6-lane highway threatens a reserve forest
In the middle of January, government officials began to appear and marked at first a large cross on the road. Then they returned and began to measure the width of a road.
In the middle of January, government officials began to appear and marked at first a large cross on the road. Then they returned and began to measure the width of a road. One morning, everyone woke to find yellow stone markers thumped into their private fields. Farmers K Yezhamalai, 55, with his one and a half acres of land, KM Balrama and his brother, KM Parthasarathy with 4 acres between them, Sriramu with his 40 cents, E Venkatraman with 60 cents, Devendran with his 2.5 acres, Manoharan with 2.5 acres, Viji and P Venkatsubramanian with his 1.5 acres, would all see a six-lane 70 km-wide 126-foot highway running through their land.
It would connect Chittoor to Thathchoor on demarcated highway points that do not yet exist. When the officials returned on February 12, merely a day after the gram sabhas submitted their objections collectively to the district collector, villagers from over 150 nearby hamlets gathered, anguished, in protest and resisted until police were called in to quell the unrest.
The problem is the real impact of a highway connecting two imaginary points on a yet unbuilt expressway for a private port expansion that hasn’t come to fruition, says Sudhir Kumar, a Chennai-based architect who has been working with a group of young volunteers across several groups that are now trying to help the farmers survey and document their potential loss.
None of the farmers received individual notices. When questioned, the officials invoked the right of National Highways Act 1956, 3A, the right to acquire land for a highway.
The planned highway will destroy 32 hectares of the Pulikundram reserve forest and facilitate connectivity to PonneriSmart City, Mahindra World City, and the Adani-acquired multi-commodity Katupalli port and the northern container terminal at the Kamrajar port at Ennore with an investment of ~800 crore, on the estuary of the Kosathaliyar river.
While capacity was to be expanded to 252 million tonnes per annum, the port lay idle for a bulk of 2018 due to the high charges levied by Kamarajar Port Ltd. Environmental activists as well as the Coastal Resource Centre have been objecting separately to the port expansion, as it will narrow the mouth of the estuary to 30 feet, creating scope for massive flooding impacting the Kosathaliyar river’s current bankful discharge of 3540 m3/s. It also drains 3741 sq km of Chennai metropolitan area and is a vital ecoresource. Villagers in the region have previously protested the illegal maps used by the government that do not fully reflect the land use, and have brought them under the CRZ.
The government-authorised survey identifies the land use as “predominantly barren and agriculture fields” and 27 ponds/check dams of which “some are directly impacted”. It also claims there is “water scarcity in this region” but identifies 64% land in the path of the highway as agricultural. Volunteer research done with the villagers identifies through oral history, geomapping and physical survey, 47 water bodies, across 10 villages so far directly or indirectly impacted by the expressway.
The farmers want to know if the highway being built will benefit them in any way. At Nemelli, when the water desalination plant was completed, neither the jobs that were promised came through nor did the water supply. Nobody has even discussed compensation yet.