Villages affected by the controversial proposed 8-lane expressway are furious at the ruling party but say the main opposition has not done much either
A stone’s throw away from the palatial home of late DMK strongman Veerapandi Arumugam, the villages of Poolavari, Parapatti and Sitthaneri are nestled in the midst of tall coconut trees laden with elaneer (tender coconut), paddy and vegetables.
This lush green area was once what in Tamil is called the DMK’s kottai (fortress). The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK is the main opposition party in Tamil Nadu and is led by MK Stalin, son of former Chief Minister, the late M Karunanidhi.
“In Salem town everyone is crying for water,” said K Annakili, 58, a farmer. “But here, water just flows. It is God’s gift to us, to this land,” she added.
“They want to destroy all this to build a road,” she said contemptuously.
Annakili is referring to the Chennai-Salem 8-lane expressway project proposed by the Tamil Nadu government under the Centre’s Bharatmala scheme. The Rs 10,000 crore project aims to cut across five districts – Salem, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Tiruvannamalai and Kancheepuram. This 277.3 kilometre long expressway is, according to the government, to ease traffic between Chennai and Salem and reduce travel time by half to three hours.
In Salem, the expressway is conceived to be for a length of 36.3 kilometres. As the state government began the process of land acquisition, protests erupted and spread across five districts as farmers, who would lose their land, went up in arms.
Villagers of Sitthaneri, Poolavari and Parapatti were no exception.
Dharmapuri MP and leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) Anbumani Ramadoss headed to the Madras High Court with a batch of signatures of angry farmers and filed a Public Interest Litigation against the project. The court, in August 2018 stayed land acquisition.
But while the protests may have died down, and the issue itself is out of the headlines in Tamil Nadu, farmers continue to seethe.
Annakili says that out of the three acres of land she owns, close to two acres will be taken over by the state for the road project.
“We have 300 coconut trees on our land which we have nurtured over years and now we are finally seeing the benefits,” she lamented. Each tree, annually, provides them with a remuneration of Rs 2000. Her coconut grove brings her small family a sum of Rs 6 lakhs per year. This is, of course, a conservative estimate.
“They (state government) are saying they will give Rs 19,000 or Rs 25,000 compensation per tree to be felled for the project,” said Annakili. “But even if they give us a lakh per tree, does it compensate for all these years of hard work in tending to them and growing them?”
S Kanagarathinam, 60, is hoping to enjoy her retired life in peace. But now the anxiety is palpable in her face as she talks about the project. With four acres of land, of which one acre is to be acquired for the project, Kanagarathinam says she is afraid.
“My daughter is working in Hosur and my son is working in Chennai, so it is just my husband and myself here,” she said. “What new profession can we begin at this age? What new home can we build now?” she said.
While many in the village, like Kanagarathinam are unsure as to who to vote for, others say they will not vote at all.
“I am not going to vote,” said R Sangeetha, 40, firmly. She is bitter. Her new home as well as the home of her in-laws will be eaten up by the road project if it is allowed to continue. “Not only are they taking our lands, what is worse, is that when we protested, the police arrested my husband at 3.30 am and treated him very badly,” she said.
Others like G Kala, 45, and S Selvi, 54, say that they will vote for whichever party promises that the first signature after coming to power, will be one to stop the 8-lane expressway project permanently.
“If Stalin can come and tell us, make a promise, that the first signature after coming to power will be to stop the road project, we will all vote for him,” said Kala.
But Stalin and the DMK have already opposed the 8-lane project in their manifesto and he has also spoken about it, hasn’t he?
“No that will not do,” said Kala firmly, insistent. “Parties say all kinds of things and then forget their promises after elections. We want this specific announcement, otherwise we will not vote at all,” she said.
Kala adds that although these villages traditionally voted for the DMK, the party had not bothered to lend their voice to the protests of the farmers and had only indulged in tokenism.
“They did not come to support us, they did not take the lead and help us,” said Kala. “We have voted for them for all these years but they just came for namesake a few times and did not bother with our problems,” she said.
AIADMK Vs DMK Vs PMK
Salem is the home constituency of Edappadi K Palaniswamy, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. 30 kilometres from the villages of angry farmers is the home of EPS, as he is better known – the village of Edappadi – and there, a large bungalow surrounded by acres of arecanut trees and fertile farmlands.
But so close to home, EPS is not a popular man. “Edappadi should be ashamed to call himself the son of a farmer,” said S Selvi of Poolavari. “He is destroying the livelihood of farmers. We are ashamed to call him a farmer.”
Selvi adds that all of the affected farmers in the village belong to the Gounder caste. “Is he a Gounder? He cannot call himself that. He has done droham to Gounders,” she said. Gounder is a dominant OBC (Other Backward Class) caste in that area.
Annakili says that the farmers here had all been very happy with Anbumani Ramadoss when he arrived at the peak of the protests and personally took down the names and survey numbers of the affected farmers in order to file the PIL against the road project.
“We had a lot of hope and faith in him,” she said. “But now how can we trust him? He has betrayed us by allying with the AIADMK.”
Meanwhile R Mohanasundaram, a leader of the protests in Poolavari village and a wealthy farmer with a house worth Rs 1 crore, says he will only vote for the DMK. “Only the DMK can stop the project,” he said.
An Activist And His Disillusionment
In Dasanaickenpatti, engineer and social activist V Surendran sits in his office, styled in the manner of a village of yore. The 30 year old is tired. Many months of travel, of rallying farmers and villages together to protest against the expressway project have taken its toll.
Now he waits for further developments, disillusioned and weary.
“I was drawn to the PMK and especially to Anbumani Ramadoss because he gave us support in the protests and filed a court case on our behalf,” said Surendran. “He too heard about my work, invited me to his home and made me sit at his dining table and have lunch.”
Come February 2019 and Surendran, who had begun to admire Anbumani Ramadoss, was shattered. “Ideologically, the alliance between the PMK and the AIADMK is a very bad move,” he said. “After I heard about the alliance in the news, I wrote Anbumani a 6-page letter and walked away from the party. I like both Dr Ramadoss and Anbumani but when you do not keep the opinion of the people in mind and do good by them, it is not correct,” he said.
He dismisses the AIADMK altogether as a party that has “failed the people and is only interested in destruction of the state.”
As for the DMK, Surendran feels they cannot be trusted as they are “inconsistent.” “Stalin is like Rahul Gandhi,” he said, explaining his view. “Both are inconsistent. DMK did not get involved at all locally when the protests began. After that their presence was just eyewash. They did not do much,” he said.