In a big blow to the Edappadi Palaniswami-led AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court quashed land acquisition proceedings for the controversial Rs 10,000 crore Chennai-Salem expressway proposed last year. On Monday, a Bench of Justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan of the Madras High Court provided a point-by-point takedown of the claims made by the state government and the National Highways Authority of India which had pushed for the project, from early last year.
In a 117-page verdict, the court disagreed with the stand of the government to mutate revenue records and transfer government lands, even prior to the issuance of notification under the Land Acquisition Act. Accordingly, the court ordered the reversal of all mutated land records and communications issued to landowners within a period of two weeks.
The ‘Chennai-Salem Greenfield Corridor’, under the Bharatmala Pariyojana, was proposed by the state government with the aim to cut down travel time between Chennai and Salem. Its sudden proposal, and prompt approval by the central government in February last year had raised eyebrows. Soon, the 277.30 km highway became mired in controversy with farmers and residents in the villages along the highway protesting against the loss of their agricultural land.
Pointing out the flaw in the argument of the NHAI, the court said that the benefits of the project were illusory. “It is hard to believe that a small businessman in Vandavasi or Polur would stand benefited on account of this express way, where the traffic is zipping in speeds over 120 kms and to reach the small towns and villages, one has to travel several kilometres to take a spur and drive back to these small towns. Therefore, the projection made by NHAI, as to the benefits of the project highway appears to be illusory. The financial consequences were not analysed by the Consultant and the prejudice, which will be caused to the common man using any of the existing roads was never factored by the respondents." said the court.
‘Scrap the report’
Tearing into the pre-feasibility report prepared for the project which contained references to unconnected places like China and Bengaluru, the court pointed out that it was essentially a “cut and paste” job. “Presumably, the person who prepared the report had earlier prepared similar reports and some of the materials which according to him would have been “stock” materials which were “cut & pasted” from earlier report. Even if that had been done, before the Consultant/their authorized signatory affixes their seal and signature, utmost care should have been taken to ensure that the report contains details concerning the project.” said the court, unconvinced by the arguments of the NHAI.
Soon as the pre-feasibility report for the project was made public, social and environmental activists had pointed out that that standard procedures for appraisal and approval for projects this size may have been bypassed in favour of a hurried clearance. Scrapping the report, the court observed, “We may not agree with the contention of the learned counsel for the petitioner that the report is plagiarized, but what is evident is that there has been non-application of mind and presumably, the report was required to be prepared within a short period for reasons best known.”
With the project consultant's admission that Google Maps was relied on for preparing the report, the court said, "This will go to show that the entire length of the proposed alignment has not been physically verified or visited. Sample surveys are stated to have been conducted. It is not clear as to whether personnel were deputed for collecting the data of PCUs or the data available in the toll plazas were collated."
“In any event, given the distance to which the proposed highway is to be formed and considering the terrain in which it is proposed to be formed, consultant could not have made any justifiable study to reflect the true picture within less than 60 days.” the court added, opining that more thorough study was required.
As per the between the toll operator and the NHAI, if a new road affects the collection of tolls then the agreement is liable to be extended for a period up to 50% to 100% of its original period. "Therefore, the existing toll operators on the three toll roads will continue to collect toll far beyond their original period, which will ultimately affect the travelling public. The NHAI has stated that the road is an access control road to mean that the road is accessible only at designated spots which appears to be in four to six places between Chennai and Salem,” said the court.
‘Doesn’t matter if some farmers are okay’
While the furore over the Chennai Salem Expressway witnessed a number of protests, detention of journalists and arrests of activists, the government had maintained that some residents and farmers in the areas were willing to be a part of the project. Rejecting this contention, the court said that it was “not concerned with those people who are willing to run the risk and it is up to them to seek sane advice.” It said, “We are more concerned about the innocent people who are not aware of their rights, all that they know is that they will not be able to survive without their agricultural lands. The nature of attachment to the land is inseparable. Therefore, to understand the impact of the project vis-a-vis the object with which NHAI is said to have conceived the project, it is essential that the people who are likely to be affected, if not all, at least few of them should be heard in the matter.”