a very dependable service. The fare was much lower than the KSRTC fare. Yet, the train did not have enough passengers to fill the seats. I understand that the BJP government has cancelled the train. The point to be noted is that people had moved away from public transport to private transport.

You know much better about Kochi Metro than me. Can you challenge when I claim that a majority of the metro users there are tourists and not regular commuters? Can you dispute the fact that it is running in heavy loss?

Delhi has the largest Metro network in the country. It is very dependable but do you know that the trains are not running in their full capacity except for a few hours in the morning and in the evening?

I worked with an NGO for some time. I found that many of my colleagues travelled by bus, not metro. I checked and found that the metro fares were beyond their capacity. As a result, Delhi Metro is running at a huge loss.

I want to tell you specifically about the Airport Metro line. It belonged to the Anil Ambani group. It had state-of-the-art metro trains.

When it was introduced, claims were made that international passengers could check-in at the New Delhi railway station itself. Similar facility existed at the Frankfurt railway station. The fare was reasonable, not very high. Yet, there were no takers for the airport line.

After a few months, the fare had to be reduced considerably. Yet, there were no passengers. I felt really sad when I travelled in empty compartments. Finally, the line was amalgamated with the Delhi Metro network with a common fare structure. It was claimed that domestic and international air passengers would find the line attractive.

I live close to a metro station in Delhi. If my wife and I have to go to Trivandrum by air, I will have to take a taxi to reach the metro station. Though the distance is walkable, we will not be able to carry the luggage.

At the metro station, I will have to carry the luggage to the elevated platform to board the train. Two stations away from our station, we will have to change the line to reach the airport line. Again, we will have to carry the luggage.

It is more convenient and economical to hire a taxi to go straight to the airport. This is not my case alone. This is true about a large majority of the air travellers. They don’t use the metro service.

If you have any doubt, please ask any of your officers or MPs or MLAs, whether they ever took the Metro train to reach Kerala House from the Delhi airport. I know Kerala House has a fleet of cars to pick up and drop them.

Now let us take the case of the Silver Line that you are determined to start at any cost. Here, let me add, I have no axe to grind in this case. My purpose is only to alert you about the pitfalls of the project.

I visited the website of K-Rail and was amused by the bombastic claims made about the advantages of the project. One that amused me the most is that the trains will have mobile phone charging stations.

They should have announced that the compartments would be provided with charging stations, though they are not necessary as the train would reach the destination in no time.

Speed is of the essence in the Silver Line. Is speed that necessary? Kerala has an ageing population. With fast-paced migration of young people to foreign countries like Canada and Australia and the rest of the country, the population is bound to get older and older.

Do you think that such a population would be influenced by speed? By the way, why do people have to go to Thiruvananthapuram from Kasaragod in these days of the Internet? Why can’t the government make all services available online so that journeys can be avoided?

Speed will come with a price. As I pointed out, lower middle class people in Delhi find the Metro expensive and unaffordable. They commute by bus. Many of them also use bicycles. People in Kerala are equally conscious of the fare system.

To be economical, Silver Line will have to charge a hefty fare. Let’s see how the Bullet Train will succeed when it starts operation between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. It will also fail like the Airport line in Delhi. Business is in the blood of Gujaratis, unlike  Malayalis.

They will not pay airfare-like train fare when they can easily fly between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Alternatively, they can also use their BMWs and Mercs to cover the distance.

I would like you to ask your party MLAs, how many of them have used the railways to travel in Kerala ever since they became legislators. I know they will give so many excuses to justify why they find a car more comfortable.

Yes, we need to promote public transport. I have seen a picture of Pope Francis carrying a bag and boarding a bus in Rome. Fortunately, Kerala has a dependable railway system which, if necessary, can be expanded. All that is required is to lay an additional line. This will serve the long-term needs of the state.

According to your own plans, work on Silver Line should have started two years ago. Do you honestly believe that you will be able to complete the project?

Here, I am reminded of the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, the third international airport built by Sri Lanka at Mattala. It is an ultra-modern, green airport. It was inaugurated in 2013. Initially, some airlines operated from there. But when they found that there were no passengers, they stopped their services.

Now the Sri Lankan government wants them to park their aircraft there. It was declared the world’s largest empty airport. The money for building the airport came from China. One reason why Sri Lanka cannot buy paper to conduct school and college examinations is because of the debt trap in which it finds itself. Rice costs only Rs 480 per kilogram.

Silver Line envisages erection of walls on both sides of the line like the hideous Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlins. When you travel between Kozhencherry and Ranni, you will find elevated aqueducts and canals which were built at enormous cost for irrigation purposes. Are they not white elephants? Someone would have, of course, made money. Do you know that they pass through land which their owners had to compulsorily part with?

The Left Front government in West Bengal made a foolish decision. It promised to provide a large chunk of agricultural land to the Tatas to build a factory at Nandigram. They needed only 150 acres of land to build the factory but they demanded 1,000 acres. The poor Marxists fell for it.

The government foolishly took the responsibility of acquiring land and providing it to the Tatas. Naturally enough, people protested. The Tatas were not willing to pay even a penny to the farmers. What was the projection? Thousands of Bengalis would get jobs and the Nano would become the world’s most popular car.

While the government was needlessly fighting the people, the Tatas were secretly negotiating with Narendra Modi, who offered them land at a cheaper cost. Overnight, the Tatas shifted their factory to Gujarat.

I visited Nandigram after the Tatas had fled the scene. It was shocking to see agricultural land flattened with concrete. Nano was a huge flop. The Left Front lost the election and it signalled the end of Marxist rule in West Bengal.

Sorry to say, something similar is happening in Kerala. There is an English saying that only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. The government system is so corrupt that only those who have influence or pay bribes will get compensation for the land the government acquires for the Silver Line.

I read your statement that you will not pay money for the 10 or 20-metre buffer zone. This will turn most people against you. Public opinion is very easy to sway. Shakespeare proved this in his play Julius Caesar.

When Brutus spoke at Caesar’s funeral, he appealed to the people’s logic and Antony spoke to their emotions. The result was the same — people were influenced. It is possible that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may support your project but don’t be influenced by it. When you are discredited, he will be nowhere to be seen. It was Modi who finished the CPM in West Bengal by welcoming the Tatas to Gujarat!

What I would suggest to you is to hold talks with your own people and see whether they see a project that will divide the state into two and which will benefit the speed-crazy is worthy of the investment required. I have purposely not touched on the foolish assumptions made by Silver Line while portraying a rosy picture of the project.

When a political leader is in doubt, it is to the people that he should turn. If the toddy-tapper in Kasargod, the fish worker in Kozhikode, the weaver in Ponnani, the blacksmith in Trichur, the cook in Kochi, the farmer in Kottayam, the carpenter in Kollam and the teacher in Thiruvananthapuram feel that Silver Line is in the interest of the state, please go ahead. Otherwise, drop it like a hot potato!

[email protected]

Originally published in Indian Currents

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