The spectre of displacement always looms over those residing by the highway. At Chorode, a few gave up fight and ended life.

M.T. Leela and her two aunts live between an expansionist highway and a railway track in Chorode near Vadakara. The three aged women and their crumbling house quiver every time a heavy vehicle or a train flash by. Leela’s husband T.V. Lakshmanan committed suicide a year ago. He was 72. His barber shop and 11 cents of his plot by the roadside were acquired 15 years ago for widening National Highway-17 to 30 metres.

The family was paid Rs.9,000 for a cent as per the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The family believed the officials when they said they would never return.

But in 2008, they were back. This time, the highway would be widened further by 45 metres through a BOT (build, operate, and transfer) process. Acquisition for the new four-lane highway would claim the rest of Lakshmanan’s six cents and part of his house. There was no word about prior compensation or rehabilitation for the affected people.

Height of despair

For Lakshmanan and his family, there was no place to go. Without his shop, there was no income. Lakshmanan could not withstand the second blow. He lost hope. “Towards the end, my husband would sit in a corner and clutch his head and cry. He used to say ‘They will never leave us alone and we cannot do anything about it’,” Leela said in short gasps as tears overwhelm her.

So one afternoon, after apologising to Leela in a short note, Lakshmanan took his life by jumping into a well near his house.

In Chorode, local people portray Lakshmanan’s story as that of a diminutive man crushed by the stampede of development. For many, with no compensation or rehabilitation in sight, the highway expansion is a dead end to their lives.

For compensation

In 1998-99, acquisition was completed for the 30-metre expansion of the NH-17. But local people joined hands to fight for better compensation.

“In 2005, the Kerala High Court upheld a lower court’s decision to increase compensation by another Rs.7,000. A majority of the affected people did not want to leave the area. They bought plots and constructed houses further in. In 2008, the NHAI came knocking a second time. The same people were again affected. This time, they would lose all,” A.T. Mahesh, convenor, NH-17 Janakeeya Karma Samithi, said.

A Right to Information reply from the NHAI’s Project Implementation Unit shows the total land to be acquired in Kozhikode is 133.22 hectares. The “affected structures”, as the response terms it, are 825 residential houses, 934 commercial buildings, 7 schools and 31 religious places of worship. On July 21, 2012, the local people drew up a compensation and rehabilitation package in consultation with the district administration and sent it to the State government.

Public demand

“Our conditions were that displaced people should be paid market value of land acquired; prior declaration of compensation and rehabilitation package; and Income Tax concession – evictees had to pay 10 per cent tax from the compensation they received for the 30-metre NH widening in 1998-99,” Ramesh Babu, a resident of Chorode, said. Till date, there is no response on the package.

The silence, they believe, is because the National Highways Act 1956 is exempted under the new Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013.

“So, the Centre will continue to pay us pittance under the 1894 Act for the land acquired, while the State has no money to help us,” Mr. Mahesh said.

Police reaction

Public anger boiled over in Vadakara and protesters were subject to police action early in February near Moorad bridge. “People who protested were mostly senior citizens and women. What threat did they pose for the police to initiate action against them?” Abbas M.T., a representative of the Nandi-Chengottukavu By-pass Action Committee, said.

Near Leela’s house, on the opposite side of the NH-17, resides the family of Cheeluparambath Surendran. Local people say Surendran and his family were given just a week’s time to leave their home for the 30-metre expansion of NH-17.

The family moved to his sister’s house. Left without a home and no compensation in near sight, Surendran, a painter, decided to take the final step in 1999.

“He took his life in the very house from which they evicted him. They did not allow him to live there, so he went there to die,” Radha, his sister, said.

More In: Kozhikode