Silverline seems symptomatic of how Kerala -- its claimed education, awareness and all -- overlooks its real problems, notes Shyam G Menon.
Early April, 2022, the scene before the state Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram reminded of an old story with a full stop in yellow.
At the building's main entrance, often witness to political agitations, there was a clutch of women protesters and a posse of policewomen keeping an eye on them.
As my city bus came to a halt, I saw the larger line of protest groups.
Each group protesting on a distinct issue was separated from its neighbour by a small margin.
Yet speeches were made seemingly without risk of the audio overlapping.
It had all the potential to be a Babel's Tower, but miraculously, wasn't one.
The talk of the town was Silverline. There was a group campaigning against it before the Secretariat.
A strange project
Silverline is a big budget high-speed rail project promising to reduce the time taken to travel Kerala's length.
It has met with opposition at multiple levels.
Experts have questioned its technical aspects, the debt burden it will add to the state and the environmental impact the railway line will have.
At ground level, the survey and acquisition of land for the project has met with resistance.
Protests have been going on in almost every district, the line passes through.
Opposition parties and even organiSations linked to the ruling front have opposed the project.
But the state government appears determined to proceed with it.
Although the state enacted the script of listening to people's concerns, such moves appear subservient to the wish to press on with the project.
This dogged push for Silverline despite the protests, has been compared to the bullheadedness shown by the BJP led-central government in implementing some of its schemes.
It has been known for long that structurally and even in terms of behaviour, the political Left and the political Right are similar.
Both are cadre-based, both believe in a party-first policy and as an extension of that, sacrificing the individual for larger institutional constructs.
For example, Silverline is spoken of as 'development' of the state, a posturing that reminds of how the Centre markets 'nation building'.
Both the push back against protests and the new found affection for mega projects is a departure from the traditional style of functioning of Left governments.
Usually, they are the ones insistent on heeding public opinion.
Faster train travel to blur the Left-Right gap?
One line of reasoning, observers cite to explain this resolve is that for factors best known to the government, it wants a big-ticket project to portray investment and development. That too is a departure from tradition.
The Left has in the past done well with people centric, capital light schemes hosting strong community participation.
Think a bit more and one suspects, the new devotion to going big-ticket may be an act of cleansing by the Left to comprehensively rid itself of the reputation for militant labour and industry-unfriendliness carried over from its conduct in the 1970s and 1980s.
It is possible that the Left may be wanting an investor-friendly face to address an image deficit in how it is perceived given its cadre-based structural similarity to the Right without the Right's reputation for being business-friendly.
With a project like Silverline it also manufactures a legacy; there will be something left behind in the state for people to remember the government by.
What the Left fails to notice is that the damage caused in years past through hostility to industry has over time, groomed a mainstream deification of money, courtesy both the remittance economy and the Malayali's conclusion (in the absence of adequate employment opportunities) that money is the fulcrum of life.
Unlike organically grown healthy economies, in exchange rate-driven remittance economies the physical work that leads to earning happens out of sight; what is visible is the purchasing power of muscular currency.
Such economies also make measuring up to higher and higher levels of affordability, a fashion, an end in itself.
Add to it, the state's traditional politics of pushing for better wages.
You have a situation where money is boss.
In key aspects of life, this flavour is already felt in Kerala.
The state is not an easy place for those with low income.
If the above is noticed as one of the paradoxical effects of Left politics, Silverline with its promise of high cost-fast travel may be seen as attractive to some without appealing to all.
However, what fuels the cynicism of the observer is the nature of projects like Silverline and the juncture at which, the LDF wishes for people to embrace it.
Transport infrastructure projects are famous for enhancing real estate prices.
They also catalyse the emergence of built-up spaces which are the poster boys of 'development' as promoted in India these days.
Leave alone Kerala, big transport infrastructure projects anywhere in India, trigger this cynicism.
The timing of Silverline has also been bad.
Over the past few years, secure existence in Kerala has clearly become life in the gap between extreme weather phenomena.
People have died; lost their possessions.
Protection of environment, making sure flood waters drain out (environmentalists argue portions of Silverline will block such flow) -- all these have become critical.
Simply put, this is not the time for old school notions of 'development.'
If anything, the state needs to de-clutter with people encouraged to adopt lighter, healthier lifestyles.
It requires a change in mindset, a nudge away from meaningless, mutually competitive consumerism and materialistic view of life without stumbling into the Right-Wing temptation of salvation by religion, ritual and money.
Above all, it needs a bird's eye view of Kerala and what one wishes the state to be.
Amidst this, Silverline seems symptomatic of how Kerala -- its claimed education, awareness and all -- overlooks its real problems.
Listen to the people
Still, none of these angles affect the credibility of a project or the government behind it, as much as the state approaching debate and criticism with suspicion (the similarity to Right-Wing response is remarkable).
More than any other political formation, Kerala's Left should know that governments exist for the people.
Naturally therefore, if people have questions, they must be properly answered.
In 2022, as one beheld the Secretariat and the protest groups before it from a passing bus, one felt relieved that dialogue and protest were at least alive in Kerala.
Somewhere in between those well-organiSed groups protesting before the Secretariat were the small fry -- individual protesters, some of them camped on that footpath for months.
If one hung around long enough, these individual crusaders may be seen engaged in lengthy soliloquies over a megaphone despite hardly anyone paying attention.
Although Malayalis in their most fed-up moments are prone to advocating the autocratic, regimented, GDP-rich existence the country is so fond of these days; in general, they continue to sketch their picture of the ideal life around personal freedom, social justice, human rights and affordability.
April's line-up was overall modest for in the past there have been instances when the whole footpath connecting the Secretariat's two gates at Statue Junction, was awash in protest groups.
It was a fortnight before Vishu, the Malayali New Year. and therefore rather aptly, the last of the protest groups ended some distance ahead of a golden shower tree (cassia fistula) sporting the season's yellow blossoms.
Those headed for Statue Junction having got off, my bus moved on towards East Fort.
Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com