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After copper plant, why Tamil Nadu’s latest protest is over a highway

Dozens of farmers’ organisations allege that they were not consulted, fear that the highway will affect productive rice farms in Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai, and are upset about the compensation offered.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai | Updated: June 25, 2018 8:24:45 am
Kudankulam, Kudankulam nuclear project, Kudankulam nuclear power plant, Kudankulam nuclear plant, Kudankulam news, indian express news Kudunkulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. (File)

A proposed greenfield highway between Chennai and Salem has run into opposition. This is the latest in a series of protests against major projects in Tamil Nadu, including the Kudankulam nuclear plant and the Tuticorin copper smelter plant. At look at why the state government wants the highway, and why the protesters are opposing it:

The project

With eight lanes and a length of 277 km, the proposed Tamil Nadu-Salem highway will pass through Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri, a mostly agrarian region with a few industrial zones. Its estimated cost is Rs 9,106 crore, with a tentative Rs 415 crore for rehabilitation and resettlement.

The two cities

There are three existing but circuitous road routes (see map). In a letter to Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari on February 25, Chief Minister E Palaniswami said two of these routes carry high traffic, leading to abnormal delays, and suggested a highway directly linking the two cities. Later, a feasibility report said the project is expected to generate development and employment in the towns along the route. “Considering the high traffic potential and importance of Salem city, I would like to suggest that a Green Express Way Corridor between Salem and Chennai cities be formed, that will substantially reduce the distance and save fuel,” the CM wrote. The Centre approved the project that very day.

Who are protesting, and why

Dozens of farmers’ organisations allege that they were not consulted, fear that the highway will affect productive rice farms in Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai, and are upset about the compensation offered. “These are regions that do three crops a year. Destroying these most fertile lands for constructing a highway cannot be accepted,” says P Shanmugam, state secretary of the farmers’ body Tamil Nadu Vivasaigal Sangam. About compensation, he said: “They are offering a maximum Rs 8 lakh per acre in Tiruvannamalai when the market rate is over Rs 30 lakh; in Kancheepuram, the market rate goes up to Rs 1 crore per acre… The government is showing an unusual interest in this project without consulting or taking the consent of farmers.” Shanmugam said the project will affect the livelihood of over one lakh people.

Government version

The feasibility report says public consultations were done. It claims that the government informed people about details of the project, and invited their suggestions prior to finalising the engineering design. “The consultations were carried out with both individuals and groups during the screening survey involving local people, health workers and administrators,” it says.

Shape of protests

They are removing installed survey stones. On June 26, they plan to hoist black flags on their houses and lands. On July 6, they plan to burn the government order on the project.

Progress so far

The revenue department is engaging retired officers to complete the survey and kick off the project as it is short of staff and serving officials are occupied with other work.

How govt is handling it

Police have been arresting protest leaders, including Salem-based activist Piyush Manush and college student Valarmathi, 24. Salem district administration sources say at least 10 people are in judicial custody for mobilising people while many villagers, including elderly women, are being picked up for opposing the project.

Opposition stand

Opposition leader M K Stalin has said that his party, DMK, will launch strong protests if the government tries to implement projects using police and force. Last week, the DMK moved a petition before the vigilance and anti-corruption wing, alleging that the CM, who also handles the highways and roads portfolio, had awarded tenders for a highway project worth Rs 1,700 crore to a contractor related to the CM’s son, and that another highway contract worth Rs 720 crore was given to a firm owned by his son’s father-in-law.

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