Chennai-Salem Greenfield Highway: Will it be a game changer for TN

Published : Jun 28, 2018 09:00 am | By: M D Sridharan

Ever since the centre approved the 277.3 km-long Chennai-Salem Greenfield expressway in Tamil Nadu, as part of the National Highways Authority of India’s Bharatmala Pariyojana, protests have erupted in the state.

In less than a month after the massive protest demanding the closure of  Sterlite Copper ‘s plant at Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu in which 13 people were killed in the  police firing, the state is bracing for yet another massive protests. The stage has been now set for protests against the eight-lane Chennai-Salem Greenfield expressway. As the government machinery has been activated and the work on the projects builds up, so does the protests. The stage is being set for the next protests against the Tamil Nadu government

 

As a part of the National Highways Authority of India’s Bharatmala Pariyojana, a central government-funded road and highways project, the 277.3 km-long Chennai-Salem Greenfield expressway involves the development of the Tambaram to Harur segment of NH-179B, Harur to Salem segment of NH-179A, Chengalpattu to Kancheepuram segment of NH-132B, Semmampadi to Chetput segment of NH-179D and Polur to Tiruvannamalai segment of NH-38. This 6/8 lane access-controlled highway will pass through six districts—Chennai, Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Salem and aims to reduce the driving time between Chennai and Salem from the present six hours by half.

The 277.3km-long centrally-sponsored and funded project will cut travel time between Chennai and Salem by half and aims to connect the industrial and special economic zones (SEZ) along the route. The proposed highway will be built by acquiring nearly 7,500 acres of land spread across the five districts of Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Tiruvannamalai and Kancheepuram.

The villagers allege that not only they will lose a vast expanse of greenery with several lush green coconut palms and fertile lands which will become a thing of the past, but also lose their peaceful life style. Moreover, they claim that with heavy vehicular traffic both during the execution of the project and after its completion, the sleepy towns along the highway will get highly disturbed. Many farmers’ organisations fear that the highway will affect acres and acres of productive rice farms in Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai. They also allege that they were not consulted and are upset about the measly compensation that is being offered for the acquisition of their lands for the project.

The opposition parties are alleging that the government is showing an unusual interest in this project and also maintain that no feasibility study was done.   But the government claims that that it had informed people about details of the project and invited their suggestions prior to finalising the engineering design. With the protests gaining momentum, the state government swung into action by detaining farmers and villagers who spearheaded the agitation in respective areas and promptly the opposition parties criticise the strong-arm tactics by the government. Despite stiff opposition from the farmers and political parties, the state government has kicked off the commencement of the project with land survey in Salem.

Government Stands Committed

The Chennai-Salem Greenfield expressway project is the first major infrastructure project in Tamil Nadu by the BJP led NDA government. While both the centre and the state governments are keen on the project and go all out to execute the same, in the wake of the emergence of anti-BJP forces and third front looming large, in which the DMK - the main opposition in Tamil Nadu is an ally, the state government is faced with severe protests.

Right from the start, the opposition parties have been questioning both the central and the state governments for the alacrity with which they are pushing the project and alleging it is done only to please some big industrialists. They also allege that because of such “vested interests’ the government is using arm-twisting tactics through police action and muffle the voice of the protestors.

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Rubbishing the opposition and the allegations of the protestors, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami asserted that the project would boost economic growth and the gains will far outweigh other factors. He said that the 277.3 km long eight-lane Greenfield project will stimulate industrial growth like the Mumbai-Pune and Delhi-Agra expressway projects.

Moreover, he said that the  proposed highway will cut distance by over 60 km and bring down the travel time by half (it will be only about 2 hours and 15 minutes between Salem-Chennai) and lead to an annual saving of `700 crore worth of fuel. Stating that quality roads were crucial for economic growth, he said the Greenfield highway will propel industrial growth, and lead to increase in Per Capita Income and GDP.

The state government also revised earlier compensation for land would be paid as per the new land acquisition law. Accordingly, for 1 Hectare (2.4 Acre) of land acquired, the government is ready to pay a maximum compensation package ranging from a minimum of Rs 21.52 lakh to a maximum of Rs 9.04 crore per hectare based on the market value of their respective parcels of land.

While, the concrete house measuring 500 square feet area with trees will get up to Rs 27.50 lakh compensation and Rs 25,000 would be given for the affected cattle shed, a monthly   compensation of Rs 3,000 will be provided for persons who vacate the houses for their rehabilitation. Besides, an additional compensation would be given for crops and trees including coconut, mango, tamarind and various fruit trees. Similarly, various other rehabilitation measures would also be implemented for the people, who give lands for the project including new houses under government scheme, free house site 'pattas' and self-employment opportunities. For those who are ready to dislocate with their entire family an amount Rs.50,000 will be paid for resettlement and another Rs.50,000 will be paid towards setting up small businesses for their livelihood and Rs.25,000 will be paid for those who are engaged in making handicrafts. Besides, in order to improve the overall quality of life of the people, the government has announced several beneficiary schemes which include providing training to educated youths, financial assistance to set up their businesses and solar power etc...  

The opposition and some NGOs have also raised   concerns over environmental issues and are apprehensive about large tracts of farm and forest lands getting affected in five districts. They insist the government to seek the views of local people before going ahead. But, the Chief Minister categorically ruled out such apprehensions that the project would affect environment, mineral resources, farm, and forest lands and claimed it is absolutely unwarranted. The expressway will open out new opportunities for industrial growth in the backward regions of Tiruvannamalai and Dharmapuri district.

The Chief Minister pointed out that for the Greenfield highway only about 1,900 hectares of land will be acquired and out of which about 400 hectares are government owned “poramboke” lands and only 49 hectare of forest land (falling in towns including Chengalpet, Arani, Polur, Chengam and Harur) corresponding to 9.955 km out of the total length of 277.30 km will be used for the project. In respect of about 3.1 km of forest land for Salem bypass section of the green highway, a tunnel will be constructed to ensure that forests were not affected, he said adding no hindrance would be caused to wildlife also. Besides, the government has planned to plant 3 lakh tree saplings on both sides of the highway.

Allegations and Benefits

Amidst increasing opposition, the project also attracts lots of support from the general public. Traditionally Tamil Nadu has attracted investors for setting up industries. But in the recent years, the current state leadership has been perceived to be weak and opposition parties jump in to all kinds of protests against anything and everything to make their presence felt.  Actually, in order to assert themselves as strong leaders than the ruling AIADMK, the opposition parties have pushed the people’s welfare and indulge in scuttling projects that can benefit Tamil Nadu. There are lot of half-truths and misleading statements floating around that really confuse people on one side and instigate them to indulge in violence on the other side.

There are reports that the expressway will be laid through villages and farms that could drastically affect mango farms in Salem, Mangoes from Salem district are hugely popular in Tamil Nadu.  But, in fact most of the lands that the highway will run through are wastelands. Similarly, in Thiruvannamalai, there are reports emerging that large tract of paddy fields   running in to several thousands of hectares will be destroyed for the project. But actually the amount of farmland that is likely to be acquired in the district for the project will be less than one per cent of the area under paddy cultivation.

Many villagers fear that expressway will be 900 feet wide, so they will be losing more of their lands. But,   the project’s maximum width will be around 256 feet. The thumb rule is that the width of a four-lane highway is 23.5 m and that of a six-lane one is 43.6 m. The 90 m includes service roads. Further, the expressway has been realigned to avoid affecting forest lands and it will pass through only on the fringe of the forest and only for 6 km. Of this, 3 km will be a tunnel.

Several fringe groups with vested interests are claiming that the project is being conceived to help only corporate firms and multi-nationals. But the corridor is coming up because the Chennai-Bengaluru and Chennai-Madurai national highways are being used at nearly 150 per cent of their capacity. Also, they point out that instead of new expressway, the Chennai-Bengaluru and Chennai-Madurai national highways can be extended to accommodate increase in traffic. But, while the Chennai-Bengaluru National Highway is seeing some 60,000 PCU (passenger car units) traffic against its 40,000 capacity, the Chennai-Madurai National Highway is seeing traffic of 80,000-90,000 PCU against its capacity of 40,000. If one has to take in to the consideration of future traffic, then  these highways cannot handle such a high capacity of traffic and accidents are bound to increase due to this. Further, the extension of these highways would require 2,200 hectares of land and demolition of about 40,000 houses and industries. On the other hand, the new highway will ease traffic in the two highways towards Tamil Nadu’s Western districts, Karnataka and Kerala and also lead to significant drop in accidents.

With the new eight-lane Greenfield express highway, the travel time from Chennai to Salem can be reduced from 6 hour 26 minutes to 3 hour 9 minutes.  The project will also cut transportation cost by 15% to 20%. Besides, it has also been proposed to be integrated/connected with other highways planned/executed in Tamil Nadu state in the future. The protestors are alleging that more than 100 hectares of reserve forest land in Tiruvannamalai, Dharmapuri and Salem districts will be destroyed to make way for the proposed ?10,000-crore project. But according to the NHAI report, a total of 2,791 hectares need to be acquired, of which 120 hectares is forest land.

Most importantly, the expressway will also help the units that come under the defence industrial corridor connecting Chennai, Tiruchi, Salem, Coimbatore and Bengaluru. With various industries, particularly those in Salem and Coimbatore, showing keen interest, the corridor will serve them in good stead to get their supplies or transport their product.

Further, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has shortlisted the Chennai-Salem expressway for applying for carbon credits, for it believes the roads to come up the project will reduce emissions.  The move by NHAI also allays the fears of the activists who had raised environmental concerns over the project. Besides, the NHAI has proposed to develop additional forest cover for 10 m each on both sides of the proposed expressway by planting over 3,00,000 trees in the recovery area, whereas the total project is expect to result in cutting of less than 10,000 trees.

Project of National Importance

In general most of the projects, worth its name, have faced lots of protests from various quarters. Especially the ones that demand the lands of the people and their dislocation are bound to face lot of resistance from the people as they feel that their livelihood will be affected.  But, after completion such projects are hailed by the people.

The fact remains that if the governments across the country  relent to protestors every time then the country would not have had so many industrial parks, special economy zones and technology parks  and India would have seen such growth over the years.  After all infrastructure sector is a key driver for the growth of a country. Developing world class infrastructure in the country will propel India’s overall development.

In the recent years , it has become a trend in Tamil Nadu to vehemently oppose  any project of national importance. Increasingly the state government has to face lot of  hurdles and turbulence. If the people are genuinely concerned about the future generations, then should carefully analyse the benefits arising out of such huge projects for the state as well as the society as a whole.

The “Golden Quadrilateral” project is considered as one of the major milestones in the history of the country.  Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is still hailed for successfully implementing his dream project.  The Golden Quadrilateral is a highway network forming a quadrilateral connecting the four major metros of Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai and many of the major industrial, agricultural and cultural centres across India. It is the largest highway project in India and the fifth longest in the world connecting more than 15 cities in the country.

The Chennai Salem Expressway will be the second longest expressway amongst the operational expressways in the country.  It will also be the first expressway in the state of Tamil Nadu, and is being seen as the BJP government's first big infrastructure project in the State where it has been trying to make inroads into the electoral base. 

In the backdrop of  severe protests and allegations by the political parties, the  Confederation of Indian Industry, Tamil Nadu, has welcomed the  expressway and  said would  bring sweeping changes and enhance economic growth of the central districts in the state. The CII has said that the project would also give a fillip to agro-processing industries.

With both the centre and state governments backing the project to the tilt, the work on the eight-lane expressway project has been moving on at breakneck speed

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