- The proposed Chennai-Salem expressway in Tamil Nadu is expected to bring in industrial and economic growth but villagers to be displaced fear losing their farmlands and having to migrate to cities as construction labour.
- The greenfield expressway is expected to reduce the time of travel from Chennai to Salem and also help in developing an industrial and economic corridor. The villagers who will lose their agricultural land have been protesting against the project.
- The Tamil Nadu Government has been clamping down on protests and arresting not only the villagers but also those coming from outside to support them.
Thirty-year-old Lakshmi, a day labourer from Chengam in Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu, is grief-stricken at the thought of not being able to grow her favourite flower anymore – the mullakannu, Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac). She looks at a piece of rock in place of her much-loved spot to grow the flower. The rock will be replaced by an asphalt road running across her field and her home.
It will not be just another road, but an expressway. It will take over her childhood home, her family and her flowering plant. The expressway will cause her family to move to Chennai, the land of promise for many. But for Lakshmi, every day she will spend in Chennai will be a reminder of her failure.
The road is an ambitious project of the Tamil Nadu government – an eight-lane expressway connecting the metropolitan Chennai with Salem, another important city in the state. The project has seen many protests, many arrests and much anger. The longest distance – 122 km – will cut across the pilgrimage town Tiruvannamalai and its hamlets and villages.
The road will pass through 159 villages in 14 taluks of five districts – Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Salem. The maximum of these 159 villages lies in and around Tiruvannamalai, where 122 km of the highway will pass through. Thousands of families can lose their livelihoods to the road.
An industrial and economic corridor
According to the 286-page feasibility report, the highway is expected to reduce the transportation cost of vehicles by 15 to 20 per cent and the travel time from 6 hours to 3 hrs 26 minutes. Better connectivity to major towns through spurs at Kanchipuram-Changalpattu, Chetpet and Tiruvannamalai utilising existing SH-58, SH-4 & NH-234 (state highways and national highways) respectively, is said to be a major plus. Shorter travel time and distance compared to existing routes is also another selling point for the project.
The Greenfield (being developed anew) highway intends on connecting industrial area and special economic zones present along Chennai and Salem districts. The report’s introduction finally ends by saying that the new access-controlled greenfield highway will pave the way for the economic development of the region.
Over time, Tamil Nadu police have cracked down on protesters, journalists and activists for opposing the highway. Charges include “provoking” the public and attempting to kill policemen. But the anger is valid. The highway will intersect through many homes and fields and displace people who belong to lower socio-economic classes. The case of Tiruvannamalai and its adjoining villages is one of the examples.
Double whammy: Drought and highway
Lakshmi’s husband 43-year-old Palani has not been able to grow rice for three years. For the residents of Chengam, the double whammy of drought and the Salem-Chennai expressway has brought deep losses. “We have not got good rain for years. We are so scared to grow any kind of crop. And now that the highway is coming up, we have no chance at all to even use groundwater to sustain the crop,” he said.
Water is a big concern. Many tanks and lakes are likely to no longer receive rain collected from the hills in Tiruvannamalai and many of the wells in the area have already been covered with rocks for the road to come up.
“We didn’t get an official notice. They just began lining rocks and ignored us when we asked them questions,” Palani said.
Palani’s neighbour Jaya lost her farmer husband to alcohol and depends on her son Senthil to bring home money. She pulled out her husband’s photograph and cried quietly. “I have no husband and no field now either,” she said.
“Nobody wants your self-pity, Amma,” Senthil chided her. He had been travelling 10 days a month to work as a labourer in construction sites in Chennai. He never had faith in farming as a lucrative occupation. “I knew that one day, we will be destroyed by the promise of development and now it has finally happened,” he commented.
No mention of compensation
Jaya and Palani are among the many who have found out while reading newspapers that the government will provide them compensation, but have not been told by any government official about compensation and rehabilitation. Palani said he also had land ready a few kilometres from Tiruvannamalai, but his calculation that the highway will not run through it went wrong.
Many farmers, they said, have been detained for talking to journalists and activists. Lakshmi said a man came to her home, “probably a policeman in plain clothes,” and began waking them up in the middle of the night. “They asked us what political party we belonged to and even beat up women,” she said. “Now every time they walk around the village, we are forced to salute and prostrate before the very men who threaten and abuse us,” she added, asking this writer to leave quickly before being noticed by the police.
In Ettolisalai, 30 km away from Tiruvannamalai town, all the lakes have dried. Groundwater can only be found 500 ft below land. The village consists of migrants from Telangana and was the first to protest the highway, after which the protesters were detained by the Tamil Nadu police. “The police hate us,” said Janani. The villagers there mainly cultivate paddy and rice while some of the women work as day labourers and teachers.
The village and ones surrounding it have depended on the Sathnoor dam. But due to drought, the dam might soon dry up. “And now that the highway is coming up, our lakes will dry up and we cannot depend on the dam for all of our needs,” Janani said.
In Ettolisalai, the village near Chengam that was once awarded by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as the best village in India, the threat of development has cost them their pride. “In the gram sabha, we asked them not to construct the road, and we raised our voice against it. They asked us to sign a petition against it if we oppose it but no petition was submitted to the government despite us giving one,” said Barani, who cultivates groundnuts and chillies.
Despite media reports offering compensation and rehabilitation, the district collector has told the villagers that no such amount of compensation has been intimated to them by the state.
But for the village and the villages around, police brutality has been a major issue. A day before this writer visited the village, Yogendra Yadav, the convenor of the socio-political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan was detained for talking to villagers. Men of the village were arrested and women were abused. Tiruvannamalai’s villages have been on a clampdown ever since the highway project was announced and any sort of opposition has been curbed.
On August 21, the Madras High Court restrained the Centre and Tamil Nadu Government from dispossessing people of their lands to be acquired for the highway, till further hearing on petitions filed against the project. But for the villagers of Chengam, there is no respite. They are gripped by uncertainty. They say that the road development will benefit the government and others. But for them, the project could mean displacement and suffering.