The third highway: for whose benefit?

Stones collected from Salem for testing.

The Expressway between Chennai and Salem was never part of the ambitious Bharatmala Project, which aims to improve the efficiency of freight movement in the country.

In February 2018, people in Tamil Nadu first heard of a new expressway between Tambaram (Chennai) and Salem and before the thought could sink in one’s mind, the project was approved. The project came as a bolt out of the blue since the two cities were already connected through two national highways: via Ulundurpet on the Chennai-Tiruchi highway and via Krishnagiri on the Chennai-Bengaluru highway. Though the 138-km stretch from Ulundurpet to Salem was upgraded to four-way lane in 2011, the traffic here doesn’t seem to be heavy. Also, the highway is yet to be made a complete four-way road since there are several stretches which are just two-way.

The express speed at which the project was approved raised people’s eyebrows – Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, who hails from Salem, wrote to Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari seeking nod for the project and the BJP leader put his seal of approval the very next day.

“How can the project be approved in just 24 hours. Why was the project included as part of the Bharatmala scheme at the last minute? What spawned the need for a third highway between Chennai and Salem when the existing roads are not even crowded?” asks Chandra Kumar, a farmer who is also the convenor of Movement Against Salem-Chennai Expressway.

However, NHAI says the existing highway cannot cater to the burgeoning traffic between Chennai and Salem and hence the only way to reduce the burden on the roads was to have an expressway.

P T Mohan, project director, NHAI, submitted an affidavit before the Madras High Court in July in which he said that with the passage of time, the existing roads will be the most congested like a few arterial roads in Chennai.

“In several locations, widening of the existing roads will involve additional acquisition of land and dismantling of several structures,” he said, ruling out the possibility of upgrading the existing roads.

“What is the need? Why build a highway that cuts through farmlands, forests and mountains and call it a green corridor? Why wasn’t a proper study conducted?” Narayanan, a farmer in Kuppanur village who was arrested by police in June for protesting against the project, told DH.

Farmers, locals and environmentalists question the need for the expressway to be conceived without any proper research and feasibility study. They seek to know why the government was not upgrading the Ulundurpet-Salem section of the highway to six-way lane if there is an “urgent need” for faster access between the two cities.

Environment crusader G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal (Friends of Earth) says the expressway would destroy many waterbodies and reserve forests that are home to some endangered species. “Why so much of nature has to be destroyed for a road? When the whole world is talking about climate change and taking steps to protect our planet, we are building a highway that cuts through mountains and forests,” he said.

The NHAI, in its pre-feasibility report, says the proposed corridor will improve the connectivity between Salem and Chennai. The report says the proposed highway would significantly reduce travel time and cost between the two cities, while enhancing the connectivity of underdeveloped districts such as Tiruvannamalai and Dharmapuri.

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The third highway: for whose benefit?

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