What is the tussle about?
With the BJP-led Central government taking up the Bharatmala (road and highways) project as the top priority, the Chennai-Salem Greenfield Highway has picked up pace rather rapidly, for a project of its size and scope. Land acquisition for the construction of the fully access-controlled highway for 277 km has begun amid widespread protests along the corridor. The opposition to the Green Corridor comes at a time when people in Tamil Nadu have found power in protests, and massive demonstrations have come to define the State in the last two years.
Why the anger?
Immediately after the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, often referred to as the Iron Lady by her partymen as she had complete control over the party and the government, the State saw massive protests for Jallikattu. Vehement protests, including opposition to the Neutrino Observatory, the violent protests against the Sterlite smelter that led to police firing in Thoothukudi in May, the continuing protests over hydrocarbon mining in the Cauvery delta region, and the Cauvery water sharing dispute, among others, have made the headlines. In all these cases, activists have been alleging that the governments, at the Centre and in the State, have not followed rules — conducting public hearings or revealing pollution data. The list of charges is long and the activists continue their fight.
How big is the project?
Protests erupted over the Chennai-Salem Greenfield Highway nearly a month ago. It gathered steam as officials went out to the fields and farms with their measuring tapes to survey the lands to be acquired. The project, sanctioned by the Union Ministry for ₹10,000 crore, will span 277.3 km across eight lanes. The corridor will cut travel time between Chennai and Salem by half, bringing it down to three hours.
It will begin at Ariyanur in Salem and end at Vandalur, near Chennai, passing through the districts of Salem (36.3 km), Dharmapuri (56 km), Krishnagiri (2 km), Tiruvannamalai (123.9 km) and Kancheepuram (59.1 km). The land required will be 1,900 hectares, of which farmland comprises 16% and dryland 66%. The government owns only 18% of the land.
Will there be losses?
People will lose land, homes and farms in six districts, and will be compensated. In the case of the greenfield highway, the opposition is essentially to the acquisition of land that for many farmers is their only source of livelihood. The highway will be cutting through some of the districts that have not really seen development in decades, and people are sceptical of the government’s argument that it will usher in growth in the long term. As the protests intensified, the police made several preventive arrests.
The initial reports indicated that the government was using force to quell the protests and get the farmers, who were threatening to self-immolate, to accept compensation. But the government has forsaken the stick and taken to the “carrot” policy for now. The Collectors are unveiling compensation packages that the State is calling “fantastic” in courts. There is apprehension among people in Salem and Tiruvannamalai that the road could lead to extensive mining in the hills of Eastern Ghats. A decade ago, a massive protest stopped mining in Tiruvannamalai. This could become a source of unrest in future as spur roads connect the two hills chosen for bauxite mining in the past, officials say. There are 10 reserve forests along the route and clearances are mandatory. The fragility of the Eastern Ghats has to be taken into account.
The protesters show no signs of giving up. Environment Impact Assessment reports, including a social impact assessment, will have to be done; and officials said public hearing would be conducted. Clearance for forestland is also required. It is a two-tier process, and requires stringent norms to be fulfilled. The State has a tough task ahead, primarily to instil faith in the protesters that it is pro-people.