K-Rail is challenging Kerala’s much-touted decentralization strategy

In an already-fractured economy, the state must prioritize higher-quality education, job creation opportunities, and environmental protection.

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KOCHI (Metro Rail News): The K-Rail project has been a hotly discussed topic in Kerala. K-Rail is a proposed government-funded high-speed rail line that would connect Kasaragod in the north with Thiruvananthapuram in the south. K-Rail offers a top speed of 200 km/h and claims to cover a distance of 529.45 km in less than four hours, compared to the Indian Railways’ present time of 10-12 hours.

The Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) is rushing to complete this project, and the Chief Minister has taken a firm stance in support of it. However, this speed comes at a cost: more than 10,000 families are expected to be displaced, and 1,198 hectares of the 1,383 hectares that must be acquired will be private land.

Silver Line Alignment

The state government’s obstinacy has raised many eyebrows on a regional and national level, prompting the question: Does Kerala need a K-Rail? Kerala is a highly urbanized and mixed-growth ecosystem with a larger metropolitan. The state could bridge the divide between rural and urban systems because of the remittance economy and migration from the interiors.

The service sector accounts for 70% of Kerala’s gross domestic product (GDP). In effect, this reduced the demand for frequent mass transit and restricted mass employment in densely populated areas. In Kerala, even the definition of urbanization has been changed to include the countryside and villages.

The average daily number of passengers travelling by train between the state’s major cities (Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Thrissur, and Kozhikode) and some of the state’s minor cities/towns is estimated to be 38,935 people (Mukundan, 2020). Though these figures do not provide a complete picture, they can be used to estimate current connectivity needs.

The typical trip length in Kerala is a short distance. Because of Kerala’s political economy, talented and qualified people are looking for work in neighbouring states. According to the proposed K-Rail proposals, those who commute by speed rail will have to change modes of transportation (to train, bus, or private vehicles) to finish their route. Many of the proposed stations are not located in city or town centres.

Given the time it takes to change modes of transportation, the expense of travel, first/last mile connectivity difficulties, and the discomfort it creates, it’s improbable that many people would choose K-Rail above other options to save an hour or two. Therefore, another issue that needs to be investigated is the viability and future of Kerala’s existing Indian Railway network.

Those in favour of the project argue that it will make Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, more accessible. In the past, it has been noticed that most people visit the state capital to see the secretariat, the Technopark, the Regional Cancer Centre, and other medical facilities.  Instead of the other way around, the government should go where the people are. Why should patients be required to go to Thiruvananthapuram for access to excellent medical facilities when the goal should be to support and improve medical facilities on a local level?

The same logic applies to the concentration on employees who commute to Technopark daily. Daily commuter numbers will not be justifiable for the capital investment and displacement the project causes, with the option of remote working here to stay in some form, paired with digital improvements in the years ahead.

If travel to the capital city is used as an example to assess the demand for a high-speed rail, the other district headquarters have even less to offer, thus complicating the case for K-Rail. Given that Kerala’s population is almost evenly distributed between urban and rural areas, and since alternative modes of transportation are already widely used, attracting commuters from the interior to the limited number of stations would be difficult for K-Rail (11). This is one of the lessons Kochi Metro has learned throughout the years.

Kerala has India’s highest road density. Kerala’s population is ageing, and it will account for 20% or more of the old population in another decade. Kerala will face a new set of issues in the future years due to the rising flight of the younger population from the state in recent years.

In an already-fractured economy, the state must prioritize higher-quality education, job creation opportunities, and environmental protection. Regrettably, the proposed K-Rail fails to meet any of these criteria. Instead, it goes against Kerala’s tradition of decentralization while encouraging involuntary movements through inducement.

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