After copper plant, why Tamil Nadu’s protest is over a highway

The News

  • The proposed Tamil Nadu-Salem highway, a Greenfield highway between Chennai and Salem has run into opposition.


About the highway project

  • With eight lanes and a length of 277 km, the proposed Tamil Nadu-Salem highway will pass through Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri, a mostly agrarian region with a few industrial zones.
  • 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.
  • Its estimated cost is Rs 9,106 crore, with a tentative Rs 415 crore for rehabilitation and resettlement.
  • This is part of the central government’s scheme to develop national corridors to improve freight movements under the ‘BharatmalaPariyojana.
  • It will pass through five reserve forests (Nambedu Reserve, Aliamangalam, Anandavadi, Ravandavadi and Chengam reserves).



Need of the highway

  • There are three existing but circuitous road routes but two of these routes carry high traffic, leading to abnormal delays, and hence a highway directly linking the two cities was proposed.
  • The new route is supposed to reduce the distance from Chennai to Salem to 274 kms, cutting down travel time by three hours and distance by 60 kms.
  • A feasibility report also suggested that the project is expected to generate development and employment in the towns along the route.
  • A Green Express Way Corridor between Salem and Chennai cities will substantially along with reduction in distance would also save fuel.
  • Considering the traffic and distance reduction potential and importance of Salem city, the Centre approved the project.


Opposition of the Chennai-Salem highway project

  • This is the latest in a series of protests against major projects in Tamil Nadu, including the Kudankulam nuclear plant and the Tuticorin copper smelter plant.
  • A major portion of the corridor would run through and thereby destroy forest areas and agricultural land.
  • Dozens of farmers’ organisations allege that they were not consulted, fear that the highway will affect productive rice farms in Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai, and are upset about the compensation offered.
  • These are regions that do three crops a year.
  • Destroying these most fertile lands for constructing a highway could be detrimental for the environment and food security of the country.
  • The project will affect the livelihood of over one lakh people.
  • As a compensation, the government is offering a maximum Rs 8 lakh per acre in Tiruvannamalai when the market rate is over Rs 30 lakh; in Kancheepuram, the market rate goes up to Rs 1 crore per acre.
  • Hence, the farmers are protesting by removing installed survey stones and have planned to hoist black flags on their houses and lands.



Challenges ahead

  • The feasibility report of the project says public consultations were done.
  • It claims that the government informed people about details of the project, and invited their suggestions prior to finalizing the engineering design.
  • The consultations were carried out with both individuals and groups during the screening survey involving local people, health workers and administrators.
  • Hence, the government is dealing with the protestors by using force, and police have been arresting protest leaders.
  • However, opposition has warned they will launch strong protests if the government tries to implement projects using police and force.
  • Allegations of corruption in the allotment of tender for the project havealso come in the light.


Way forward

  • Rather than dealing with force with the protestors, it may be worthwhile to engage with substantive issues raised by them.
  • Traffic management as an alternative solution should also be considered as an important part while dealing with such issues and approving highway or road widening projects.
  • The project may lead to food shortages is an alarmist view, hence there must be compensation to the farmers in the form of similar fertile land.
  • Various mandatory benefits other than lump sum cash payments, including employment guarantees, annuities, company shares, land-for-land, and share of appreciated land value after resale, and replacement of lost homestead can be provided to the affected population.
  • The Resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) package should be provided to those who “[do] not own any land” but whose “primary source of livelihood stands affected”, taking into account the role of prices and market responses.
  • There should be investment in the local economy to raise general living standards and opportunities, instead of trying too hard to provide targeted entitlements to specific groups.
  • These measures might include MNREGA style employment guarantee programmes, infrastructure creation, and job retraining.
  • There should be efforts for skill training of farmers and they must be encouraged for their own employment ventures.
  • Creating awareness of the benefits of the project is the key and the administration must make effective efforts towards this.
  • For the sake of credibility of delivery, these programmes and efforts should be in place before the acquisition process gets under way, instead of being dangled as empty promises for the future.

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