A massive agitation is brewing in Kerala against the proposed widening of Natonal Highway (NH) 47 and 17 passing through Kerala. The main contentions of those who oppose the project is that more than 10 lakhs people will be displaced and that 840 kms of these two highways put together will cease to be ‘public road’ as the project is conceived under Build Operate Transfer (BOT) scheme. The agitation is spearheaded by the NH47- NH17 Joint Action Council.

NH47 enters Kerala at Palakkad in the north and exits to Kanyakumari at Parassala in Thiruvananthapuram traversing 416 kms. NH17 enters the state at Kasargod and meets NH47 in Ernakulam district. Thus running through the entire length of the state, both of the highways are arterial in every sense.

March to the Secretariat at Thiruvananthapuram. Pic: Zacharias Cheranellor.

The land required for 4-laning of NH47, with a width of 35 metres had been acquired decades ago, but the implementation had been too tardy and 4-laning has so far been done only for about 100 kms, that too in different stretches. Several by-passes of busy towns were planned, but very few have been completed. In the last five years or so, the NHAI has been insisting on the state agreeing for BOT before commencing any fresh road laying. The government was unrelenting in its opposition to BOT and the standoff became so severe that the NHAI even neglected routine maintenance and recently the state PWD had to step in for patching up the pot-holes.

Similar is the story for NH17 too. The existing road alignment was declared to be a national highway with big fanfare in 1972 and land acquisition procedure commenced for 4-laning with a width of 35 metres. By 2007 the process was completed except in the northern districts.

However, thereafter the NHAI began insisting on a minimum width of 45 metres and the BOT route. Consultants have completed the survey, project reports prepared and pre-qualification tenders have been floated. Simultaneously notices are being issued to those who live on the highway side for acquisition; majority of them the very same people from whom land was taken away during the first round.

But the rules of the game have changed in the second round. Even as land and land acquisition has become a burning issue all over the country and the clamour for adequate compensation and rehabilitation has reached its zenith, the authorities are resorting to a regressive measure. The general consensus in the country has been that the Land Acquisition Act (LA Act) of 1894 promulgated by the British has become archaic and needs to be amended. But the 1956 National Highway Act (NH Act) under which land is proposed to be acquired and notification issued is even more archaic in spirit.

In the LA Act, there is inbuilt provision for an additional payment of 30 percent of market value as solatium and 12 percent for constructions on the land, the NH Act gives only 10 percent as solatium and nothing for constructions and instead only Rs 10000 per family. Again, the LA Act provides for 9 percent interest for the first year after notification and 15 percent for every year thereafter till the payment is made, the NH Act does not give any interest. Income tax at 11 percent is also deducted at source.

Moreover, the NH Act stipulates that the average cost per cent of land acquired for a project should not exceed Rs 80,000 irrespective of the market value of the total land acquired. This is a clause that is most damaging to those whose land is acquired. (Even otherwise, in land acquisitions, ‘market value’ is a myth, because it is arrived at by taking the average of all land transactions in the last three years in a circumference of 5 kms. But the registration documents hardly ever reflect more than 50 percent of the real amount transacted).

A rough estimate is that at least three lakh families will be affected by the expansion.

Population Density/Road Density

Kerala is a narrow strip of land covering only 1.18 percent of the total land mass of India, but has a three percent share in the population of India. It has a population density of 819 per sq. km, which is three times that of the country. Another interesting statistics is that Kerala has a road density of 417 km / 100 sq km, when compared to the national average of 100.39 km / sq km and despite the high population density; the length of road per lakh population is 509.23 km, higher than the national average of 321.3 km. (Ref: Task Force Draft of Kerala Road Development Policy 2009-21, PWD, Kerala). So it is quite obvious that national standards arrived at arbitrarily or with the ground situations in certain provinces cannot be implemented uniformly across the country.

Kerala has often been referred to as one town or as a huge village. Fallow land followed by farms and then a cluster of huts and buildings with a market and maybe a place of worship that one often see elsewhere in India is not the highway-side scenery in Kerala. It is mostly a continuum of human habitation as you speed through the state. One can even think of it as a longitudinal shopping mall where anything from farm fresh vegetables and fruits, fresh fish, all sorts of village products including coir mats and handicraft items are sold.

There are ever so many small and medium eateries, small scale industries thriving on the highway sides. Most of them had been displaced or pushed back in the first wave of highway expansion and were just gaining some lost ground when the next wave is threatening to crash on to their livelihoods.

This was the background for the state government to convene an all party meeting on April 20 this year to form a consensus on the issue of widening the two highways to 45 metres. The meeting unanimously decided that the breadth of the highways be limited to 30 metres. It was observed in the meeting that at 3.5 metres for one lane; 6 lanes, median of four metres and one and half metres on either side for footpath/drainage would require only 28 metres in total.

On the other hand, the NHAI is talking only about 4-laning and still insisting on 45 metres. All of the participants had no hesitation in rejecting the BOT mode. The recommendations of the all party meeting were endorsed by the state cabinet the next day. This was followed by an all party delegation to the prime minister led by the chief minister V S Achutanadan and the prime minister reportedly assured the delegation that the memorandum will be considered with an open mind.

Twisted PPP

The concessionaire (builder) gets an income tax exemption for 10 years. But tax of 11 percent is deducted at source from the compensation paid to those who are forced to give up their land and livelihood!

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Project affected people had barely heaved a sigh of relief than voices began to surface questioning the wisdom of this recommendation. Starting with the chambers of commerce, industrialists, and strong votaries of ‘development’ it spread to the political parties.

The constituents of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the main opposition in the state wavered and said they were willing to vote for 45 metres for the sake of ‘development of Kerala’. Not to be left behind in the race for heralding development, the Left parties including the CPIM which leads the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) ate their words and came out in support of the expanded highway. A second all party meeting was convened on the 20th of August and the state pitched for 45 metres.

“What material circumstances changed in Kerala during the four months between April and August for the political parties to make this U turn?” asks Hashim Chendampilly, general convenor of the NH47 – NH17 Joint Action Council. “Lobbying by interested parties?” He adds that the change in the stance of CPIM is shocking.

“The party was forced to change its stand as the NHAI was adamant that no development work will be undertaken in the highways of Kerala unless the width is 45 metres,” says C M Dinesh Mony MLA and state committee member of the CPIM. “As it is, the NHAI is making a concession to the state as they are insisting on 60 metres elsewhere in the country.” However Hashim is quick to point out that the very same NH17 after it enters Goa is being 4-laned by NHAI with a width of only 30 metres.

“In any case the project will go on only if the rehabilitation/compensation package recommended by the all party meeting is accepted by the central government,” says Dinesh Mani.

The package recommended by the all party meeting is a massive one. ‘Realistic’ market value plus 10 percent thereof, Rs 10000 as shifting charges, substitution cost plus 25 percent there of for structures, 1 lakh additional compensation for traders, six months rent for those who lose their homesteads, rehabilitation of the squatters on government owned land, shopping complex in every panchayat for rehabilitation…..On a conservative estimate it will require Rs.40,000 crores for the package to be implemented.

“It is ridiculous,” retorts Hashim. “The central government is imposing BOT because it says that it doesn’t have the Rs.5000-6000 crores required for 4-laning of the highways. Then from where is it going to bring this Rs.40,000?”

Another pertinent point raised is that the National Highway Act has to be amended if this package is ever going to be implemented. And will such an amendment be passed just for the sake of Kerala? If the authorities concerned are really serious about it, how come the process of land acquisition is going on simultaneously as if nothing has changed?

Project under BOT

The Public-Private-Participation (PPP) scheme offered by the NHAI is apparently heavily loaded in favour of the concessionaire (builder). According to the NHAI website:

    1. The builder will get a grant of 40 percent of the project cost.
    2. 100 percent tax exemption in any 10 consecutive years within a period of 20 years after the completion and toll can be collected for 30 years.
    3. Five percent increase in toll rates every year
    4. Duty free import of equipments
    5. Simplified procedure for land acquisition which will be done by the government.
    6. Clearance of right-of-way land. Relocation of utility services, rehabilitation of establishments, cutting of trees and obtaining environmental clearance will be done by the NHAI

So the builder has just to get on with it without having to bother about anything else. But the allegation of the Action Council is that the project costs are deliberately bolstered so that almost the entire expenditure is met by the grant. The project report prepared by Wilbur Smith Associates Inc. USA, for a 111 km stretch on NH 17 between Kuttipuram and Edappally is Rs 1058 crores which works out to Rs 10 crore per km. On the other hand, according to the Task Force Draft of Kerala Road Development Policy 2009-21, the cost per km is only 5 crores. This is inclusive of the cost of land and these projections are made with the standards stipulated by the Indian Road Congress.

Going by this cost, the expenditure for 111 km works out to only 555 crores. Even if the accepted project cost is only 1000 crores, the builder gets a grant of 400 crores and the concessionaire has to bring in only a little sum, in comparison. But the company does not miss out on the income for the next thirty years. And the NHAI has gleefully let out in its website that the builder does not have to wait for the last 10 years for earning profit. The Jaipur-Krishnagarh BOT project (4-laning of 91 km) on NH 8 was completed in 2005. “Even today the concessionaire is earning more revenues than those projected at the time of bidding,” says the website.

And income tax exemption for 10 years, when tax at source @11 percent is deducted from the cost of land paid to those who are forced to give up their land and livelihood!

A Toll Plaza completing construction on NH 47. Pic: Pradip.

Travel in any mode of transport through the highway will become very costly as the toll rates are quite high. (car - Rs 0.75, bus/lorry - Rs 2.70, heavy vehicles - Rs 4, per km) Toll booths will be set up at intervals of 50 km, which means once you enter the highway you have to pay up for minimum 50 kms even if you travel for five or 10 kms. Two wheelers and three wheelers are not allowed on the highways and they will have to use the narrow service roads on either side. Most buses will be traversing distances through the service roads as the bus stops are all on the service roads and getting back to the highway is possible only after three to four kms.

Not just the land required for increasing the width to 45 metres, but also another 45 metres of land will be ‘frozen’ ie, no land within that reach can be transacted. On July 4, P Karunakaran a CPI(M) MP from Kerala raised a question regarding this in the parliament and the Surface Transport minister for state replied that the government has decided to lease land on either side of the highway for restaurants, hotels and other commercial activities.

Environmental impact

The Environmental Impact Assessment has not yet been completed and public hearings have not been held in all the districts. Two lakhs trees or more will be cut off. Mangroves too will be affected in certain areas. New bridges will have to be constructed in more than a few ecologically sensitive river-sea basins.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a left oriented socio-cultural organisation which has been in the forefront in Kerala through their activities for creation of scientific awareness, environment friendliness and sustainable development has started a campaign against the proposed project. “Only those who are directly impacted by the project seem to show interest in the implications,” says K P Sunil, Ernakulam district secretary of KSSP. “But it is a crucial issue that affects the whole state and would determine the direction development will take in future Kerala.”

It is quite an irony that the state PWD roads which constitute only 16 percent of the road net work carries nearly 80 percent of the road traffic within the state (Task Force Draft of Kerala Road Development Policy 2009-21). Those roads are in shambles for most part of the year for lack of funds and whatever patch work is done annually is swept away come next monsoon.

Kerala has 41 rivers, huge backwaters and innumerable canals. But inland navigation is almost totally neglected, despite declaration of various interconnected waterways as National Waterway. Cheap transport of goods and passengers through the rivers continue to remain attractive on paper. The gentle rivers have been reduced to boat-race courses and sand mines. Another unexplored area is costal shipping from Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kannur in the north, despite the existence of four operating ports enroute.

Even geography is being sidelined for the mad rush on the roads. (The Quest Features & Footage)