THE Kerala government's response to the railway budget, presented in the Lok Sabha last week, testifies to its wooden-headed approach to the state's transport problems.
Besides providing for speeding up work on doubling of tracks, construction of over bridges and electrification, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee offered Kerala eight new trains and two new railway lines.
No previous rail budget had offered the state as much. But the state minister handling railway matters, M. Vijayakumar, was not pleased. He criticised the Centre for not conceding the demand for a railway zone with headquarters in Kerala, which was high up in the state government's wish list.
The railway is an important factor in Keralites' lives. They use it to travel to distant places in search of jobs since the state lacks employment opportunities. A good proportion of people who work within the state also use the railway to reach places of work.
All of Banerjee's proposals are welcome from the people's point of view since they will ease the difficulties experienced by both local commuters and long-distance travellers.
The state government's justification for according high priority to the establishment of a zone is that the Railway Ministry allots funds on zone basis. It argues that more funds will become available for railway development in the state if there is a zone with headquarters here.
The argument is not well-founded. The Ministry of Railways does not create zones on state basis. If the Peninsular Railway, which the state government is batting for, materialises, it will include rail divisions falling in other states as well. These states will also, therefore, be entitled to a share in the funds allotted to that zone.
Kerala's transport problems have steadily deteriorated in the past few years because of the state government's unrealistic approach. It has failed to take note of the unique nature of the state's problems and bring to bear an integrated approach to solve them.
Unlike other states, where cities and villages stand apart, Kerala has been a rural urban continuum since long. In recent years, as a result of large-scale construction activity, areas lying on either side of the north-south arterial roads have acquired the character of a ribbon-like urban continuum.
This is a development with no parallel anywhere else in the country or even abroad. Nearly two-thirds of the state's population live in these areas. Their transport needs deserve the highest priority.
The emerging situation demands that the authorities look at Kerala as one organic unit and evolve an integrated approach, identifying and defining clearly the role of rail and road transport in meeting the state's needs. However, they are pursuing various schemes that have been in the pipeline since long in an unimaginative manner.
Schemes for widening of the coastal highway and the inland Main Central Road, taken up years ago, are running behind schedule.
By the time they are completed, the number of vehicles on the road will have risen so high as to render the expanded roads short of actual requirements.
For at least one decade, politicians and bureaucrats have been pushing hard a hill highway project, which environmentalists have opposed as it can disrupt the state's fragile ecology.
Last month, Public Works Minister Mons Joseph said the government had asked National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (Natpac) to work out the alignment of the hill highway.
The project was initiated by PJ Joseph as public works minister in the last Left Democratic Front government. He, too, had requisitioned Natpac's services to work out the alignment.
MK Muneer, who was Public Works Minister in the United Democratic Front, also pursued the project.
Already there are two arterial roads through the southern part of Kerala, where the maximum distance between the sea and the mountain is only 100 kilometres. Successive governments have been promoting the idea of a third road close to the hills without undertaking a study of its impact on the environment.
The Kochi metro rail project is another long-pending idea which merits review in the light of the rapid urbanisation along the coastal belt. When the track doubling and electrification programmes, which are now in the final stages are completed, the railways will be able to speed up commuter movement by running fast local trains in the northern and southern directions.
This will help disperse the population along two corridors and reduce the congestion which is already choking the city. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 6, 2009.