How the mango belt of TN is being lost to the proposed Salem-Chennai super highway

At a cost of Rs 10,000 crore, the corridor will shorten the travel distance between Salem and Chennai by merely 60 kms.
How the mango belt of TN is being lost to the proposed Salem-Chennai super highway
How the mango belt of TN is being lost to the proposed Salem-Chennai super highway
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A ride on the undulating road over the long chain of hills south of Salem city is a feast to the eyes. Lush shady mango farms stretch before us endlessly. But the pleasant ride isn’t a happy one for the people here, who were recently confronted with the disturbing news that ‘development’ is not going to leave this verdant patch undisturbed.

The proposed eight-lane, 900-feet-wide Green Field Super Highway between Chennai and Salem is going to be laid through the villages and farms that give Salem the sobriquet "the mango capital”. 

Designated as NH179A and NH179B, the corridor will measure 274.3 kms. Of this 250 kms will be along the Green Field and 24.3 kms will be aligned with the expanded existing highway. As per the project report submitted by the consultant, Feed Back Infrastructure Pvt Ltd, to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the corridor will run 59 kms in Kanchipuram district, 122 kms in Thiruvanamalai district, 2 kms in Krishnagiri district, 53 kms in Dharmpuri district and 38.3 kms in Salem district. The proposed Green Field alignment cuts through 22 kms of reserve forest, besides a good measure across human habitations and agricultural fields, in the above districts.

At a cost of Rs 10,000 crore, the corridor will shorten the travel distance between Salem and Chennai by merely 60 kms, although the government claims the travel time will be halved.

The NHAI wants to fast-track the project implementation and has requested the Tamil Nadu government to also fast-track the land acquisition process. A total of 2,300 hectares of land is required to be acquired in the four districts.

Legacy of the grand old mango trees

“That big tree you see over there is one of the oldest British-era mango trees and it comes in the way of the so called Green Corridor,” says farmer M Ilangovan of Varagambadi, ruefully pointing to his neighbour Sekar’s farm. “It is a tree that has seen four generations and is likely to be 150 years old. Even my grandfather has not told us exactly its age, but it was once owned by an English man,” he adds.

A lush shady mango grove that comes in the way of the proposed Green Field Corridor between Chennai and Salem.

Old mango trees branching out gregariously, with their tap roots descending six feet under and profusely spreading feeder roots, are a common sight in Vargambadi. With a crowning radius of 8 to 10 meters and growing above 60 feet, these long-lived trees produce a prolific yield of more than 1 ton.

“Their yield is equal to what the young trees of 40 to 50 years bear,” says Ilangovan’s father Murugesan. On each stem of their hundreds of branches, one can see bunches of 10 to 20 fruits hanging temptingly. Groves in Varagambadi, and the scores of villages nearby, are dotted with such grand old trees. Fruits shipped regularly from Varagambadi every summer once made their way to dining tables of the high and mighty in England, the sons of the soil say, taking pride in their history.

A century-old tree planted by the British stands till date, yielding over 1 ton of mangoes.

Rich soil, disappointed sons

Varagambadi is one of the many villages in Salem district known as the traditional mango belt of Salem, situated between the Jarugu Hills and Vethalaimalai (through which the Green Field Corridor would pass).

Understanding the unique soil chemistry, fertility and the hot tropical climate, Varagambadi and its neighbouring villages, and the erstwhile British and European residents of Salem, planted some rare varieties (the origins of the cultivators could not be traced easily). With the experiment being successful, mango groves proliferated in the region with Varagambadi and its nearby villages of Ayothipattinam and Valapadi blocks, becoming the prime mango belt.

Varagambadi’s Salem Gundu (Alphonso) and Nadusalai varieties have spread from farm to farm in the tropical belt of the composite Salem region (which include Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Senthamangalam in Namakkal) through grafts originating in Varagambadi. “Till date, researchers from horticulture centres across the country come here to study the Salem mangoes and the prolific yield from centuries-old trees,” says a government horticultural officer.

Kasi Raja, son of Arumgam Perumal, has just two of the original trees planted by the Englishmen left in his farm. “It was Foulkes Dorai (George Fredrick Fischer Foulkes, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly representing Salem) who owned this farm before it passed hands to my grandfather Perumal,” says Kasi. “Foulkes brought some rare-variety saplings and planted them here, my father used to say. Though high-density cultivation of new varieties has caught up over the decades, many farmers stopped felling the old trees that had grown too unwieldy. New techniques had to be learnt to conserve them. Thus, we retained our signature taste, size, colour and our loyal patrons. Every summer, people from other districts and states come directly to the farms to buy choicest fruits. Thus, even without selling online, we are able to circumvent the middlemen and command a premium price,” he says.

Farmer A.Kasi Raja poses before his century old mango tree in Varagambadi

“If you want to test an authentic Varagambadi Gundu or Nadusalai, cut a slice and you will not find the liquid dripping from the fruit. The fleshy fruits are that dense. Apart from the unique taste (appreciated as heavenly by writers), and its appealing reddish yellow colour, what sets it apart is its high nutritive value compared to fruits grown in other areas in Salem,” says Kasi Raja.

Even as he goes on with the proud legacy, his voice suddenly dips and words of despair proceed. “This may be the last summer for our visitors to enjoy mango tourism. Our efforts and sacrifice seem to go futile. This big road they are taking about is going destroy this greenery. Sleeping under the shade of these trees is as heavenly as the taste of the mangoes. At the age of fifty, what will I do for a living if a major part of this 8-acre farm is taken over? Our entire family is worried” says Kasi.

Fear and anger

Ilangovan and Murugesan are also yet to reconcile to the reality of giving up the big trees in their farms, which they say figure in the survey numbers proposed for acquisition. Would it make any sense to resist giving up the land for the Green Field road project, they ask.

“What is the point in creating a Green Field road after wiping out the greenery?” asks Ilangovan’s wife, sounding shrill.

The issue is yet to take a political colour in this core mango belt. But farmers have started to raise their voice elsewhere. At Nilavarapatti, farmers disrupted the May 1st Grama Sabha proceedings. At Kuppanoor, the All India Kisan Maha Sabha is mobilising a farmer’s movement against the project. “We have hardly recovered from the worst drought last year, and this project is now coming as a final blow,” say farmer Kesavan.

Government unfazed

Meanwhile, the project is no more in the realm of political decision-making or administrative sanction process. The District Revenue Officer (DRO), who is the Competent Authority for Land Acquisition (CALA) in Salem, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts has been appointed and the officer is yet to take charge. The Salem DRO R Sukumaran, who is officiating as an interim arrangement, has begun preliminary work. The NHAI has circulated the tentative alignment of the road, villages and the tentative survey numbers on WhatsApp to farmers. The survey numbers fall in two villages in Yercaud taluk, seven villages in Valapadi and 13 in Salem taluk. In the Salem section, the lands proposed to be taken over are spread over South Sheveroy, Jarugu Hills and Manjvadi Pass.

Image: PTI. (Representative image)

Heritage mango belt areas like Skandhashram, Valadi Manthope, Pothukuttai, Erumapalayam, Panankadu, Thenmalai, Udayapatti,  Varagambadi, Vellallakuntam, Vilampatti, K.Pallapatti, Kuppanur, Achangukuttapatti  and other villages with prime mango groves, figure in the land takeover plan. Apart from the mango farming belt, reserve forest and small holdings of downtrodden communities and tribes are being eyed. Surveyors have started to make field markings on the lands proposed to be taken over, giving farmers jitters.

Asked about the justification for the drastic land use pattern change, DRO R Sukumaran says that civilisation once thrived around rivers and now it is gravitating near highways. Saying he would be receptive to any compensation claims if made individually by the affected persons, he makes it clear that ‘mobocracy’ and ‘politicisation’ will not be entertained. “Good compensation can be worked out for trees and land depending on present condition, usage and market value. Buildings and facilities will be compensated fairly. Capacity building with skill training for alternate employment will be carried out so that affected farmers may switch to alternate source of livelihood,” he says.

Mining lobby behind it, alleges activist

However, the issue is feeding hot debates on the social media. Questions like development for whom, did people of Salem ask for such a road, will the benefits trickle down to the classes or the masses, are being asked.  An environmental group, which is rallying support for the farmers, is of the view that the project is not for Tamil Nadu or Salem, but for the corporate mining lobby which is vying for Salem's iron ore deposits in Kanjamalai. “The hidden corporate interest behind the Green Field road is thus inferred,” says A Chandramohan, State Convenor, All India Peoples Forum.

The Green Field alignment starts from Neikarapatti, a village in the foothills of Kanjamalmai, and runs all the way to the Ennore port off Chennai. Early British prospectors had abandoned mining operations after initial attempts, as the Salem iron ore was inferior. Although, the current level of mining technology is less labour-intensive and the mineral deposits will last for a few years. So, why destroy permanent resources for the fleeting lucre, ask environmentalists.

As the debate rages, Kasi Raja calls back with another forgotten part about Salem’s mango belt history. He says that a long time ago, Varagambadi and the neighbouring villages were dens of bootleggers. The area was barren and dry, with no means of livelihood. It was only after the British introduced mango farming, die-hard illicit arrack makers became avid horticulturalists, growing trees in their small holdings. “Will not the conditions that forced people into criminality a few generations back return?” he questions.

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