The Chennai-Salem highway project is being opposed by a large number of farmers and other sections of people. It will have an adverse impact on the lives and livelihood of farmers in five districts of Tamilnadu as well as on the environment. It will affect people living in 159 villages and also vast swathes of agricultural land, ponds, hills and vital infrastructure such as health centres. Lakhs of trees will be removed. In addition, farmers have been protesting against the low compensation fixed for land acquisition, which is reported to be 33% below market value.
Farmers and peasant organisations opposing this project have pointed out that people were not informed about the project before the announcement nor was their consent taken for land acquisition.
A protest march from Thiruvanamalai to Salem called “My land, my right” was organised under the leadership of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) on 1st August. 700 protestors were detained
On 25th February, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, in a letter to Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, proposed that a greenfield expressway corridor be constructed between Salem and Chennai. The government has claimed that the new greenfield expressway will cut the distance between Salem and Chennai by 60 km, to about 270 km and that the time to cover this distance will be cut by half of the current six hours. On the same day, following a meeting with Palaniswami, Gadkari announced in New Delhi that the work on the project will begin in two months. The speed with which the project was approved raised suspicion that this being fast-tracked for the benefit of a few construction and mining monopolies. The work on marking the fields meant for acquisition has already started and no consultation with people has taken place.
Activists have pointed out that the reason for fast-tracking this project is that the TIMCO joint venture between TIDCO & Jindal Vijayanagara Steel is all set to get the required clearances for its proposed mining activity both in Tiruvannamalai and Salem. If the Jindals get the required clearances, they would be mining iron ore in 325 acres of Kavuthimalai Reserve Forest in Tiruvannamalai and 638 acres in Salem Kanjamalai reserve forest. The proposed 8 lane which runs through Tiruvannamalai and Harur and reaches Salem would directly benefit the Jindals if they commence their mining activity both in Tiruvannamalai and Salem.
It is estimated that a total of 2,560 hectares of land would be taken over. About 120 hectares of forest land would be affected. The project will require 11 lakh kilolitres of water during construction. The project would cut through water channels and fertile agricultural fields. The highway will also pass through several rivers.
However, the people who will be affected are not convinced about the benefits. They have raised several questions. Firstly, if congestion is the problem, why is the government not undertaking decongestion efforts along existing routes? Three different routes connecting Chennai to Salem already exist.
Secondly, if economic development was the aim of the project, then why not use the project cost to improve last-mile connectivity of existing smaller roads in the region instead of developing an expressway between cities that already have three different routes connecting them.
Several people have been arrested for speaking out against the destruction that the project will bring to the livelihood of people and the environment. Protest demonstrations have been met with an iron hand and protestors sent to jail. Security forces have been given clear instructions to use the Goondas Act to prevent any dissent. The demand of gram panchayats to have a say in decision making has been ignored.
The people are opposed to the kind of “development” where they are deprived of their land, livelihood, forests and rivers for benefiting a handful of profit-seeking monopolies. In this case, the people in the region successfully stopped the Jindal mining project several years ago. This is now being revived at great cost to the people living in the area. It is important that people strengthen their protests and demonstrations further until their just demands are met.