Over the past few weeks, the proposed Chennai-Salem expressway has caused a furore against the government in Tamil Nadu. With farmers and residents in the villages along the highway protesting against the loss of their agricultural land, the opposition in the state has cautioned against a Thoothukudi-like incident where 13 civilians were killed during the anti-Sterlite protests in the district.
What is the proposed project?
According to the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI) Terms of Reference, the project is titled ‘Chennai-Salem Greenfield Corridor’ under the Bharatmala Pariyojana, a centrally-sponsored and funded road and highways project. It is a 277.30 km highway that involves the development of the Tambaram to Harur Section of NH-179B, Harur to Salem Section of NH-179A, Chengalpattu to Kancheepuram Section of NH-132B, Semmampadi to Chetpet Section of NH-179D and Polur to Tiruvannamalai Section of NH-38.
According to the Pre-detailed Project Report or pre-feasibility report, the corridor will be a 6/8 lane access-controlled road that passes through the districts of Chennai, Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, and Salem.
What is the purpose of the project?
According to the pre-feasibility report submitted by the NHAI, “The idea of constructing a high-speed facility like a fully access-controlled greenfield highway has originated from the primary necessity to eliminate the bottlenecks and limitations that exist in the present corridors to reduce the travel time between Chennai–Salem. It has been felt that substantial reduction of travel time between these two districts would not only fetch direct benefits to the users due to less vehicle operating cost, passenger time saving and other intangible benefits as well.”
Additionally, the report also states, “The connectivity provided through interchanges with residential, commercial and industrial hub would also fetch direct and indirect benefits. The project is expected to generate development around the abutting towns connected through proposed spurs from the greenfield highway. Number of openings and employment opportunities to the local people and for the local and national contractors as well, which would satisfy the Federal Govt agenda of employment opportunities. There would be short and long-term tangible and intangible benefits by this project.”
Whom does it benefit?
According to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, the project is for the people and development. The Chief Minister has stated in Assembly that the Tamil Nadu government had fought for this project and that, contrary to rumours, only 41 acres of forest land would be acquired. He also added that of the 1,900 hectares of land being acquired, 400 hectares belong to the government. He assured that the project would take the form of a tunnel when it passes through forest areas.
“Every person in the districts where this road passes can use this road. We are not laying roads for any private party in particular. The project is for everyone and the government is firm on completing it,” he said.
Why is there opposition to it?
Environmental activists, farmers and political parties in the state have expressed fears over the project, slamming the government for not consulting the people whose agricultural lands and livelihoods are at stake.
According to the pre-feasibility report, stretches of the project pass through 11 reserved forests in the main alignment i.e. Chennai- Salem and one in Thiruvannamalai Spur. These include Siruvanjur, Nambedu, Alialamangalam, Anandavadi, Ravandavadi, Manjavadi ghat and Pallipatti extension, Jarugumalai and Sorakolathur.
The project requires a grand total of 2791 hectares to be acquired which includes agricultural land, community land, and residential plots. It also states that the residents would be ‘adequately compensated’ according to the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act, 2013.
While the report acknowledges that the loss of income would be permanent “unless provided with compensation and/ or training facilities for new trades”, the LARR Act “covers only legal titleholders and provides for (i) market value of the land; (ii) additional amount for trees, crops, houses or other immovable property; (iii) damage due to severing of land, residence, place of business.”
While the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has claimed that the project ‘reduces traffic time from 6 hours to 3 hours’, residents disagree, especially since three routes already exist between the two districts.
Acknowledging this, the report states, “Since roads are already present, there is no structure affecting and land acquisition, unlike the proposed greenfield highway. All the existing routes are either no access/partial access controlled, the connectivity is much higher to the villages/town along its path. Although the average travel time for these routes from Chennai to Salem is 5 hours 45 minutes, with the improvements to the existing it can be reduced. There is no forest land acquisition, which is a very difficult and lingering process required for proposed greenfield highway. Proposed highway with closed toll policy system is difficult to access for a common man.”