Roadblocks to an expressway

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

The ambitious Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor Project is ensnared in controversy.

THE Rs.2,000-crore Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor Project (BMICP) has been in the pipeline for over a dozen years now and has received strong support from three Chief Ministers of Karnataka, each belonging to a different political party. But it is yet to take off. And if some sections of the farming community, environmentalists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights groups have their way, it never will.

In the perception of these groups, the controversial private sector project is a solution looking for a problem. They want it to be scrapped because it involves the acquisition of 20,193 acres (8,077 hectares) of land (of which 15,733 acres, or 6,293.2 ha is in private hands) and the displacement of about two lakh people and is, according to them, unnecessary and financially unviable. They claim that the State governments was in the guise of development unjustifiably pushing the project, though there are a number of cheaper and more effective alternatives.

The project involves the construction of a four-lane (expandable to six), 111-km concrete expressway that will connect Bangalore, the State capital, with Mysore, the State's cultural capital. It is expected to cut driving time between the two cities from the present four hours to 90 minutes. At the Bangalore end, a 41-km peripheral road will connect the expressway to National Highway 4 (Bangalore-Pune) and NH-7 (Bangalore-Hosur). A 9.1-km link road will connect Bangalore city centre to the expressway. A limited-access expressway, it will have a continuous barrier on either side. The development of five self-sustainable townships has also been planned as other components of the BMICP. Each township would accommodate a population of approximately 100,000 and would have one of the following themes - corporate, commercial, heritage, industrial and eco-tourism. In addition, the project includes the building of a dedicated 400-mega watt power generating station and its own telecommunication and tertiary sewage treatment facilities. The project would be provided with 2,000 million cubic feet of water from the Cauvery. While the expressway component of the project (including link roads and peripheral roads) requires 6,999 acres of land, the townships will come up on 13,194 acres of land.

Of the land that is to be acquired for the project, 4,460 acres belongs to the State government, which has been leased to a consortium that has been awarded the contract to build the project, at the rate of Rs.10 an acre for a period of 30 years. The government would acquire the rest of the land at market rates and hand it over to the consortium. The consortium would compensate the government.

Chief Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda, J.H. Patel and S.M. Krishna, the present incumbent, have taken the consistent position that the project was essential for economic growth and tourism development in Karnataka. It would, according to them, help Bangalore and provide a fillip to industrial growth. The three have also claimed that the BMICP would in no way affect the environment and promised that people who would lose land or homes will be adequately compensated by means of rehabilitation packages.

The government has also felt that there is the need for a new road because the existing roads between Bangalore and Mysore - State Highway (SH) 17 via Maddur and Mandya and SH 86 via Malavalli and Kanakapura - cannot be upgraded to expressway standards, given their twists and turns, the trees on either side of them, and ribbon development.

The organisations opposed to the project, such as the Karnataka Vimochana Ranga (KVR), the Mysore Grahakara Parishat (MGP), the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) and the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), question the need for such an expressway. They claim that the project would turn out to be a real estate scam that would eat up large tracts of fertile agricultural land without offering a comprehensive rehabilitation package for the affected people. These organisations have been working at the grassroots, exploring options available to protect the rights of the 200,000 peasants, most of whom, they claim, are likely to be displaced.

Land acquisition is always a touchy problem. It is made worse in the BMICP's case by the fact that a considerable length of the project cuts through fertile wet agricultural lands in Mysore and Mandya districts, the latter being the "rice bowl" of the State. Although the protests have not deterred governments under three Chief Ministers, the consortium has found it difficult to achieve financial closure and obtain necessary clearances to get the project going.

THE genesis of the project goes back to the 1980s when the State Government, under pressure to ease traffic on the busy SH 17, approached the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The bank ruled out the conversion of SH 17 into an expressway because of ribbon development along the road. A few years later the State Public Works Department (PWD) suggested building of a four-lane highway that would run parallel to SH 17. But when tenders were called for, there was just one bidder - Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises Limited (NICE). NICE demanded that there be no other approach routes to the proposed highway until it realised its costs. Although its demand was considered, the project made no headway.

Meanwhile, a 1993 ADB report that discussed the privatisation of highways in general, and specifically the financial feasibility of the Bangalore-Mysore sector, stated that the traffic projection on the road did not warrant the construction of an expressway. According to international standards, a traffic flow of less than 28,000 passenger car units (PCUs) a day does not justify the construction of an expressway. Currently the traffic flow on the Bangalore-Mysore stretch is approximately 8,000 PCUs. The ADB report suggested that the railway line be doubled and the existing road widened.

It was during this time that the government toyed with the idea of developing satellite towns close to Bangalore, which would help decongest the fast-growing city. When this idea proved largely a failure, a corridor between Bangalore and Mysore became a natural corollary to the plan since at least five large towns are located on the 139-km stretch between the two cities. In addition, Mysore, a favourite with tourists, has a climate that can match Bangalore's and has a charm of its own.

Meanwhile, the Kalyani group, the main promoter in NICE, had carried out its own feasibility study. Its report to the government explained the need for and benefits of the expressway. The report was accepted. NICE and the Government of Karnataka signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in February 1995. In April that year a project report was compiled. This included plans for the townships and a barricaded, tolled, linked-access highway.

In October 1998, the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board (KIADB) awarded the project under build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) terms to NICE. The two also concluded a land acquisition agreement, under which NICE would begin acquiring the land it required for the project. Acquisition is not being done under the Karnataka Land Acquisition Act, but under the KIADB Act in order to help speed up the acquisition process and permit a change in land-use pattern after acquisition. The government amended the KIADB Act so as to allow a private company to acquire land.

The MoU envisages a construction period of 10 years and provides that thereafter NICE can operate the expressway for 30 years with the right to collect toll. Today, two years after the final agreement was inked, no land has been acquired (though the proceedings have started) and the project looks like going nowhere. The government is yet to specify the rate or rates at which land owners will be compensated.

THE main complaint against the project is that a large number of people (192,890 in 143 villages, according to the executive summary prepared by NICE) will be displaced by it. But Ashok Kheny, managing director, NICE, does not agree that many people will be displaced. Kheny explained to Frontline that the figure represented the entire population that lived within 5 km on either side of the proposed corridor and not the number of people who would have to be resettled. "As per the study conducted by Metallurgical and Engineering Consultants Limited (MECON) among the project-affected people in order to draw the final resettlement and rehabilitation plan, only 647 families will be ousted for the construction of the expressway, and a further 673 families for the construction of the townships. Of these, the latter can remain in the townships if they like, with all the improved facilities," he said.

The argument, say critics of the project, is flawed because while only 647 families may actually be uprooted, a lot many will be inconvenienced since their fields/villages/towns would be bisected by a 90-metre, limited-access concrete road. Major General Sudhir G. Vombatkere retired, a member of the MGP, explained: "A person whose land will be partly taken may have the expressway dividing and barricading his land. The concrete walls on either side of the road will prevent farmers from crossing. NICE says tunnels for crossing will be built at 500-metre intervals. But while this system works in the West where farmers can afford tractors to take them around their land, here farmers will have to walk across their land to find a tunnel to cross the road and get back to their own land. Essentially, owners lose their right of way."

Vombatkere pointed out that even the mandatory environment impact assessment (EIA) carried out by MECON was flawed. Neither was there adequate data about the people likely to be affected by the project, their families and occupations, nor was there any mention of a comprehensive rehabilitation programme. As per the report, 90 per cent of the area consists of kharab (waste) land. There is hardly any wasteland between Bangalore and Mysore. Government records are outdated, and the land which is defined as kharab is now cultivated with paddy, sugarcane, mango or coconut.

Even if the government is able to convince the farmers to give up their lands, it will solve only part of the problem since hardly around 20 per cent of those who are going to be displaced are land owners the rest are tenant farmers and farmhands. A good percentage of them have for decades been cultivating kharab government lands. Now they could find themselves being denied any rights and thrown out. This, in spite of the fact that they have over the years even begun the process of getting their rights over the land regularised. The government would naturally not acknowledge their claims; it has left it to NICE to sort out the mess. Kheny claimed that he would offer them a compensation package. If they are given inadequate rehabilitation packages, they may migrate to Bangalore to eke out a living, thereby defeating one of the primary purposes of the corridor.

Another problem is that only the head of a family will be compensated. What would happen to the rest of the family, most of whom live off the land? Critics claim that farmers would be evicted even if the project was shelved after the land was acquired as their land would have been alienated from them. Hence people in the project-affected area are being advised to "hang on" to their lands. But the question is, do they all want to? Frontline's investigation indicates that many farmers, especially those close to Bangalore, are prepared to hand over their land if the price is right. But if the price is high, the project may not be financially viable.

Said H. Nagaraj, a farmer of Heggadagere village in Ramanagaram taluk of Bangalore Rural district: "When the government acquired land (at nearby Bidadi) for the Toyota factory, it was compensated at Rs.1.5 lakhs an acre. There the land was undeveloped, here it is good land with ragi, coconut and even rice being grown. If the government offers a good rate, at least Rs.5 lakhs, we are prepared to give our land." Nagaraj asks what small farmers like him can do before the might of the government. "There will be difficulties once the project comes up; crossing cattle will be difficult and we will lose our traditional land," he said.

Said N. Devaraj, another farmer from the village: "Agriculture today is not profitable. The road will be good for us." But he is also aware that any compensation could soon end up being wasted away as has already happened to a number of farmers who received compensation in the Toyota acquisition process.

But the majority of farmers at the other end of the expressway, especially in Srirangapatnam taluk, are against giving away their land. It is understandable since the land is part of the fertile Cauvery basin and agriculture is still a profitable occupation there. Said M. Ramakrishna Gowda, a member of the BMICP Verodhi Ookute and the owner of two acres of farm land in Arekere village: "Our land is our life. We can't take up any other profession. So far we have been employing farmhands; once our land goes, we will become beggars. Let them kill us, but we won't give our land. And neither will we allow them to take the gomtala land (government land that has been traditionally used for grazing) since if that goes where will our cattle graze?"

His is not a lone voice. Puttaswamy Gowda another farmer from Arekere, said: "We are against giving up our lands. The Karnataka government has a bad record of compensating those losing land. And since farmers are giving up their land for not only the expressway but also the townships, why can't we be partners in the new townships?" Most farmers stressed that there was lack of transparency, with no revenue official bothering to provide information such as the extent of land or even the location of the land that is to be acquired from a particular village.

Both NICE and the government have not done themselves much good by stonewalling requests for documents pertaining to the project, which have been stamped confidential. Documents such as the EIA report and the rehabilitation and resettlement package have been kept away from the public; they are not presented even at the farcical public debates. At a public hearing last July in Bangalore, activists were beaten by the police. The National Human Rights Commission has decided to probe the matter and has asked the Police Commissioner of Bangalore to send a report on the incident.

Said Kheny: "We do not want BMICP documents to fall into the hands of people who might use them for unlawful gains. People could obtain power of attorney from these farmers and then gain profits from the sale of lands." Kheny added that documents required by law were made public and also kept at the Pollution Control Board office. "We provided all the documents to the Supreme Court and the High Court. But if people want us to translate 20,000 pages of documents into Kannada and distribute copies to all the affected people, it is impossible."

Not only has lack of information made opponents of the project cagey about it, but the amount of land that is being sought is under scrutiny. Explained Vombatkere: "For a 110-km long, a 90-metre-wide road, the land requirement is 2,500 acres. Even if the 60-metre-wide, 9-km link road, 75-metre-wide, 41-km peripheral road, and the total of 17 interchanges each of 50 acres are added, the land to be used will amount to only 4,326 acres. Why does NICE want 7,000 acres for the expressway? It is thus clear that the land in excess of requirement is being acquired for making real estate profits to offset the certain losses from the expressway." Added H.V. Vasu of KVR: "We are in no doubt that this project has more to do with real estate than highways."

But Kheny defended the decision. "We will execute the expressway first and then consider development of real estate in the townships. In case we do not execute the expressway, the government will hold us in default and take over the land without giving any compensation." As of now NICE will initially be undertaking the first phase of the project, which will mean the construction of the expressway up to Bidadi.

Curiously, NICE has obtained environmental clearance for only the actual expressway component of the project, and not even for the link and peripheral roads or the townships. But, according to Kheny, NICE is not required under the law to get environmental clearance for the townships.

As far as the resettlement and rehabilitation packages for displaced persons are concerned, NICE has been instructed by the government to follow World Bank guidelines. Kheny told Frontline that it would use the "Consent Award" method of compensation. The World Bank report defines this method of compensation, thus: "Consent Award is the amount the Project-Affected Persons (PAP) negotiate with the project authorities, for the loss incurred, on a willing buyer-seller basis." Kheny said that once the amount was agreed upon, a PAP could not go to court for enhancement of the amount. The amount was negotiated between the Government of Karnataka and the owner of the land/structure on a mutually agreed price without preconditions. Given that most of the people who will be affected are poor and illiterate, it will be a minor miracle if they can negotiate a just price.

DESPITE the protests, the government is keen on the project. According to Public Works Minister, Dharam Singh, the government did not want to interfere and make changes in the project. He negated the suggestion that the Karnataka State Road Development Corporation could undertake the project, as its Maharashtra counterpart implemented the Mumbai-Pune Expressway Project.

Chief Minister Krishna told Frontline that the protests were "a natural reaction from landowners and others" and that the law would take its own course. Krishna said that the "quantum of acquisition" would be more or less the same, whether the government or the private sector built the expressway.

There are already three communication corridors between Mysore and Bangalore - SH 17, which is being upgraded to International Road Congress standards with a six-lane highway up to Maddur and a two-lane one between Maddur and Mysore; SH 86 which has been upgraded to be part of NH 209 and NH 212; and the broad gauge railway line, which is being electrified from Bangalore. The most important question asked is whether an expressway is required at all in the sector. According to an independent study carried out by the National Institute of Advanced Studies at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, it will take eight to 10 years to complete the expressway while doubling and electrifying the existing railway line would take only four or five years. (Sources in the Indian Railways said the doubling of the track and electrification could be done in just two years.)

The rail project would cost Rs.500 crores, one-fourth of the cost of the expressway project. The extent of land to be acquired for the rail project is negligible. And also, the rail project will not displace anyone. According to experts, a rail project will be seven times as fuel-efficient as and earn more foreign exchange than the proposed expressway.

The rail project also has other in-built advantages such as less travel time and a high route capacity. The Railways can operate services every 15 or 20 minutes, right into the heart of the two cities, and nearly 4,000 people could travel each way in an hour. According to railway officials, electrification of the double track and upgrading of signalling and traffic control could cut travel time between Bangalore and Mysore to less than 90 minutes. Critics of the BMICP also claim that a railway system is more "socially just, as second class travel would be possible". With the Railways already sanctioning the double line between Bangalore and Ramanagaram, the Karnataka government could continue the trend and double the line up to Mysore, they say.

The heightened social and economic dimensions that the BMICP could throw up, coupled with the growing opposition, could delay the project. Any delay will affect the financial viability of the venture, and this is very much on Kheny's mind as he scouts for financial backers. The government continues to help NICE, even bending the rules (as in the case of the amendment to the KIADB Act). Neither NICE nor the government has transgressed the law. But then, as Vombatkere pointed out, the law may not always serve the cause of natural justice.

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