November 3, 2021 8:31:10 pm
Inside 49-year-old Mini Saji’s bedroom, a long, winding crack runs down one of the walls till the base after which it parts into two. There are many other such cracks in her 800-sqft tile thatched house which remain hidden due to a recent cement patching. A few metres away from the house, traffic flows smoothly inside the newly-opened tunnel in Kuthiran in Kerala’s Thrissur district.
Not just Saji’s, many other houses in the neighbourhood are damaged from the tremors of five-year-long blasting in the hills to carve out the road tunnel. They say they are all exhausted fighting for adequate compensation to mend their properties.
KA Chacko, who used to be Saji’s neighbour, was forced to shift to a rented house three kilometres away due to blasting. Chacko, who pays a monthly rent of Rs 6000 since 2017, said the foundation is the only thing left of his house now.
“I got Rs 85,000 as compensation for a house that is completely damaged. How am I supposed to build another house with such little money?” asked 65-year-old Chacko, a daily-wage labourer.
Kerala’s first-ever tunnel road — the 964-metre long twin-tube tunnel construction of Kuthiran — began in 2016 and was interrupted several times due to fund crunch and public protest against blasting. The tunnel that reduces three km travel in the Thrissur Palakkad stretch of NH 544 gained importance as the road that traverses through the hills of the notified Peechi-Vazhani wildlife sanctuary which made regular headlines for recurring traffic jams and accidents. One of the tunnels was opened to the public on July 31 following a tweet by Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways. The tunnel is a part of the six-laning and development of the same highway.
At least 400 people approached with complaints in 2017 due to blasting in the hills, said Vijayankutty NK, former ward member of the area. These are damages reported from across four wards of Pananchery panchayat or within three km distance from the tunnel, he said adding that the complaints also include that of houses that are affected by blasting in nearby areas of the tunnel too as part of the six-laning of the highway.
“At times, the stones hit our houses during the blast, and as the work progressed, it felt like an earthquake,” said Saji. Saji and other residents protested at the tunnel construction site for months, after which they filed a writ petition before the Kerala High Court in 2017, demanding compensation claiming the blasting was illegal.
“We had proof. The contract had mentioned that even controlled blasting isn’t allowed at Kuthiran, but the company violated it,” alleged Nibu Chirampattu, another resident.
A 2009 agreement between the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and Thrissur Expressway Private Limited for the construction and development of six-laning of Mannuthy-Vadakkanchery section of the NH 544 (then NH-47) stated that “in view of the wildlife, open excavation and blasting (even controlled blasting) will not be allowed, and tunnelling with boring only permitted.”
The petition filed before the High Court was disposed of in the same year with the court ordering the panchayat and revenue officials to look into the damages and submit their report to the District Collector. The court also asked the contractor to pay the amount and resume work.
“Officials disbursed around one to two lakhs per person for damages that caused even the bases of houses,” said Advocate C. A. Anoop, who represented the residents in the High Court. He said the resumption of blasting caused more damages adding that they were compelled to file another petition in 2019 seeking more money. According to Anoop, the number of claimants also increased as the blasting caused damages to more houses.
The court ordered the Thrissur Collector to look into the matter. But nothing happened even after assessing the damages, he said. The residents filed a case of contempt of court in 2020 which hasn’t been heard yet. Anoop said that one of the reasons for the delay is the pandemic.
The estimation was done in haste, said Chirampattu, pointing out that the officials promised to give additional compensation after the tunnelling was completed. According to him, 68 people who applied for compensation after the resumption of work still haven’t received any money.
“We are not against any developmental activities. We witnessed all the accidents that happened here, so we know the importance of the tunnel,” Saji said. She received Rs 1.10 lakh in 2017 though the amount is inadequate to rebuild her house.
“Most of us are daily wage workers. We can’t afford to build another house or relocate,” she said.
A total of 245 people were compensated between January 2017 and August 2021 for the blasting that occurred at the Kuthiran tunnel, an RTI application revealed. Rs 3.5 crore was disbursed, of which individuals received different amounts as per the damages.
“People have been approaching for compensation since 2017. Currently, we have 62 applications of which 35 are qualified to receive the amount, according to the assessment done by the PWD following the 2019 court order. It will be distributed once the company pays it,” said Davis P A, senior clerk at the Thrissur Collectorate.
“The company compensated the people for damages estimated by the government,” said Ajith, Public Relations Officer (PRO) at Thrissur Expressway Limited. He said blasting was necessary to complete the work and added that one of the reasons for the delay in completing the project was the public protest.
‘Chances of man-animal conflict:’ Former warden
The area will witness man-animal conflict after both the tunnels start functioning, said AO Sunny, former warden at the Peechi-Vazhani wildlife sanctuary.
“Once the traffic completely shifts to the tunnel, the existing road will be deserted, creating a safer path for wild animals. Since this is a human inhibited area, the residents and their properties will be vulnerable to attacks,” he said.
According to Sunny, concerned authorities should address this issue after consulting with locals before opening the other tunnel.
Meanwhile, Saji said she has been noticing wild elephants crossing the road at night when the traffic was low.