Contrary to many media reports, the court did not issue an interim stay on the project, but only on land acquisition.

Chennai-Salem 8-lane highway Madras HC directs govt not to dispossess landowners
news Salem Chennai Highway Tuesday, August 21, 2018 - 20:35

Months after the proposed Chennai-Salem expressway created a furore in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court has issued a crucial clarification regarding land acquisition for the project.

On Tuesday, a Bench comprising Justices TS Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbarayan directed the state and central governments —  who are the respondents to several petitions filed on the issue — to not dispossess landowners of their property.

“..the respondents are directed not to dispossess the respective landowners from the land in question, which they propose to acquire until further orders in these writ petitions,” the Court said.

Contrary to many media reports, the court did not issue an interim stay on the project.

Taking cognizance of media reports of farmers’ fears, the Court also ordered that the local public "be sensitized and counselled by the officials of the State Government that there is no threat of dispossession."

The Advocate-General stated that pamphlets had been distributed to explain the project to people. The Court retorted: "Thus, on reading of the pamphlets stated to have been issued by the District Collector, Kancheepuram, we find that there is absolutely no whisper about the assurance given by the officials to the landowners that they will not be forcibly dispossessed from their respective lands."

Speaking to TNM, one of the petitioners, G Sundar Rajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal said, “We pointed out that there is a Land Acquisition Act. Any land acquired by the government for any project has to be done only through that Act. However, for the 8-lane highway, they (the state government) have said that they will acquire land through the National Highways Act. So, we argued that an exemption cannot be given for highways projects."

The state government seeks to utilise the new provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, which allows land acquisition for National Highways projects under the National Highways Act. Activists fear that this would mean a public hearing -- as mandated by the Land Acquisition Act -- will not take place. However, earlier, Salem Collector Rohini Bhajibhakare announced that farmers would be compensated on the basis of the Land Acquisition Act.

"Farmers can’t transfer their legal holdings. They(the authorities) can still do their EIA(Environmental Impact Assessment), etc. This is a good step for farmers who have been disturbed," Sundar Rajan added.

The proposed 277.30 km-long highway was to connect Chennai and Salem district has seen protests by farmers, environmental activists and political parties in the state, who have slammed the government for not consulting the people whose agricultural lands and livelihoods are at stake.

The project requires a grand total of 2,791 hectares to be acquired, which includes agricultural land, community land, and residential plots. According to the pre-feasibility report submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the residents would be ‘adequately compensated’ according to the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act, 2013.

Opposition to the project led to the arrests of several activists and farmers.

On July 6, the Madras High Court refused to grant an interim stay on land acquisition for the project while hearing a petition filed by Krishnamoorthy, a landowner from Dharmapuri. The petitioner had claimed that district revenue authorities were undertaking land acquisition activities without assessing the environmental impact, and said that it was against the rules.

The Court also asked why the Tamil Nadu government was acting in haste to acquire land.

Speaking to TNM earlier, farmers along the proposed expressway had alleged harassment by district authorities.