On April 8, the Madras High Court quashed land acquisition proceedings launched by the Central and state governments for the proposed Chennai-Salem greenfield corridor. The court’s decision is welcome relief, not only for the vulnerable groups that would have been displaced but also for ecologies the highway would have disrupted.
But the whole episode, from the hurried sanctioning of the project to the crushing of public protests against it, paints a worrying picture. It took a court to protect people and forests from governments that are frankly dismissive of environmental norms and the basic rights of citizens.
The public interest behind building the highway, which was to be part of the Centre’s ambitious Bharatmala Pariyojana project, was never clear. The Bharatmala project claims to bridge “critical infrastructure gaps”, yet Chennai and Salem are already connected by two national highways. The court also rejected the pre-feasibility report compiled by the National Highways Authority of India, citing a list of benefits, as a “cut and paste job”.
Meanwhile, the financial and human costs of the project were high. The 277-kilometre, eight-lane highway cutting across reserve forests and agricultural land, passed through 159 villages on the way. A large part of the agricultural community here are Vanniyars, a most backward caste group in Tamil Nadu, and Dalits. Not only would livelihoods be lost, petitioners against the highway argued, food security in the region would also be threatened.
Perhaps worst of all was the government’s attempt to ram the project through, with little regard for legality. It claimed environmental clearances were not needed because the project had been sanctioned under the National Highways Act – an argument dismissed by the court. It launched the process of land acquisition and transfers despite court stays on the process and without the social impact assessment mandated by the 2013 land acquisition law. When farmers started protesting, the local administration launched a campaign of intimidation: midnight knocks by the police, arbitrary arrests and detentions, even the obstruction of farmers trying to file objections with the district authorities. The Chennai-Salem project revealed the state at its most venal and predatory.
While this highway will not be built, the Bharatmala Pariyojana remains on the cards, part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s new manifesto, a project that involves adding about 34,800 kilometres of new road. It is not the only grandiose scheme of dubious public interest devised by the BJP that requires massive funds and tracts of land, with potentially disastrous environmental effects. Take the river-linking project, meant to connect all rivers in the country through a network of reservoirs and canals in some sort of fantasy of national integration. Or the rash of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand, revived by the Centre despite the Supreme Court stay on them after devastating floods in 2013. Connectivity, irrigation, power are all vital needs, but the Centre needs to ask itself whether these hubristic schemes are the best means to them.