By Aashika Ravi
“If we wanted the government’s compensation, we would sell our land at the market value for 5 crores, build a nice house with an AC and enjoy. But we’ve held on to this land despite so many hardships so that generations of our children and grandchildren can live here. If the time comes, we will just drink medicine (poison) and sleep. They can lay their road wherever they want.” This is Kavitha’s defiant response, when asked what she would do if the government forcibly acquired her land for the Salem-Chennai Green Corridor project.
Kavitha’s is not an isolated story. Farmers whose land falls in the ambit of the proposed expressway are in the process of losing everything they own, while the Tamil Nadu government has presented them with a compensation policy lacking any forethought or comprehensive assessment.
The 277 km-long highway, a project whose expenditure is estimated to be 10,000 crores, has been opposed vehemently since its proposition. The Tamil Nadu government on its part, has cracked down violently on protesters, arresting activists Piyush Manush and Valarmathi among others in what is a gross infringement on their freedom of expression. On July 4th, filmmaker Divya Bharathi applied for anticipatory bail because police officials were allegedly harassing her at her residence and workplace in the wake of the release of her documentary Orutharum Varela, about the Cyclone Ockhi and the politics behind it.
For those of us wondering what on earth is happening to democracy on that side of the Kaveri, policy analyst and researcher, Manasi Karthik, breaks down what is happening in Tamil Nadu at the moment. Manasi Karthik is doing her PhD research on land and forest rights at Johns Hopkins University. She reports on land conflict in Tamil Nadu for the Land Conflict Watch, a research-based data journalism project that maps, collects, and analyses ongoing land conflicts in India. Manasi currently studies port-led industrial development in Tamil Nadu with the support of the Vettiver Collective.
Here are seven questions about the Salem-Chennai Green Corridor Project:
1. The Salem-Chennai Expressway is part of the Bharatmala project. What is the Bharatmala project?
Bharatmala is a central government initiative undertaken to improve connectivity infrastructure in India. But the Bharatmala programme does not exist in isolation, it is also linked to Sagarmala, which is a platform for port-led industrialisation, and Make in India, which aims to increase manufacturing in India.
These initiatives imitate the Chinese model of radiating, port-led development (Read, India’s ‘Let’s copy China hopelessly project’). This is why the feasibility report for the Salem-Chennai Expressway contains plagiarised paragraphs that have apparently been pasted directly from a report referring to the Chinese city of Xi’an. The Salem-Chennai Expressway is expected to connect to the Ennore Port via another newly proposed Northern Port Access Road. Plans under Sagarmala also propose to increase steel and iron ore mining along the Salem-Chennai Expressway to feed proposed manufacturing clusters on the Chennai coast.
2. Are those opposing the project opposing industrialisation?
Tamil Nadu is one of the most highly industrialised states in India. Large land acquisition projects have proceeded apace in the state with little resistance for over two decades now. People are opposing these projects because they now understand the real costs of development.
Instead of increasing employment these projects have cost people their health, lives and livelihoods. Most projects don’t employ those that they displace. And even the few who are employed by these projects are subject to unsafe working conditions that cause serious (and sometimes fatal) workplace injuries. Those in regions surrounding such projects are also subjected to severe health hazards.
Even when working conditions are acceptable, livelihoods are still extremely insecure. Workers are employed under temporary work contracts that offer no security and little benefits. Workers at the North Chennai Thermal Power Station in Ennore have been protesting temporary contracts for the last one month but have so far received little except empty assurances.
The people of Tamil Nadu have borne the fallout of ‘development’ for over two decades now. They have seen the devastating consequences such projects have for their lives and livelihoods. And they are demanding that they stop being treated as collateral damage by the very same projects that claim to bring them economic development.
3. The Project Feasibility Report for the Salem-Chennai Expressway is riddled with plagiarised paragraphs and vague answers to important questions. Is this what government reports are typically like, or is this a lot worse?
Yes, government agencies and private consultants often produce excessively long, dense reports with material that is either irrelevant, highly-generalised or outright plagiarised, as in this case. But this is nothing compared to the blatant illegalities, environmental violations, corruption and sub-standard operation that is the norm for such projects (Read, the government thinks its too cool for rules).
The Delhi-Meerut Expressway, a similar project that was inaugurated with such pomp and splendour just a month ago by Prime Minister Modi, has now collapsed immediately after rains due to engineering failures.
Pooja Kumar at the Coastal Resource Centre has found that the Kamarajar Port Trust in Ennore has been given the go-ahead for expansion by the Environmental Advisory Committee based on maps that have not been legally approved and false claims that the project falls within port limits.
Concrete bunds are also already being constructed for a proposed Free Trade Warehouse Zone in Ennore that is yet to be approved. Similarly, in Kanyakumari, preparations for an International Container Port Terminal proceeded even without the project receiving environmental clearance. But when such transgressions are pointed out to the government these projects are not penalised but are simply granted environmental clearances retrospectively!
4. Why is it that the government is enthusiastically silencing anyone who opposes the project, but has not done its own homework in the report?
Both governments and private companies have learned that they will never really have to face consequences for failing to comply with the law or cracking down on citizens. In the worst case scenario, the maximum penalties for industries are fines of Rs.100 or 200 crores which are just a small fraction of the profits they rake in.
So why would industries bother to do their homework or comply with the environmental and social due diligence if it’s so much easier for them to simply use corrupt and under-handed means to steamroll through dissent?
The government is also more than willing to enable industries to evade penalties and bypass the law. In 2016, the Union Environment Ministry chose to withdraw fines imposed on Adani Ports & SEZ. The recent atrocities in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu can also be traced back to a long history of complicity by the government. In 1995, the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi an environmental clearance without receiving the necessary Environmental Impact Assessment. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board also gave the plant its license to operate despite knowing that the plant did not meet specifications.
The Tamil Nadu government is now silencing dissenters and violating the freedom of press. Police officers have filed First Information Reports against the television channel Puthiya Thalamurai, preventing them from broadcasting discussions of recent protests in the state. Tamil Nadu’s main network provider, Arasu Cable, has also reportedly been taking channels off air.
We now have a government that is not only willing to turn a blind eye to flagrant violations by industries but actually take up arms against its own people to aid and abet the unfettered power enjoyed by a select group of industries.
5. The public consultation step has apparently already been undertaken in preparation of the feasibility report. Does this mean that there is no legal way to force them to reconsider the project, or can things still change?
The main problem with the legal environment surrounding land acquisition in India is that a variety of contradicting laws contravene the provisions of both the central land acquisition law of 2013 and the constitutional principle of eminent domain.
The feasibility report and consultations that have been undertaken for this project violate the 2013 Land Acquisition Act which requires that a Social Impact Assessment is undertaken to establish whether or not a project is in the public interest and to obtain the consent of 70% of those whose land will be acquired. These conditions have not been complied with because land acquisition for the Salem-Chennai Expressway is not being undertaken as per the 2013 Land Acquisition Act and is instead achieved under the National Highways Act of 1956.
The problem with having multiple laws under which the government can initiate land acquisition is that land acquisition can only be challenged by challenging the laws themselves.
Land acquisition for the Salem-Chennai expressway presents such an extreme violation that the law is indeed being challenged. The Tamil Nadu based environmental organisation, Poovulagin Nanbargal, has filed a Public Interest Litigation(PIL) challenging Section 105 of the National Highways Act, which waives public hearings for National Highways.
However, petitioners filing PILs in cases pertaining to land acquisition face serious hurdles in establishing locus standi. A previous PIL filed in the Madras High Court with respect to fraudulent land acquisition for a thermal power plant in Cheyyur was dismissed by the Madras High Court because the petitioner was not a land owner. Nevertheless, we need continue to find ways to challenge these laws. If we didn’t do so there would be no legal way to oppose land acquisition except on procedural grounds.
6. Why do farmers feel that they are not being adequately compensated for their land?
There is a lot more at stake for project-affected communities than just the loss of their land. They are also losing entire livelihoods. For example, one major point of contention for those affected by the Salem-Chennai Highway is the compensation for the trees on their lands. These trees are an integral part of a farmer’s long-term livelihood security, and farmers are not being adequately compensated for them.
It’s also important to understand that not everyone who will be affected by the project owns land. Women, farm-labourers, migrant communities are all overlooked by this compensation policy. Women are perhaps most vulnerable because even those women who belong to land-holding families don’t have land titles in their names and won’t receive any compensation. This is why the 2013 Land Acquisition Act calls for a Social Impact Assessment which can comprehensively compensate livelihoods beyond land-ownership alone. But the National Highways Act of 1956 does not provide for such comprehensive compensation. In fact, it even exempts highways that are ostensibly undertaken in the public interest from public hearings!
7. What is the way forward from here?
We need to free the public debate from the polemic that those opposing such projects are anti-development and anti-industrialisation. Farmers and the rural poor in India have been awaiting economic development that can bring them real livelihood security. Instead, they are handed a cocktail of corruption and cronyism.
Tamil Nadu has a stated policy that land acquisition is to be carried out by purchasing land on the market from land-owners as much as possible instead of utilising land acquisition laws. Private projects enlist real estate consultants to undertake the majority of land acquisition by aggressively purchasing land from farmers. This not only enables the state to bypass legal requirements for rehabilitation and compensation but also engenders land mafias.
It is also clear that the state is not just silencing dissent but actively stirring social unrest. The recent atrocities in Thoothukudi have been reported in the media as a police firing on protesters or as a shootout. However, a people’s inquest consisting of eminent lawyers and retired judges collected testimony that police officials were sent to a village at least 10 kilometres from the protest site where they shot an unarmed woman through the face. Recent arrests of activists in Salem also suggests that the state is intent on stirring social tensions so as to incite violence. This then becomes an easy way to write dissenters off. So we need to remember that what is at stake here is not development but democracy.