Making of a ‘green’ highway

Print edition : September 28, 2018
Nearly 70 per cent of the land required for the expressway is fertile farmland.

THE Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the Ministry of Environment says that the Rs.10,000-crore, 277.30-kilometre-long, eight-lane expressway would halve the travel time from Chennai to Salem to two and a half hours, resulting in savings of fuel, especially diesel, to the tune of 2.45 lakh litres, or Rs.700 crore, annually.

The topography, it says, consists of predominantly agricultural land, having high productivity of rice, sugar cane, maize, pulses, groundnuts, mangoes, coconuts and flowers such as jasmine. Mega industries are not many, but there is a sprinkling of small and medium industrial and commercial enterprises. Nearly 70 per cent of the land acquired for the project would be fertile farmland, with intermittent built-up areas, “though a few acres of forests lands... also would be annexed”.

The DPR points out that the alignment of the project has maximum width of 90 metres and a minimum width of 70 metres. It is designed for speeds up to 120 kilometres per hour, with a 6/8-lane controlled access. It crosses five national highways (NHs) and 10 State highways (SHs), connecting major towns such as Tiruvannamalai and Kancheepuram through “spur” roads. The project is designed to link industrial areas and special economic zones (SEZs) located in Chennai, Tiruvannamalai, Kancheepuram, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri and Salem districts. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) says that the road will go through fringes of forests for 6 km, of which 3 km would be a tunnel in Salem district. The corridor will have nine entry and exit points.

The report says that land to be acquired includes vast tracts of fertile land, residential properties and commercial establishments. The areas through which the road would cut through have remained by and large undisturbed for long, with an eclectic mix of modern and traditional livelihoods, though agriculture forms the core.

Extent of land acquisition

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, while replying to a Call Attention motion on the floor of the Tamil Nadu Assembly on June 11, said the proposed corridor would require 1,900 hectares of land, of which 400 hectares belonged to government “poromboke” and another 49 hectares belonged to the Forest Department. He stated that around three lakh saplings would be planted along the corridor. But environmentalists insist that compensatory afforestation along highways in Tamil Nadu has not been successful.

The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which met in New Delhi on May 7, 2018, while approving the terms of reference for the project, noted that the total land acquisition for the alignment was about 2,560 hectares. A total of 6,400 trees would face the axe. The number of tanks, irrigation wells, ponds and other waterbodies that would be disturbed or destroyed for the project would be known only when the environment impact assessment (EIA) study on the project is completed. But the EAC has instructed the NHAI and the Tamil Nadu government to avoid disturbing the ecologically sensitive Kalrayan Hill forests that fall within the ambit of the project. It has also instructed them to undertake a thorough assessment of the alignment through wetlands, including tanks and small reservoirs, and its impact on local biodiversity, wildlife corridors, and so on.

The EAC asked the executors to avoid any impact on local hydrology. It noted that the land-use pattern 10 km on either side of the project was “predominantly agriculture followed by habitations and forest areas”. It insisted that a mitigation strategy be designed from a nationally recognised institute. These conditions are yet to be met, said environmentalists who drew attention to verdicts of the Supreme Court that instructed the State government not to convert or disturb water bodies on the pretext of development.

The greenfield expressway is to cover 59.1 km in Kancheepuram district, for which about 345 ha of land have to be procured. It will run for 123.9 km in Tiruvannamalai district, for which nearly 1,200 ha of land would have to be acquired in the district. Krishnagiri will lose 45 ha for 2 km to the project, while in Dharmapuri the road is to traverse through 56 km, for which 298 ha of land will be acquired. Salem district would be losing around 406 ha of land for its 36.3 km share. These statistics do not include the spurs at Kancheepuram, Chetput and Tiruvannamalai that connect to the expressway.

It defies comprehension how such a massive project will source the materials. In an affidavit filed before the Madras High Court, a petitioner claimed that nearly 10,000 wells would be destroyed besides numerous streams, borewells, rivulets, tanks and ponds. Around 6,400 trees (estimated at one tree an acre, which ecologists dismiss with contempt) are to be cut. The EAC stipulates that compensatory afforestation be carried out, but environmentalists are sceptical about it, noting the poor track records in already-executed projects. The project would include 23 major bridges, 156 minor bridges, 578 culverts, nine flyovers and three tunnels and one rail overbridge, besides other required structures. Eight toll plazas and 10 bus and truck lay-bys would also be included.The EIA has to make a detailed study on these parameters.

Decongestion theory

The state justifies its decision to go ahead with the project saying that it is designed to decongest two busy national highways—the Chennai-Dharmapuri-Salem highway (360 km) and the Chennai-Tindivanam-Ulundurpet-Attur-Salem highway (345 km)—that link the north with the western districts such as Salem, Erode, Tirupur and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. The third congested road was the Chennai-Oragadam-Walajah-Cheyyar-Tiruvannamalai-Harur-Salem highway, which was recently brought under the network of national highways.

The Chief Minister said traffic had increased by as much as 130 to 160 per cent on these highways, resulting in fatal accidents. “Even if we expand the two busy highways, between 60,000 and 1 lakh PCUs [passenger car units] can be accommodated. The proposed corridor is designed to hold 2.50 lakh PCUs right away as against the combined volume of 1 lakh PCUs of the existing highways,” he said. Six-laning the highways via Tindivanam and Dharmapuri by widening them by 15 metres on either side would involve a huge acquisition of residential and commercial properties, industries and 2,200 hectares of land. A total of 40,000 structures would have to be demolished, he said.

It is also claimed that the new corridor would provide better accessibility to ports such as the one at Ennore near Chennai. Another unsubstantiated claim that is making the rounds is that a defence-industrial corridor is to be set up along the proposed highway.

Petitions in High Court

A spate of petitions against the project was filed in the Madras High Court. In his counter affidavit filed before the Madras High Court on July 12 in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) petition, the NHAI’s Project Director, P.T. Mohan, claimed that the two national highways could not be widened as that would involve demolition of several residential and commercial establishments, besides acquiring vast tracts of land. The number of vehicles plying on both highways had grown multifold and traffic today on them could be equated with that of Anna Salai and Poonamallee High Road in Chennai city, he said.

But environmentalists say that the expressway project annexes land abutting forests and the mineral-rich Javadu Hills, Arunoothu Hills, Shervaroyan Hills, Kalrayan Hills, Kaunthi Hills and Vediappan Hills in the ecologically sensitive Eastern Ghats corridor. These hills contain, as per a Department of Mines and Minerals study, rich deposits of bauxite, iron ore, magnetite, hematite and quartz. Platinum deposits are found in the nearby Namakkal district, the environmentalists said.

The project has geopolitical dimensions too. It would, in effect, act like a defence corridor since the Central goverment is contemplating establishing defence industries along the road. The Chinese-financed Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka is a cause for worry for India since 70 per cent of the stakes in the port was sold to the Chinese state-run China Merchants Port Holdings in 2010. “India is worried that the port could be used to host Chinese naval vessels that could change the power equations in the Indian Ocean,” said a long-time political analyst.

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