Chennai-Salem Expressway

Road and ruin

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Unnamalai Ammal, 70, of Adimalaipudur village in Salem district has emerged as an icon of sorts for her protests against the Chennai-Salem expressway project. She and her family stand to lose some two hectares of land. Here, she is seen arguing with revenue officials who came to lay marker stones in Manjavadikanavai village in Salem district. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Marker stones being laid for the expressway project in Sukkampatti village in Salem district. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

Anxious residents of Punjaikadu village in Salem district watching their land being surveyed for the project. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

The family of Kuppan of Thurappadi hamlet near Iraiyur village in Chengam block of Tiruvannamalai district in front of their recently built concrete house that is now threatened by the project. He gave several petitions to the Collector on his unwillingness to part with his land but to no avail. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

Marker stone hammered into the ground at Manalmedu in Kancheepuram district. One-fourth of the land in the village will be lost to the road. Residents hoisted black flags atop their houses and in their fields when officials came for a preliminary survey in June. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

At Achankuttapatti in Salem district on June 19 when the police dispersed people who had gathered in opposition to the project. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Revenue officials laying markers for the expressway in Manjavadikanavai village in Salem district. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Sevatharajan at his ancestral home in Kuppanur village, with his wife, sons and other family members. This house and two houses that his sons built face demolition for the project. They had earlier lost their house on the Salem-Tirupathur highway to a road expansion project. Elder son Narayanan (right), a postgraduate, has been successfully doing farming on the land that his father and grandfather made cultivable. He is mobilising project-affected farmers in several villages under the banner of the Shevaroyan Farmers’ Producers’ Forum to pursue a legal remedy. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

A greenfield expressway corridor passing through five northern districts of Tamil Nadu threatens to affect 159 villages, dispossessing farmers of their fertile land and leaving them with no means of earning a livelihood.

Thurappadi hamlet near Iraiyur village in Chengam block of Tiruvannamalai district, some 400 kilometres from Chennai, is a good example of Tamil Nadu’s agrarian setting. A narrow tar-topped road, laid under the Prime Minister Rozgar Yojana, winds through a maze of villages cushioned among verdant paddy and sugar cane fields and mango and coconut groves against the backdrop of a distant hill.

A wisp of modernity in the idyllic setting comes in the form of harvester machines, tractors and sprinklers on the fields on either side of the road. Farmers and their families are seen working in the fields even as their Chinese mobile sets blare out vintage songs from Tamil films of actor-turned-politician and former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, the founder of the party that rules the State today—the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Along the verdant expanse one also noticed stretches of land marked for the proposed Rs.10,000-crore, eight-lane, 277-km-long access-controlled greenfield expressway corridor passing through the predominantly agriculture-based northern districts of Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Salem. This writer travelled more than 1,000 km by road in the first week of July in these five districts to study the impact the project would have on the lives and livelihoods of farmers and other stakeholders. Over 2,000 hectares of land, including 400 hectares owned by the government, are to be acquired for the project.

A team of officials and a posse of policemen were camping under a large banyan tree that stood in the “gram maidan” (common land) at Thurappadi when Frontline visited the village. These officials from the State highways and Revenue departments were there to measure the land and erect yellow marker stones in the middle of the fields and near the houses. The exercise continued from dawn to dusk in Thurappadi and in a few nearby hamlets.

The farmers whose lands were surveyed stood in silence. In the distance one could hear a woman wail.

“They trespassed impudently on our lands wearing footwear and trampled on our crops. We worship the land and nurse our crops like children. Our women broke down when they [officials] planted stones [markers] in our fields. It is like a sword that pierces our hearts,” said Chinnapillai, 55, who owns two acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land. “It [the road marking] is like a tsunami sweeping and swallowing everything in its path—lands, properties, cattle and people,” he said.

Chinnapillai, who belongs to the Vanniyar caste, and his extended family consisting of his sons, brothers, sisters and their kin have been living on the land for three generations, raising paddy, sugar cane, groundnut, millets and pulses. This close-knit family of farmers, some 100 of them who share about 15 acres among themselves, joins the long list of victims whose lands are being acquired for the project that, activists and environmentalists say, the State government is pursuing belligerently.

Vanniyars, a Most Backward Caste (MBC) group, and Dalit Parayars, mostly agricultural labourers who also own a significant extent of land, mainly medium-sized holdings, are dominant communities in the five districts. In Tiruvannamalai district, through which 120 km of the road will pass, the majority of the farmers are medium and small landholders like Chinnapillai.

Initially, the project was not included in the Bharatmala Pariyojana, a Centrally sponsored highways project designed mainly as economic corridors for freight movement, as a part of the Golden Quadrilateral project. But when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami met Union Minister for Roads and Transport Nitin Gadkari on February 25 with a request to include it in the Bharatmala project, the latter sanctioned it the same day with a financial outlay of Rs.10,000 crore. The State government wasted no time in identifying the land for acquisition and planting marker stones for the proposed expressway.

According to the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for Projects under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), 32 settlements located along the proposed road alignment would be “disturbed” and 159 villages in 14 taluks that are located near the expressway would be “affected”.

The farmers apparently had neither been informed in advance about the land acquisition process nor were they given adequate time to decide on renouncing their land. “They [officials] just swooped down on us,” said Uma, 30, one of Chinnapillai’s family members. Dhanalakshmi, another family member, said they had been living as a joint family for “more than 100 years”. “I was born here, got married here and raised my children here. We have had the Sri Vediappan temple, our family deity, here right on the land for generations. We know nothing but agriculture and farming,” she said, sobbing. The temple displays two stone tablets depicting ferocious-looking warriors in action. The farmers said they represented their forefathers.

When it was pointed out to them that the Chief Minister had announced “more than adequate” compensation for the land to be acquired, the family members were livid. Koneri, 45, who owns 1.5 acres, and is a relative of Chinnapillai, said “none of us needs compensation”. “You threaten to throw us out of our land. You are destroying our livelihood. Can you compensate for the collective toil we have put in for years to make this parcel of land fertile and productive? How many of our elders would have toiled and died here in that endeavour! Let us live peacefully,” he said.

Recently, the family of Kuppan, another farmer, had converted his thatched house into a concrete one spanning 1,000 square feet. A marker stone lay near its newly painted wall as a menacing indicator of things to come. The entire house would have to be razed for the road. Kuppan gave a number of petitions to the Tiruvannamalai District Collector expressing his unwillingness to part with his land. “But there has been no response so far. We feel cheated,” he said.

Suicide in Tiruvannamalai

The forcible acquisition of land has had a devastating impact on people’s psyche. One farmer, Sekhar, resident of a village near Chengam, committed suicide reportedly after it became known that his land was going to be acquired. Such outbursts of despair and despondency were witnessed in Erumaivetti, Keelkolathur and Thenmavendal villages near Cheyyar in Tiruvannamalai district where land was being surveyed.

When a survey team entered her house in a village near Cheyyar, a girl in her teens tried to slit her throat in an apparent bid to kill herself. The shocked officials withdrew from the scene but returned the next day with a battalion of police personnel to complete the survey. Distraught women and children prostrating before officials and pleading with them not to acquire their land made for a heart-wrenching sight in many villages.

The police dealt with occasional bursts of temper in a ruthless manner. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, stipulates that when an offence is committed by any person employed by a State in acquisition work, a court will take cognisance of the offence under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Karthick, a farmer residing near Manchavadi in Salem district, doused himself with kerosene and threatened to set himself on fire. Not far away, a family of three whose land was being surveyed jumped into the irrigation well in an apparent bid to commit suicide.

Black flag protests

Manalmedu, a nondescript village in Kancheepuram district on State Highway 118A (Kancheepuram to Uthiramerur), was the first to raise the banner of revolt against the road project. Nearly one-fourth of the land in the village would be lost to the road. The residents hoisted black flags atop their houses and in their fields when officials arrived for a preliminary survey in the last week of June.

A law and order situation arose when the landholders steadfastly refused officials entry into their lands. But the officials returned the next day with a massive police force. Those who did not belong to the village and those who came to express their solidarity with the protesting farmers were arrested and the marker stones were laid. “The proposed road will cut through the village like a knife through butter,” said a resident whose house and shop faced the threat of demolition.

When this correspondent was speaking to a woman, Kasthuri, 55, whose three acres and a house were to be acquired, a policeman in mufti, claiming to be from the Kancheepuram District CB-CID (Crime Branch-Crime Investigation Department), warned her of dire consequences if she spoke to “strangers”. He told this correspondent that “outsiders” were not permitted to speak to local people. Asked whether the Superintendent of Police and the Collector belonged to Kancheepuram, he fell silent but not before getting the details of this correspondent. A similar incident took place at Thurappadi where a policeman attempted to photograph this correspondent and others. Not one to be browbeaten, Kasthuri, a fourth-generation farmer, continued with her interaction. She said her family had lost a significant chunk of land for the expansion of the State highway a few years back; and her family was yet to get adequate compensation for that. Like her, many who had given their land for development projects such as the Salem Steel Plant and bridges and roads in these five districts are yet to receive compensation. For them, the whole exercise is a repeat of a traumatic past.

Some 30 km away, an interior road leads to Seelampakkam village where residents claimed that about 20 acres of fertile land that had 10 borewells and tube wells were slated for acquisition. Kandasamy, 61, who owns two acres on which the family grows two paddy crops, told Frontline that they had no other source of livelihood. “Whatever be the amount of compensation, it would mean nothing to us when compared with the sustainable value of land as an asset, created over years of toil,” he pointed out.

Land as an asset cannot be equated with cash in hand. “In emergencies we mortgage land and get money. After a bumper crop, we repay the loan and redeem our land. It is a cycle that keeps our life going. Land is our permanent livelihood asset. Will the money they promise to give us sustain us for years?” he asked. Farmers across the districts echoed his views.

Around 3,000 hectares in Seelampakkam and adjoining areas are irrigated by water from the Periya Eri (big tank) at nearby Azhisur village, which is linked to two other tanks in the region. Officials in the Kancheepuram Collectorate told the landowners that one of the three tanks would be demolished and the expressway would bisect the Periya Eri. “If so, the existing interlink of these three tanks would be snapped, affecting water flow. It means the entire area will be rendered fallow,” said a farmer in the village.

The express corridor, beginning at Padappai near Chennai, will traverse 59.1 km through 42 villages and hamlets in Uthiramerur, Chengleput and Sriperumbudur blocks in Kancheepuram district. At the twin villages of Manamathi and Manampalli Kandigai, the Village Administrative Officer (VAO) and his staff were busy rummaging through land documents to identify lands and houses to be acquired. The VAO told Frontline that “his officers” had asked him to keep all documents ready since the survey was over and compensation had to be worked out.

The official said that about 3 lakh sq m of land and about 40 houses would have to be acquired in the two villages. “Many of these houses are constructed on ‘poromboke’ lands,” he said. After passing through Uthiramerur block, the expressway will cut into State Highway (SH) 116 (Vandavasi–Cheyyar–Polur–Tiruvannamalai), which was recently upgraded under the Tamil Nadu Road Sector Project II at a cost of Rs.184.97 crore, before linking the villages in Tiruvannamalai district and then moving on to Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri before ending in Salem district.

Resistance in Salem

Salem district boasts the picturesque Shevaroyan hills, atop which is the hill station of Yercaud with its copious sources of water and tracts of coffee and orange plantations. The iron-ore-rich Kanjamalai Hills in Salem and Vedikathan Hills in Tiruvannamalai, besides the Kalrayan Hills and Javadhu hills, are the other hills that form part of the Eastern Ghats in these districts. Considering the fragile ecology of the region, activists are concerned about the expressway’s Detailed Project Report (DPR) that suggests the boring of tunnels at Manchavadi Pass near Harur in Dharmapuri district in the final phase of the project. A high-level committee of the MoEFCC, in its Terms of Reference, has urged the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to study the alignment so that environmental damage is kept to the minimum. (See box on page 58.)

Unnamalai Ammal, 70, of Adimalaipudur village in Salem district, some 500 km from Chennai, has emerged as an icon of sorts for her protests against the project. Photographs and video clippings of her being arrested by a contingent of policemen have been viral on social media. She and her three sons and daughters-in-law and eight grandchildren have been living on 4.5 acres of land in which they grow banana, paddy, sugar cane, groundnut, and so on. Today, she claimed, an acre cost Rs.1 crore here.

“Since my sons decided to continue with agriculture after my husband’s death, I refused to sell the land. We constructed a house on 1,600 sq feet after obtaining a loan from a private firm. Now, after news of the acquisition has spread, that firm is putting pressure on us to repay the amount with interest. When my husband and I came here from Erumapalayam nearby, the land was barren and rocky. We toiled for years to make it fertile. We dug an open well, all by ourselves, and sank three borewells. It is the fruit of our hard work for 45 years. Now the State government has decided to snatch my land. Where is justice here?” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Not far away, in Kuppanur village, lives Sevatharajan, 74, with his two sons, both first-generation graduates. He and his wife stay in a small, tiled ancestral home, while his sons have built two tiled houses on some 2,200 sq feet on their land. Besides, the plot has two cattle sheds for five cows and a flock of sheep. They grow vegetables, millets, pulses and fodder, with water aplenty from an open well and two borewells. Coconut trees, around 500, have been their economic mainstay so far.

Narayanan, the elder of the two sons, is a postgraduate. “I am not interested in any job. I love agriculture just like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Though my younger brother has a job, my passion is agriculture. When we were young, we lived in our house near the Salem-Tirupathur highway that passed through Kuppanur village. But the house was taken up for road expansion when the road was declared a national highway. But that project has been shelved as of now. Instead, we have this expressway project,” he said.

Narayanan, who is fairly well-informed and politically inclined, has taken legal recourse with regard to the attempts to evict people forcibly from their own lands. “It is the Chief Minister’s district. He is personally interested in the project. Just imagine how much pressure we would be subjected to!” he said.

When he resisted the survey of his land by officials, he was detained in a police station for two days. “The Salem District Revenue Officer [DRO], who is the Special Officer for Land Acquisition for the project, called me and some of the landholders to his chamber at the Salem collectorate. His message to us bordered on intimidation and threats: ‘Give your land and get compensation or we will take them over,’” Narayanan said.

Narayanan is mobilising farmers affected by the project in Poolavari, Nalikkalpatti, Kollanpatti, Kuppanur and Achankuttapatti villages under the banner of the Shevaroyan Farmers’ Producers’ Forum in order to seek legal remedy. Farmers affected by the Ulundurpet-Attur-Salem National Highway 79 shared their experiences with their fellow farmers affected by the expressway project. They have been engaged in legal battles with the State since 2009, leaving the mandated four-lane highway an accident-prone two-lane track in many stretches.

The Tamil Nadu government has used the police to prevent farmers and rural folk from seeking legal assistance. Whenever activists and lawyers attempt to assist the farmers, they are either arrested or detained. “The police are bullying us day after day. They monitor the visits of those who come to meet us. We have been told to discourage ‘outsiders’ like you,” Narayanan said. The police have issued veiled threats that those objecting to the land acquisition had “better be aware of the fate of the protesters in Thoothukudi”, said a woman in Kuppanur.

The fear in her eyes was palpable. The message that any opposition to the project could lead to yet another Thoothukudi-like incident (referring to the May 22 police firing in which 13 people were killed when they were agitating against Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant) carries a sinister warning. But Narayanan and other farmers of his ilk have decided to coordinate their struggle by forming a Federation of Farmers Against the Eight-Lane Project, which will provide assistance to project-affected farmers psychologically, morally and legally.

Narayanan said the government was peddling lies about the project. He said it had lowered, in advance, the guideline value of land by 40 per cent on June 9, 2017. “Today the market price of one acre of land in Kuppanur is Rs.60 lakh. But the government value is around Rs.3.15 lakh. The one-time payment of Rs.50,000 for a coconut tree would be much lower compared with its recurring value based on age and yield. Each tree fetches me anything between Rs.4,000 and Rs.6,000 a year. We have grown more than 500 high-yielding coconut trees on our land over five decades with our hard work. Will they be able to compensate us for that?” he asked.

Narayanan’s family had donated 30 cents of prime land to the village’s Union Elementary School under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, a Central government scheme for inclusive education. “We provided midday meals for almost a year to children. Now we face eviction. Our future looks uncertain and bleak. Where will we go leaving the land on which my family and my forefathers and I have toiled hard to transform it into a fertile asset?” he asked.

Allegations of realignment

Further down and abutting the Salem-Tirupathur highway lies Achakuttanpatti village where Ramakka, 55, a Malayali (resident of the hills) tribal woman, lives on her one and a half acres of land. She has a couple of cows and a 200 square foot tin-roofed house. A widow, she toiled hard on the land to give her son a formal education that helped him find employment in the Railways. “The house, the cowshed and an acre would be taken away from me,” she told Frontline. “I cannot live without these children,” she said, pointing to two cows and their calves. “Will the compensation last for a year or so? Can it sustain us as this land has for four generations?” she asked.

She and other tribal and Dalit women farmers and agricultural labourers in Achakuttanpatti and Kathiripatti villages alleged that a realignment of the project from the original one effected between Manchavadi Pass and Achakuttanpatti, allegedly to benefit a few industrial and educational institutions, had robbed them of their land and houses. These women, members of a self-help group, insisted on a probe. On July 9, a team of officials from the Salem district administration arrived at the Dalit colony in Kathiripatti and took some of the residents to Salem, where District Collector Rohini P. Bhajibhakare distributed house site pattas to 35 people who would be losing their houses and land to the expressway.

They were promised houses under the government’s “Green House Scheme”. “Each of us has been living for years in these one-room houses with an area of 200 to 250 square feet. Now we have been allotted less than 3 cents of land, classified as ‘karadu poromboke’ [hilly wasteland] at the foothills of Shevaroyan, some 5 km from the village. It is a desolate place and infested with animals and snakes,” said Kaliammal (name changed on request), one of the beneficiaries.

Almost all those who resist the land acquisition are sceptical about the fancy compensation the State has promised. Unlike a very few like Narayanan, many are illiterate or half-literate and are unaware of safe choices for investing the compensation money. “Money would be spent in a jiffy,” said Pachayammal of Irulapatti in Dharmapuri district where farmers threatened to commit suicide when their fields were surveyed.

Prof. S. Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, Hyderabad, told Frontline that an important aspect to be considered was that farm implements and livestock too became redundant when somebody’s land was taken away. “Who will pay for such losses? Therefore, in such dire situations, to think of an alternative source of livelihood is not all that simple and straightforward. Rehabilitation has got to be comprehensive and it is a continuing process. It can never be ad hoc and one-time,” he said.

He pointed out that the cultural and emotional attachment to land could never be compensated for. “Who decides the market price of the land? Very often, to determine the market price one goes by the sale deed in the locality. These sale deeds are often old and undervalued. In which case, the so-called market price is lower than what is officially determined. Furthermore, the market price would shoot up several folds immediately after the so-called developmental work is completed. This will result in a good deal of resentment between those who had to part with their land and those who still possess land,” he said.

He said that in Western countries, when land was acquired for something like a highway, landowners could opt for a compensation sum or a share in the toll collection. He said that Tamil Nadu, to suit its needs, had framed its own Rules in 2017 for the LARR Act. He urged the State to review the State’s “Rehabilitation and Resettlement” (R&R) policy so as to make land-givers stakeholders in a road project such as this. The land given for the exploitation of natural resources also should be brought under this criterion, he insisted.

Collector Rohini Bhajibhakare told Frontline that no one was pressured to part with their land for the project. “Hailing from a farmer’s family, I know what the pain is to lose one’s land and house. It is an emotional issue. That is why we are handling it in a sensitive manner. We have told them [farmers] that the project is in the interest of the country. The compensation will be commensurate with the prevailing market rates. The State has decided to calculate the compensation on the basis of the guideline value besides sanctioning extra sums that would come to more than the market price,” she said.

She denied claims that the district administration and its officials were resorting to intimidation. “We are here to execute the government’s orders and we do that in the most restrained manner. The DRO’s job ends with land acquisition and the Collector will be the sole arbitrator. So I monitor every move of the administration with extra cautiousness, going strictly by the book. There are mischievous and false propaganda about the project, causing embarrassment,” she said.

But nothing can convince the projected-affected people—small and medium farmers, who, by cultural and habitual conditioning, have been living a contented life here for generations. They had never imagined that “their State” would resort to such a harsh measure as evicting them from their land and houses. “Even the worst drought has never been so cruel to us,” said Unnamalai Ammal.

The project today stands as a pointer to how any top-down decision on planning can go horribly wrong to people at the grass roots.

Many of those who stand to lose their land and other properties have only a vague understanding of the project. In fact, for Kancheepuram district it was gazetted on June 26 this year, followed by a notification in The Hindu on July 4. “By then the survey was completed in the district,” said an activist. Those who opposed it were either arrested under preventive sections of law or were sent to prison.

A way to revive mining?

The road project has revived fears of a mining project, which has been shelved for now. Environmentalists and many others, including farmers, believe that the road is being planned to permit corporates such as Jindal Steel to mine low-grade iron ore found in the hills of Kanjamalai in Salem district and Kaunthimalai and Vediappanmalai in Tiruvannamalai district. In 2005, Jindal Steel inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Tamil Nadu government, which, in turn, floated the Tamil Nadu Iron Ore Mining Corporation Limited (TIMCO) to facilitate the project. The hills were leased out for the purpose.

Since then there has been a legal tussle between the local people who oppose the mining project and the State. On the basis of a report of a public hearing held on the project at Tiruvannamalai on December 27, 2008, the Supreme Court constituted a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to look into the issue. Following the submission of the committee’s report, the court suspended the iron-ore project in the hills of Tiruvannamalai. Fearing a law and order problem, the Salem district administration, too, did not allow mining.

The report on the public hearing, prepared by the then Collector, M. Rajendran, said that about 1,000 people took part in the hearing. They alleged that private firms such as Jindal Steel, which had applied to source iron ore for its Salem plant, would destroy the flora and fauna of the hills and around 2.5 lakh trees and small plantations on 325 hectares. “If the proposal is proceeded [with, the] district may have to face severe law and order problem,” the report said. The CEC, in its report submitted to the Supreme Court on June 29, 2009, stated that the project should not be permitted as it would cause severe damage to the fragile ecology of the hills and their surroundings. The project was then shelved.

‘Farmers’ apolitical stand’

The fact that the farmers have remained “apolitical”, confining their life and activities to farming and allied activities so far, is the major reason behind their meek mobilisation.

“The PMK [Pattali Makkal Katchi] has taken it up with its youth wing leader Dr Anbumani Ramadoss by filing a PIL [public interest litigation] in the Madras High Court against the project. We have started mobilising the affected farmers, irrespective of caste, to form groups so that they can seek legal remedy against the acquisition and compensation,” said K. Balu, a senior functionary of the PMK.

On August 1, hundreds of cadres of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), led by the party’s State secretary, K. Balakrishnan, took out a padayatra from Tiruvannamalai to Salem against the road project, but they were arrested. “The political flux in the State and the overbearing attitude of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in power at the Centre has left the present government confused and panic-stricken,” said a political analyst. “Hence, they need the police to suppress the voices of dissent,” he said (“Police raj”, Frontline, August 3, 2018).

Balakrishnan told Frontline over phone from Tiruvannamalai on the morning of August 2 that the police did not allow them to take out a peaceful rally.

“The State is afraid of any dissent. The farmers are ignorant and misguided. We have started organising legal assistance for them. On our motivation, some 3,800 petitions against the land-acquisition process were given to the Collectors in the five districts,” he said.

Arm-twisting the gram sabhas

The State has resorted to a good deal of arm-twisting too. In 2015, when farmers resisted the land acquisition for a Rs.300-crore Thervoy Kandigai-Kannankottai reservoir project, near Kannankottai village in Tiruvallur district, in order to augment the water supply to Chennai city, a strong police contingent was sent into the village along with a dozen earth movers in the wee hours to destroy the standing paddy crops on some 200 acres. The villagers had to approach the Madras High Court for adequate compensation (“A village’s nightmare”, Frontline, January 23, 2015).

The State’s attitude in the gram sabha meetings smacked of authoritarianism. The local body elections in Tamil Nadu were last held in 2011. The elections due in 2016 could not be held because of judicial interventions on charges of irregularities. Since then the State government has postponed the election citing one reason or the other. As a result, the State government directly governs the local bodies now.

The LARR Act ensures consultations with local government institutions and gram sabhas. On August 15, Independence Day, officials convened gram sabha meetings in all the five districts. The participants wanted to adopt resolutions against the eight-lane project, but the officials would not let them. They also did not record the people’s demand in the respective log books of village panchayats. People in Paraipatti in Salem district and a few other village panchayats forced the officials to record their protest against the project.

The LARR Act, Prof. S. Janakarajan said, envisions that the government should be farmer-sensitive and “development sensitive” and refrain from using power and force on a defenceless population. “They are, after all, citizens of this country who voted you to power. Most important, ensure that women and children are not affected due to displacement and that their educational and health requirements are met,” he said.

He added: “The simple and straightforward policy ought to be to give the top priority to food security and ecological security. Potential damage to food security, ecology and the environment and its long-term impact should be studied before undertaking a big infrastructure project such as the one under discussion. The law suggests categorically that environmental and ecological impacts should be kept at a minimum in all infrastructure projects. But the governments never care for such directions.” In some places, acquisition for the proposed expressway has left farmers with land on either side of the eight-lane expressway, putting them in a piquant situation.

“Can you see an opening or an underpass nearby to cross the road to reach my land on either side of the road?” a farmer asked. But sources in the NHAI claimed that underpasses would be provided for every 2.5 km on the elevated corridor. The road slices through many hamlets, dividing neighbourhoods, lands and families too.

Some of those who have escaped the acquisition at present are also wary of the future. “We know we will be next. The land abutting the highway can eventually be taken away to create ‘land banks’ for future projects,” a farmer said.

It is unfortunate that the project will reduce to rubble the social infrastructure the State has created over the years. A number of schools, anganwadi centres, primary and subhealth centres, community halls, primary agricultural bank buildings, bus centres, government offices, fair price shops, threshing floors, overhead tanks, water- and sewer-carrying systems, rural roads that connect villages and towns, irrigation networks, and so on, that were painstakingly established face the threat of demolition.

On August 21, the farmers got a respite when a Madras High Court bench of Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbarayan, acting on a batch of writ petitions, passed an interim order asking the Tamil Nadu government not to dispossess farmers of their land. The case has now been adjourned.

The fears of project-affected farmers, however, are far from over. Sociologists also are apprehensive of a major tragedy unfolding in the five districts.

The massive road will not culminate in Salem. It will have to be expanded and extended. That entails further acquisition, eviction and resettlement. This is likely to be just the beginning of a long-winding road to suffering and agony for more people.

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The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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