Coconut farmer Mohana Sundaram is in tears. He is set to lose his 30-year-old farm and home on three acres of land that would be taken over by the government for the super highway project, connecting Chennai and Salem. Not only Mohana, thousands of farmers in Tamil Nadu are anguished over the acquisition of farm land for highway construction.
Farmers have accused Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswami of "washing his hands off" over worries of losing their livelihood. The Chief Minister on Saturday said the highway project is a central scheme and his government "can't do anything about it" other than expediting the land acquisition.
Around 5,000 acres of farmland and forests would be taken over for the project as per government sources. The highway construction entails slicing through hills to build tunnels in Salem district, while going through reserve forests as well.
The government claims the proposed highway would reduce travel time between Chennai and Salem from six to three hours but local people say there are existing road links and there is no need for another one. "There are three other highways already connecting Chennai and Salem. Why can't they widen them? What development are they talking about destroying thousands of acres of green fields? You are worried about increasing traffic. What about rising demand for food? We get a raw deal at every level. The contractors would get much more than the market rates but we will be shown the guideline...the government is cheating its own people," Mohana told NDTV.
Another farmer Parimala Rajan (name changed), in Poolavari, in the Chief Minister's hometown Salem said, "Palaniswami can't say he can't do anything about it. He's our Chief Minister and he ought to explain the problems to the central government. Why does he always say that his government is for the people, by the people... why should we have an elected government?"
Similar stories dot the 277-kilometre stretch earmarked for the highway. In Tiruvannamalai's Nammiyendhal village, farmers show the fertile paddy and sugarcane fields they would be losing.
55-year-old K Ananthasayinam would have to part with his 3-acre high yielding paddy and sugarcane farms. The market value of farmlands here is around Rs 1 lakh per cent (over 435 sq feet) but the government guideline value is Rs 2, 000 only he claims. Even if the government gives four times it would add up to only Rs 8, 000 per cent, which Ananthasayinam says is too little to set up a new home. "We never asked for this project. Why do you trample on us to help corporates, who have plans to mine ore from hills on this corridor," said the paddy farmer.
Over the last one week farmers have stepped up protests; they have stopped officers from laying marking stones and planted black flags on the fields.
Actor Kamal Haasan backed the protesting farmers. Two weeks ago he criticised the Tamil Nadu government for arresting people protesting the eight-lane corridor. "To treat anyone talking about environment as a criminal is not acceptable," the actor-turned politician said when asked about his views on the growing anger among farmers and environmentalists.
In the last two weeks actor Mansoor Ali Khan and environmentalist-activist Piyish Manush were arrested for allegedly leading farmers' protests in Salem. The farmers' protests come within months of the anti-Sterlite protests in Tuticorin, where 13 were killed in police firing.