Farmers, environmentalists up in arms against Tamil Nadu highway project

Chennai: A Rs10,000 crore project under the union government’s Bharatmala Pariyojana— a highway development programme, is facing a severe backlash from farmers and environmentalists in Tamil Nadu.

The 900-feet-wide green field express highway with an eight-lane between Chennai and Salem— that already has three existing routes—would cover 277.3 kilometres.

In October, the Centre approved the Phase-1 of the Bharatmala project considered as one of India’s biggest highway development plan which would “improve the efficiency of freight movements in India”.

By 2022, a total of Rs5.35 trillion would be invested to construct 34,800km of roads, including the 10,000km of balance road works under National Highways Development Project (NHDP)—a scheme launched in 1998 by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and replaced by Bharatmala.

According to a detailed project report submitted by Feedback Infra Pvt. Ltd., which is providing consultancy services to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the proposed road will reduce the travel time between Chennai and Salem and “is expected to generate development around the abutting towns connected through proposed spurs from the green field highway.”

However, the NHAI is yet to release the environment impact assessment study or feasibility report.

While the project boasts to bridge the infrastructure gaps, critical questions are raised on the impact over thousands of acres of agricultural lands, hundreds of villages and reserved forests.

The report points that a total of 2,791 hectares of land will be acquired from five districts— Kanchipuram, Thiruvanamalai, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Salem. Of which, a maximum of 1,229 hectares would be acquired from Thiruvanamalai district.

Whereas, environmentalists estimate that the loss could be much higher.

The green field highway would also cut through eight reserved forests— Siruvanjur, Nambedu, Alialamangalam, Anandavadi, Ravandavadi, Manjavadi ghat & Pallipatti extension, Jarugumalai and Sorakolathur.

“How can they construct a ‘green field’ highway destroying all the forests and our agricultural fields,” asked Kanaka, a farmer from Dharmapuri district.

While the report submitted to the NHAI highlights that the exact length of “affected forest area shall be calculated after joint inspection with forest department during detailed designing,” chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami on Monday said in the assembly that “only 49 hectares of forest land will be acquired.”

The CM also said that only 1,900 hectares of land has to be acquired for the new green field expressway as compared to the 2,400 hectares that would be required for widening the existing roads.

But, the report states: “The total land to be acquired is 2,791 hectare, consists of agricultural land, community land under corporation, panchayats, various structures of public interest, residential structures and residential plots, public utilities and others.”

The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have also raised concerns over the highway.

Vowing that the project connecting his native district Salem would benefit the common man, and has more advantages than expanding the existing routes, Palaniswami said that the distance will reduce by around 68km and the time taken would come down to three hours.

As per the report, currently the average travel time between two districts is 5 hours 45 minutes and with the improvements to the existing route it can be reduced. It also adds that green field alignment would lead to higher land acquisition.

“The forest land acquisition is very difficult and a lingering process that is required for proposed green field highway. The proposed highway with closed toll policy system is difficult to access for a common man. With the complete access control, connectivity to the smaller villages and town are not possible,” it says.

There will be a total of eight toll plazas in the 277.3km stretch as it passes through 159 villages.

Terming it as a disastrous plan that will affect farm lands, wildlife and the hydrology of the region, Salem based environmentalist Piyush Manush said that people have been “demanding other infrastructure schemes, but the government decided to provide them with something else.”

“People want the completion of unfinished roads, bypass and flyovers. But, nothing has happened,” he said.

The Narendra Modi-led government has been highlighting that Sagarmala and Bharatmala programs would enable infrastructure development and will make road travel easier, across the country .

It has to be noted that the fisherfolk have been protesting against the Marine Coastal Regulation Zone (MCRZ) and the Sagarmala national perspective plan that would lead to the construction of new ports and cargo terminals at an estimated cost of over Rs8.4 trillion.livemint