“They tried to dupe us by getting ‘no objection’ letters from farmers who couldn’t write or read.”
Farmers in Tiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu, are protesting a new six-lane greenfield expressway that they say is being pushed through with complete disregard for their consent as well as the proper procedures.
Christened NH 716B, it is only the latest of many highway projects rolled out in Tamil Nadu under the Bharatmala Pariyojona scheme.
The 126.5-km-long road will intersect Pulikundram reserve forest in the Red Hills range of Tiruvallur district. As a result, at least 32 hectares of forest land will have to be cleared so that the road can go up to the Kamarajar and Kattupalli ports.
Around 885.5 hectares of land – 525 hectares in Andhra Pradesh and 360.5 hectares in Tamil Nadu – is set to be acquired for the project. A major portion – 64% – has been identified as agriculture, and the remainder as ‘barren’ (12%) and reserve forest (10%).
Farmers from 26 villages that lie along the project’s sites have since formed the Tiruvallur District Farmers and Labourers Coordination Committee (TDFLCC) to coordinate their response. The committee surveyed the sites and found that though the proposed highway requires 900 acres of land, it would spell doom for around 20,000 acres of agricultural lands because the expressway will cut across many bore-wells and irrigation systems.
The farmers learnt about the land acquisition itself only when the government of Tamil Nadu took out an advertisement in local newspapers on October 31, 2018, detailing the patta numbers to be acquired.
Then, in January 2019, officials demarcated tracts of land for the project without the farmers’ consent or knowledge. After this, the residents of seven villages registered their objections with the gram sabha and the district collector.
In February, they were called for a public hearing and according to them were made to wait for over five hours before Karuppaiah, the special district revenue officer (DRO), showed up. They said he told the farmers verbally that they had no other options other than to agree to the acquisition, and refused to listen to their responses. When they grew angry, the villagers said police personnel were brought on scene to disperse them.
When other government officials showed up a few days later to survey the lands, the villagers resisted their attempts to erect marking stones and uprooted them.
“Every acre yields about 40 to 50 bags of rice,” a farmer who stands to lose two acres of his four said. “We provide affordable vegetables and rice for the population of Chennai. Can the government compensate us for the rest of our lives?”
He and others fear the elevated and barricaded nature of the road will also hinder the movement of people, cattle, agricultural goods. Improper planning – as has been the norm – will also render the tracts of land flanking it susceptible to floods.
“They tried to dupe us by getting ‘no objection’ letters from farmers who couldn’t write or read,” Sasikumar, a 39-year-old farmer from Kakkavakkam and a convener of the TDFLCC, said. He alleged that the DRO had instructed his colleagues to appear to help the farmers even as they prepared the letters to seem as if the farmers had consented to the project. “When I noticed this, I snatched away all the forms and alerted the villagers.”
When contacted, Karuppaiah vehemently denied the allegations and insisted that he had simply forwarded their objection to the higher authorities. He refused to comment further because he had since been transferred to another department.
The villagers organised a meeting in late March to discuss ways to bring the issue to the chief minister’s attention. Edappadi Palanisamy was scheduled to address a gathering in the district. However, police personnel banned any slogans or display of placards at the campaign rally. So the villagers could only submit a petition.
In 2018, the Adani Group had bagged a deal to develop the Bhavanapadu port in Andhra Pradesh. The same year, it acquired a 97% stake in the Kattuppalli port for Rs 1,950 crore.
Devendra Reddy, a 68-year-old farmer also from Kakkavakkam who stands to lose all his three acres, alleged that”the government’s rush to construct these roads” is a sign that it is working “hand in glove with Adani ports.
“Our lives don’t matter to the government. We are easy targets to deepen their pockets.”
At first, the expert appraisal committee (EAC) of the Union environment ministry stated that the project presentation did not cover all the aspects to be examined. It also held that proper alternatives hadn’t been worked out because the project is set to pass over many water tanks as well as through a big chunk of forest. Finally, it said that the two points the road intended to connect – on the Chennai-Bangalore expressway and the Chennai peripheral road – didn’t currently exist.
However, the EAC soon pulled a volte face, after the amount of forest land to be cleared was reduced from 32.14 ha to 4.9 ha and the number of water bodies disturbed along the proposed alignment was reduced from 27 to 21. It is not clear how or why this happened because it is not clear how the project can avoid cutting through the forest.
But “at present there is no change in the alignment,” said G. Athipathi, the project director. “The road is not cutting through the reserve forest, it will only be abetting the reserve forest. We are still working it out with the forest department.”
There is no assessment report on the impact the 126.5-km road, and its construction, will have on the water bodies even as its length itself remains unchanged in the larger plan. And, it seems, irrespective of how the plan will be revised henceforth, land acquisition has begun.