Opposition to the eight-lane Salem-Chennai green corridor has seen the State government come down hard on protesters. While the administration, after rolling out a compensatory package, claims that only a section of landowners is actually protesting and that it is ready to address all grievances, tensions on the ground continue to mount by the day.
The tension in the air is palpable when one steps into any of the villages in Salem district, where a survey for acquiring land for the Salem-Chennai green corridor is on.
Black flags flutter in the air, symbolising the resistance to the acquisition. Angry farmers are adamant that they will not allow decades of toil to come to
The defiance, coming soon after Thoothukudi erupted over the Sterlite Copper plant, is another thorn in Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami’s side, especially since Salem is his home district, and at stake are two Central government-funded projects — the green corridor and the expansion of Salem airport. Land acquisition for both projects has run into stiff resistance.
The Union Ministry for Road Transport and Highways has sanctioned the eight-lane expressway at a cost of ₹10,000 crore. The Kamalapuram airport, on the outskirts of Salem, is to be expanded by acquiring 570 acres of land.
The 277.3-km eight-lane expressway, which will begin inAriyanur in Salem and end in Vandalur, near Chennai, will pass through the districts of Salem (36.3 km), Dharmapuri (56 km), Krishnagiri (two km), Tiruvannamalai (123.9 km) and Kancheepuram (59.1 km). When the expressway is opened to traffic, the travel time between Salem and Chennai will be reduced to three hours. It takes six hours now, through three existing circuitous routes.
What started as a minor protest by farmers has turned into a full-blown movement, with the arrest of farmers, activists and political cadre. Initially limited to landowners, the protest is now seeing the involvement of political leaders, as well. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Communist Party of India have announced protests. Human rights activists are planning a fact-finding mission on alleged police excesses against landowners and protesters.
While farmers argue that the 37-km stretch from Ariyanur to Manjuwadi Pass on the Dharmapuri district border — a lush belt of coconut and arecanut farms, paddy and horticulture fields — will be adversely impacted once the project gets under way, the State government’s view is that a small group of farmers is being instigated by social activists and Opposition parties.
In picturesque Irulapatty village in Dharmapuri district, Chandra Kumar, an organic farmer and Siddha practitioner, stands to lose three acres, his Siddha shed, as well as his house. The proposed highway will cut through the middle of his land, leaving 1,000 areca trees on one side and a well on the other. Once the access-controlled highway is built, Chandra Kumar wonders how he will bring water to his farm from the other side. Farmers have already been told that no two-wheelers, carts or livestock will be allowed on the highway. Even before explaining the salient features of the project and announcing the compensation package for acquired land, the Salem district administration published the notification announcing its intention to take over about 1,400 survey numbers along the given stretch, which included private, patta, government poromboke and forest lands.
A large number of people complain that the police are camping at the villages. The official machinery seems to have adopted a zero-tolerance approach towards those critical of the eight-lane project, a few villagers say, accusing the police of threatening people who question the need for the project.
K. Balakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said it was an “emergency-like” situation at the villages along the project route. Cases have been registered against those who organised meetings of farmers to coordinate the struggle and those who led the protests against the survey. Some people have been arrested.
M.K. Selvaraj, district secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, affiliated to the CPI, said the deployment of the police was meant to intimidate people. “This is undemocratic and will prove counter-productive,” he said, and demanded that the government give it up.
The government’s response has been in the form of an assertion by the Chief Minister that the expressway will bring development to the State.
Prominent among those arrested for speaking against the project are actor Mansoor Ali Khan, environmental activist Piyush Manush and student activist M. Valarmathi. The police have also registered a case against Seeman, founder of the Naam Tamizhar Katchi.
S. Balaramam, deputy president, Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, Tiruvannamalai district, said, “It is not as though the farmers will lose only their agricultural lands. These will be acquired along with their homes. A number of villages will be wiped out, and access to many others will be cut off.”
Mr. Balaraman and district president of the association T.K. Venkatesan were picked up by the police on June 20 for organising a meeting of farmers. All of Wednesday, Chandra Kumar and his family members stood guard over his four-acre plot. When the surveyors came on Thursday, an alert Mr. Kumar drove them away. When they returned two hours later, he and a few neighbouring farmers poured kerosene over themselves and threatened self-immolation.
‘All is well’
Meanwhile, the administration in Salem claimed that a majority of the people were ready to cooperate. Salem Collector Rohini R. Bhajibhakare said on Friday, “Only a minuscule percentage of farmers is opposing the project that has otherwise elicited overwhelming support.” The government machinery is prepared to redress all grievances of aggrieved farmers, she said, and added that about 90% of patta holders extended full cooperation for the land survey. Only 10% had approached the higher authorities for enhanced compensation, she claimed.
Batting for the project, Ms. Bhajibhakare said it would go a long way in accelerating economic and industrial growth in the entire western belt of the State. She appealed to the people to extend cooperation for implementing the project, and said it would bring more benefits to all sections of society. The Collector said the enhanced infrastructure would attract more investments to the region and also improve employment opportunities. “Only a few houses and other structures will be affected by the project. However, the owners will be getting very good compensation,” she said.
Kancheepuram Collector P. Ponnaiah said, “We did receive petitions objecting to the land acquisition, but such petitions ended up being requests for fair and reasonable compensation.”
There is widespread apprehension that the expressway is meant to benefit a few corporate mining majors who want to tap the iron ore reserves in Salem (Kanjamalai) and Tiruvannamalai (Kalvarayan hills) districts. The argument that seeks to lend credence to this apprehension is that at some places between Ayodhiyapattinam and Achankuttapatti, the proposed road runs parallel to the existing highway, which is only about 50 m away. Trade and industry, however, welcomed the project. K. Mariappan, president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Salem chapter, said the district was all set to get a defence hub and the expressway would be of help.
Intent to acquire
The process of acquiring land for the proposed 277.3-km-long Chennai-Salem highway is under way, with the issue of a notification under Section 3A of the National Highways Act, 1956. This means the government has made its intention clear.
But while the consultant had submitted the draft feasibility report to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the details of the project were still being worked out and a detailed project report had to be prepared next, said NHAI officials. “The Ministry of Environment and Forests has approved our terms of reference. We have to submit a compliance report. We will be holding public consultations explaining the project to the public,” Pawan Kumar, Regional Officer, NHAI, said.
After several revisions, the land requirement for the project has been brought down to 1,900 ha from 2700 ha. “Also, a ministry guideline allowed us to reduce the width of the road from 110 m to 70 m since we would have less than 40,000 passenger car units of traffic. In forest areas, which run to a length of total 10 km, the width is further reduced to 50 m,” Mr. Kumar said.
“If we are to expand the popular route via Ulundurpet, around 40,000 structures would have to be removed. The greenfield project does minimal harm to structures. In fact, in Salem district, a two-km long tunnel is being constructed to avoid the Jarugumalai forest and urban settlements,” he pointed out.
Forest land clearance
A total of 50 ha of forest land is required for the project. As the corridor will run through reserved forests in at least three districts, the project has to be cleared under the Forest Conservation Act. At present, only survey and data collection is being allowed. “Every inch of diversion of forest land has to be approved,” said a senior officer.
In Salem district, the project will require about 3.5 acres of land in two reserved forests. In Tiruvannamalai, it will pass through five reserved forests and the initial estimate is that it may need over five acres of forest land. In both districts, there are no major wild animals; minor carnivores like wild dogs, jackals and foxes are abundant, said officials. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests has stipulated that there should not be any cutting of trees during the survey, sources said.