Salem-Chennai Expressway will wipe out rural livelihood

File photo of demarcation of boundaries for the Salem-Chennai Expressway being done in a farm land in Salem district, with police protection.

An alleged suicide, several self-immolation bids, endless protests and a relentless government machinery coercing thousands of farmers them to part with their fertile land. The proposed 277.3-km Green Corridor Express Highway (Expressway) connecting Salem with Chennai has caused much resentment among farmers in the five districts of Tamil Nadu. The road is likely to cut through thousands of acres of farm and forest lands, mountains, rivers and lakes spread across more than 150 villages.

The project envisages cutting down the travel time between Chennai and Salem by three hours and distance by 68 km. But the eight-way or six-way lane is likely to be a closed-toll highway, making it impossible for villagers to crossover to the other side of the road. Farmers in Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Tiruvannamalai and Kancheepuram districts are up in arms against the project and have knocked at the doors of the Madras High Court, which in turn has advised both centre and state governments not to forcibly acquire land. At one point during the hearing, the court had even threatened to cancel the project if the government did not present true facts before it.

After much opposition, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has made slight modifications by cutting the cost from Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 7,210 crore and reducing the length of the road inside reserve forest from 13.29 to 9 km. But the farmers reject it as an eyewash.

“The government told before the High Court that it has reduced the width of the road from 90 metres to 70 metres in September, but way back in June, it issued notice only to acquire 70 metres. The government says it has changed the alignment, but in reality, it is a lie,” Surender, Salem district convenor of the Movement Against Salem-Chennai Expressway, told DH.

He also alleged that the government was using police force to coerce farmers into parting with their lands.

“Farmers who are at the forefront of the agitation are monitored round the clock. People who are active against the project are hounded by the police regularly, especially during night time. If government thinks they can use force to take our land, it is an illusion,” Surender said.

This DH correspondent visited 16 villages spread across Salem, Dharmapuri and Tiruvannamalai districts and passed through several others along the proposed corridor only to find out that the highway has been designed in such a way that it passes through the middle of fertile farmlands, rendering remaining land on both sides useless. In total, nearly 150 villages will be affected and hundreds of acres of coconut, betel nut, banana and mango plantations would face the axe, if the farmlands are acquired for the project.

“Of the 7-acre land I own, the government wants to acquire 3.5 acres and says the remaining land can be used for farming. But how do I go from this side of the highway to the other side if it is a high-speed expressway?” asked Mohana Sundaram, who is one of the petitioners in the case against the project in the Madras High Court. “Not just in my village, in a majority of the areas, the proposed highway cuts into the middle of farmlands. Looks like the government has designed the project deliberately to wipe out agriculture in this prosperous mango and coconut belt,” he told DH in his native Pulaveri village in Salem district.

Many villages in these three districts passed unanimous resolutions seeking scrapping of the project on August 15 and again on October 2, but allege that the respective tahsildars were not ready to affix the seal of approval in the copy. Though the government has told the Madras High Court that it is yet to begin the work, visits to the villages present a different picture.

From testing of soil and stones for the presence of minerals in villages and hills in Salem district to handing over of documents that promise alternative land for those who are likely to lose their houses in the project, conducting public hearing without following prescribed rules and alleged use of force to scare farmers — the government seems to be driving on neck-break speed.

A visit to the foothills of Jarugumalai on the outskirts of Salem reveals the government’s “secret mission”, as the villagers allege, wto test the soil and stones. This correspondent visited the aforesaid site on September 23, a day after hundreds of villagers forced a government team to abandon their ‘inspection’ and leave the area in a huff.

However, Salem district collector Rohini R Bhajibhakare told DH that there was no stay on conducting soil test in view of the realignment of the project. “Though it is the consultant agency appointed by the NHAI which does the soil tests, and not the district administration, there is absolutely no stay whatsoever from the High Court on such activities,” she said.

While a majority of farmers would lose their coconut and betel nut farms in Salem, their counterparts in Dharmapuri say their mango farms would be a thing of the past if the expressway sees the light of the day. Several schools, anganwadi centres and at least one public health centre in Dharmapuri district have to be demolished, besides hundreds of houses, for the highway to see the light of the day.

In Kombur village on the Salem-Harur road in Dharmapuri district, Bismillah Ali Shah would stand to lose 3 of his 4.5 acres of land – his house, mausoleum of his guru and a well. “One has to spend more than Rs 2 lakh to dig a well. The government just wants to take away the land from us without even bothering to get our consent,” he rued. Just a few hundred metres from Shah’s land stand the deep reserve forest and Senguttai Lake, which would also fall prey to the bulldozer and JCB machines. Hundreds of trees have been chopped inside the reserve forest — villagers point fingers at the government authorities, who in turn deny the charge. “Even if the government compensates us, we cannot even buy 10 cents of land for the amount given for an acre. The government would provide compensation on the basis of guideline value, but the market rate is nearly 10 to 20 times higher. Why should we leave our land and move to faraway places?” asked Gopal, a farmer in Nadupatti in Dharmapuri district.

Though some parts of Tiruvannamalai district are not irrigated perennially, farmers are not willing to give away their land for the project. The district saw a suicide — a marginal farmer Sekar allegedly ended his life by consuming pesticide in June this year unwilling to part with his farm land – and several self-immolation bids by farmers to prevent measuring of their land.

“The government’s atrocities cannot be explained in words. The police have been hounding me for the past four months for bringing about an awareness among farmers,” said Arul Arumugam, spokesperson of the Movement Against Salem-Chennai Expressway. Arumugam is a software engineer-turned-farmer, who hails from a village near Neepathurai in Tiruvannamalai district. Farmers in Chengam, Theerthamalai and Neepathurai have hoisted black flags atop their houses and allege that the government is exerting “too much pressure” on them to surrender their land voluntarily.

However, Tiruvannamalai district collector K A Kandasamy told DH that a majority of the farmers were ready to give their land for the project because they think it will improve their lives, but are being “influenced” by groups that are against the highway.

Overlooking the mineral-rich Kanjamalai stands sixth generation farmer A Manikandan’s house, cowshed and farm in Uthamachzohapuram village, located 17 km south of Salem. Manikandan, whose self-immolation bid was thwarted, could not stop revenue officials, who came with a huge posse of police personnel, from erecting yellow marker stones in his land. “These stones, which notify the demarcation of the boundaries, scare me every time I look at them. I have lived all my life in this tiny piece of land and where do I go now?” he asked. 

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