EVEN as the Smart City project and the Vizhinjam deep-water port project, the major items of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government's developmental agenda, are in the doldrums, it has come up with a new dream project: a high-speed rail corridor.
Well before the last Assembly elections, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), confident of an LDF win, had identified a few projects to be pursued when it comes to power.
Elamaram Kareem, whom party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan handpicked for the industry minister's post, was to see them though. They were mostly real estate projects. The rail corridor project was not among them.
Two weeks ago, while addressing the Thiruvananthapuram Management Association, Kareem unveiled the rail project, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. He said the north-south corridor would make it possible to cover the 550 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasergode in five hours.
He indicated that the state government plans to register a company to take up the project and that the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation will be associated with it. This means the project will be under his department's control.
There is clearly a need to speed up north-south movement in the state. With this end in view, the national highway running along the coast is being widened. This, however, may not mean an end to road bottlenecks.
In these circumstances, some experts have suggested the laying of additional railway lines to facilitate movement of local trains to meet the needs of commuters spread across the entire length of the state.
The Centre is working on a plan to connect the country's big cities through high-speed rail corridors. Kerala does not have a strong claim for a place in that network. A state initiative to set up a rail corridor, therefore, makes sense.
However, the state government does not appear to be on the right track. Neither the Industries Department nor the KSIDC has the capacity to implement a project of this kind.
A state-promoted company with private participation in its share capital has been seen as the solution to Kerala's problem of paucity of resources since the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), set up by the government when K. Karunakaran was the chief minister, constructed the Kochi airport at Nedumbassery.
Originally the government had set up a registered society to raise funds for the airport project. The society appealed to Keralites working abroad, who will benefit directly from the project, and various institutions for loans and donations. The response was poor.
The state government then incorporated a company and invited the members of the public and various institutions to buy its shares. It was able to mobilise enough funds to build the airport.
Although the CIAL is often cited as a model of public-private participation, the fact is that it was not an unqualified success.
As against the target of Rs2 billion, the company could raise only Rs 40 million through sale of shares. In spite of the shortfall, the project could be completed because of the support extended by several central undertakings.
The limitations of the CIAL model have been brought out by the inability of the company formed to set up the Vizhinjam container port to take the project forward.
Kareem has not revealed how he proposes to raise money for the rail project.
According to some published reports, he has already held talks with some Gulf-based businessmen and received offers of support. The promoters of an Islamic bank, which is to be set up in the state and function in keeping with the Sharia injunction against interest, have reportedly agreed to give a large interest-free loan.
The Konkan Railway Corporation Limited appears to offer a better model than the CIAL for the rail corridor project. Set up when George Fernandes was the railway minister, it is a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.
Hopefully, E. Sreedharan, who heads the Delhi Metro Rail, should be able to convince the state government about the merits of this model. Sreedharan, a former member of the Railway Board, was the chief architect of the Konkan Railway. The state government has been consulting him on the Kochi metro project.
If the rail corridor project materialises the proposed expressway will become redundant. However, the state government is trying to pursue it under a new name.
It must abandon the idea of a north-south road corridor and draw up plans to make it possible for people living in the interior to access the rail corridor easily. – Gulf Today, September 6, 2009.