As protests by farmers across Tamil Nadu against the proposed 277-km eight lane Chennai-Salem highway continue, NDTV traveled along the stretch to understand why farmers and environmentalists alike have firmly opposed the Rs 10,000 crore project.
Authorities say the green corridor project would uproot around six thousand trees. However, environmentalists claim the loss would be much more, with at least 3 lakh trees being uprooted and hundreds of lakes and water bodies that would be encroached upon.
Farmers say the government has decided to not pay market value for the land it acquires from them, but has chosen instead to pay four times the guideline value, which is a value that is derived based on its own metrics. Farmers claim the value is too little to rehabilitate them, adding that the government is cheating them.
Robert, a farmer said, "They are giving eight thousand rupees for an acre. An acre here costs one lakh rupees."
The state government has also reduced the guideline value in several key areas after holding no public hearing, despite loud protests. Officials have started work by laying marking stones and police personnel have been deployed to quell opposition.
The highway will slice through several hill ranges - Jarugumalai, Shevaroys, Kalrayan, Javvadhu, Kavuthimalai and Vediappanmalai hills, acquiring a 10 km long forest area in the process.
Piyush Manush, an environmentalist who was put behind bars after a protest says, "Hundreds of lakes and many rivers get water through them. You are cutting through very important ecological corridor of water. Already we are looking for water from Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra. It's high time we save every drop of water and every inch of water catchment."
Chief Minister E Palaniswami has washed his hands off, saying it's a central government project and his job is to only facilitate acquisition.
There are three other highways connecting Salem and Chennai. While the government says the proposed highway would reduce distance by 50 kilometres and travel time by half, farmers say that claim was a lie.
The proposed 277 km expressway with a 120 km speed limit, activists point out, connects only the outskirts of Chennai and Salem. For instance, it starts 36 km away from Chennai city, hiding the time consuming congested city stretches beyond to make it appear faster and shorter. Instead existing highways could be widened.
"The stretch from Changalpet or Vandalur is the most congested bit. They should actually build eight lanes there," says Mr Manush.
"Just straighten all the bends and widen the existing highways. That would be fine," said another farmer, Peter.
Chief Minister Palaniswami also denied allegations that the real purpose of the highway was to help corporates extract iron ore from the hill ranges.
The project actually runs close to three hills rich in iron ore - Kanjamalai in Salem, Kavuthimalai and Vediappanmalai in Thiruvannamalai.
L Velusamy, a farmer says," Through this project the government connects these mining locations with Chennai port and Salem airport to ship the extracted ore".
"It's a futuristic project that would help Tamil Nadu develop. We ought to develop infrastructure to create employment opportunities. Only then new industries can be created. This green corridor is brought for the overall development of Tamil Nadu," the chief minister said in his defence.
While many hope there would be legal intervention, farmers say both the ruling AIADMK and the BJP may have to answer some tough questions before the 2019 polls.
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