Encroachments
“Acquiring lands from farmers is far cheaper than acquiring land along developed roads as they are likely to be more developed,” said a project manager to TNM.
PTI - Image for representational purpose

With the farmers of Tamil Nadu coming to terms and mobilising themselves to protest against the proposed eight-lane highway between Salem and Chennai, sources within the state and central Highways Department say there are at least eight more such greenfield projects in the pipeline for Tamil Nadu.

“Each of these eight projects will have the same social and environmental impacts as the Salem-Chennai expressway,” said an engineer with the state Highways Department, who did not want to be quoted.

These projects will come under the Centre’s Bharatmala Pariyojana scheme under which Tamil Nadu will get 570kms of new roads. Funds for these projects, along with others across the country, amounting to Rs 43,000 crore were awarded in February. “The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu met with several Union ministers, including Nitin Gadkari on February 23. These nine projects, including the Chennai-Salem, were approved during this meeting,” said the engineer.

“I don’t know why there is so much attention and protests only for this one project. All nine are greenfield projects and will face similar social and environmental impacts,” he added.

Projects in the pipeline

The nine projects are: Chennai – Salem Expressway, Karur – Coimbatore, Melur – Thirupathur – Pudukottai – Thanjavur, Kumbakonam – Sirkazhi, Mahabalipuram – Pondicherry, Spur Road from Oddanchatram to Kamalapuram (Dindigul – Oddanchatram – Pollachi Stretch), Madurai – Dhanushkodi (4 Lane from Paramakudi – Ramnad and 2 lane with paved shoulder from Ramnad to Dhanushkodi) including additional bridge at Pamban, Chennai – Chittoor Road (Partly Green Field Corridor) and Hosur Ring Road (part of Bengaluru Satellite Tolled Ring Road). The alignments of these projects were presented to the ministers in February and have got an in-principal approval.

For Chennai-Chittoor route and Madurai - Danushkodi route, NHAI officials are now conducting preliminary surveys. “The detailed project report is now being prepared. It is too premature to say how much land would be required to acquire. The greenfield project is most likely to have only four-lanes, but this depends on our traffic studies and forecasts,” said G Athipathi, the manager for the project implementation unit in Chennai. “Once this is done, we will float the tender for road construction next year,” he added.

The project director for the Madurai-Danushkodi said only part of the route will be greenfield. “Only the stretch between Mandapam and Rameswaram will be completely new. Rest, we are only widening the road,” said S Bhaskaran. “We do not expect any opposition to this. The detailed project report will be completed in a month,” he added. The new road proposal will also include a new bridge parallel to the iconic Pamban bridge - which provides road connectivity from Ramanathapuram to the island of Rameswaram. “Both the bridges will be open for traffic,” said Bhaskaran.

The position of chief general manager remains vacant. With mounting number of projects, the responsibility of a CGM was split between two regional officers - one in Chennai and one in Madurai. The regional officer for Chennai, Pawan Kumar, who handles six of the nine projects and RO in Madurai were not available to comment, despite several attempts.

Other projects are under varying stages - including the preparation of detailed feasibility report, detailed project reports, and in some cases land acquisition has begun. “Though it is not part of the nine projects that were approved in February, land acquisition for the new Chennai-Bengaluru expressway has been going on for the last eight years. It is also a greenfield project,” said the engineer. Like the current expressway, the new will also be access-controlled and much shorter in distance. “While some projects might seem unnecessary now as there is no traffic, the vehicular growth is only set to increase. By the time these projects are completed, the vehicle population would have increased,” he added, defending the project.

One more such project is the ambitious Chennai peripheral road project which is being implemented by the state government. The 133km long road will skirt the Chennai traffic to connect Mahabalipuram in Kanchipuram district and Ennore port in Tiruvallur district. The road aims to decongest the industrial corridor in the city’s northern suburbs. “The city’s Inner Ring Road is already congested. The relatively new Outer Ring Road is now not congested. But with development along its corridor and increase in vehicle population, it would get congested very soon,” an engineer with the state highways told TNM. The government expects the traffic growth in these corridors to be between 13% and 19% over the next ten years, with multi-axle trucks using the stretch on a daily basis by 2027, reported TOI. “Therefore it is imperative to begin the land acquisition and construction of the Chennai Peripheral Road before that happens,” he added. The project is estimated to coast Rs 12,301 crores and has got the approval of the central government.

Piyush Manush, an activist leading the protests in Tamil Nadu, said he has not seen such an anti-establishment sentiment against any government. “The public sentiment is loaded against the current government,” he said. “The amount of land that is required just for this project is staggering. Any more land acquisition is only going to make it worse for EPS and his government,” he added.

The stretch between Melur and Thanjavur will be 131.8kms long - about 20kms shorter than the existing route, a NHAI engineer said.  The total cost is estimated to be Rs 1,919 crores for the proposed 4-lane road. While Melur to Thirupattur will be completely greenfield, the rest of the stretch will see existing roads widened. “About 60m width of land along the greenfield stretch need to be acquired. We are currently estimating the exact extent of land that needs to be acquired,” said the engineer.

‘Acquiring lands from farmers cheaper’

Another engineer from NHAI defended greenfield projects as they were cheaper than ‘brownfield’ projects. “Acquiring lands from farmers is far cheaper than acquiring land along developed roads as they are likely to be more developed,” said DV Narayana, Deputy General Manager for Krishnagiri project implementation unit. “It is also easier to implement better road safety features in a new road. The geometrics of older roads are not conducive for better road safety,” he added. He is now studying the feasibility of upgrading the state highway to a national highway on Hosur-Dharmapuri route.

However, activists and those opposing the project do not think acquiring farm lands will be as the engineer makes it out to be.

 “The central government and our Chief Minister seem to believe that development only means concrete, and not greenery or the livelihoods of farmers. We are not aware of the new projects. But we will be ready for a fight when they are announced,” said chief coordinator of a farmer’s union that is opposing the proposed eight-lane expressway between Chennai and Salem.

Meanwhile, farmers, who are opposing the Chennai-Salem Expressway project continue to be arrested by the state government. “I have no idea what plans the government has. I was in Chennai, and when I went back to my village near Vandavasi, I saw that my land was marked, using stones. My neighbours told me that a few government officials did this,” said a R Ramachandran, who owns farm land in Thiruvannamalai. He alleges that he has no idea who to approach for information or clarity on what’s happening. “I keep hearing that we will get four times the market price as compensation. I don’t even if this is true or when I would get the money. I tried approaching revenue officials but they did not even hear me. They just pushed me away,” he added.

Following agitations, sixty-three farmers were let off on a conditional bail after being detained on July 6. The land requirement for the Chennai-Salem Expressway has been revised, reducing from 2,700ha to 1,900ha.

“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,” said Pawan Kumar to The Hindu.

The use of police force worsened with several reporters covering the issue being detained, eliciting a response from the Madras high court. On Thursday, the court condemned the excessive use of force by the police. The court also came down on the government for not having awareness campaigns before the process of land acquisition began.

These nine projects are part of the Centre’s ambitious, 11-lakh crore project which includes increasing the number of national corridors from 6 to 50. “With this,  70 – 80 percent of freight will move along NH as against the 40 percent at present. The programme will help to connect 550 Districts in the country through NH linkages. Currently, only around 300 Districts have NH linkages,” said a press release from the Ministry of road transport and highways.

The press release also added that a total of around 24,800 kms are being considered in Phase I of Bharatmala. “In addition, Bharatmala Pariyojana phase –I also includes 10,000 kms of balance road works under NHDP, taking the total to 34,800 kms at an estimated cost of Rs.5,35,000 crore. Bharatmala Phase I – is to be implemented over a five years period of i.e. 2017-18 to 2021-22,” it added.