On Monday, the Tamil Nadu police, still facing heavy criticism for the firing that killed 13 people during an agitation in Thoothukudi on May 22, arrested environment activist Piyush Manush for a meeting he organised in Thumbipadi village in the state’s Salem district.

A day earlier, actor Mansoor Ali Khan was arrested for making a threatening speech at the same meeting. He had allegedly declared that he would kill eight people if the eight-lane Chennai-Salem Greenfield Corridor is constructed.

On Tuesday, a journalism student, Valarmathi, was detained by the police for threatening officers while protesting against the project.

Over the last three weeks, the opposition to the project – billed by the state government as a “game changer” for the economy of Tamil Nadu’s central districts – has been building up slowly.

The Opposition has questioned the alacrity with which the government is pushing the project, which will cost Rs 10,000 crore and will entail the acquisition of thousands of hectares of agricultural land and several hectares of forest land, cutting across five districts and eight reserved forests. Greenfield projects are those that are built from scratch.

In its eagerness to implement the project, the state government seems to have decided that any protest questioning the project has to be dealt with through police action. On Wednesday, the police picked up over 20 persons, some belonging to the All India Kisan Sabha, for organising a consultation meeting on the project in Tiruvannamalai. They were released that evening itself after farmers threatened to agitate before the superintendent of police’s office.

The government has begun work to mark the land identified for the project. This has led to opposition from farm owners, which too is being dealt with by the police.

On Tuesday, MK Stalin, the working president of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, tweeted a newspaper clipping of a photograph of several police officers picking up an old woman in Salem who opposed the land identification process. In the tweet, he questioned if Tamil Nadu was a democratic state or a police hunting ground.

Farmers’ organisations in the region have now called for a black flag protest on June 26. This will be followed by an agitation on July 6 in which they plan to burn the government order that announced the project.

Origins of the project

On February 25, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, in a letter to Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, suggested that a greenfield expressway corridor be constructed between Salem and Chennai “that will substantially reduce the distance [between the two cities] and save fuel”. Such an expressway will boost the socio-economic status of the state in a big way, the chief minister said. He wanted the project to be included in the Centre’s Bharatmala Pariyojana highway development scheme.

On the same day, following a meeting with Palaniswami, Gadkari announced in New Delhi that the work on the project will begin in two months. He also said that the project would cost Rs 10,000 crore and it would be an access-controlled highway.

The speed with which the Union minister’s announcement came – that is, on the day of the chief minister’s letter – raised several eyebrows. A Shankar, writer and transparency activist in Chennai, said it was not clear how the cost of the project was determined so quickly, if, of course, the February 25 letter was the first time the state government had suggested such a project to the Centre. “This could be the fastest ever cost identification in the country,” said Shankar.

Things moved at breakneck speed from this point. S Shanmugam, state secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said public announcements about the project and the land acquisition it entailed were made, and public meetings were called for. “But these public meetings have not taken place,” he said. “Instead, they have begun the work of marking the fields meant for acquisition.”

Further, the chief minister’s letter mentions that three different routes connecting Chennai to Salem already exist. This are the 345 km Salem-Villupuram-Chennai route, 360 km Salem-Krishnagiri-Walajah-Chennai route and the 319 km Chennai-Tiruvannamalai-Oragadam-Tambaram route.

The government has claimed that the new greenfield expressway will cut the distance between Salem and Chennai by 60 km, to about 270 km. However, the time to cover this distance will be cut by half of the current six hours.

Project details

After the Centre issued the terms of reference for the project in April, a consultant, Feedback Infra Private Limited, was appointed for a detailed project report. In its draft feasibility report, the consultant said the existing routes take longer to traverse as they are not access controlled.

“The travel time from Chennai to Salem can be reduced from 6 hour 26 minutes to 3 hour 9 minutes with eight-lane greenfield express highway, whose alignment is also proposed to be integrated/connected with other highways planned/executed in Tamil Nadu state in the future,” the report said. The project will also cut transportation cost by 15% to 20%.

However, farmers’ organisations and activists are not convinced. They have raised two primary questions. First, if congestion is the problem, why is the government not undertaking decongestion efforts along the existing routes? Two, activists point out that if economic development was the idea behind the project, the Rs 10,000 crore that the project will cost could be used to improve last-mile connectivity of existing smaller roads in the region instead of developing an expressway between cities that already have three different routes connecting them.

There is also confusion regarding the extent of land that needs to be acquired for the project. While the chief minister told the Assembly that the project would need 1,900 hectares of land, including 49 hectares of forest land, the minutes of an May 7 meeting of the Union Ministry of Environment’s Expert Appraisal Committee said a total of 2,560 hectares of land would be needed. There are about 32 settlements in the proposed alignment. “The tentative length of affected forest area along the proposed alignment is 13.290 km,” the minutes of the meeting said, quoting the project consultants. This would translate to about 120 hectares of affected forest land.

The project will also require 11,20,000 kilolitres of water during construction.

Shanmugam said the project would cut through water channels and fertile agricultural fields. The highway will also pass through several rivers. At a time when the state is facing an acute water scarcity, such projects will not help, he said.

Chief Minister Palaniswami hails from Edappadi in Salem. Opposition parties allege this is the reason why he is eager to complete the project.

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this article said that Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had announced the Chennai-Salem expressway project on February 26. The announcement was made on February 25 in New Delhi.