Chennai-Salem Expressway: A Feasibility Report That Isn't

The project feasibility report of the proposed Chennai-Salem highway contains plagiarised content and irrelevant information that is provided merely to fill pages for essential chapters. If the project is as important as it is made out to be, then, reliable, scientific and data-based information must be put out in the public domain.

Chennai: The government of Tamil Nadu seems to have taken a zero-tolerance approach towards those critical of the 8-lane access controlled Salem Chennai Greenfield Highway project. Let alone protesting the project, even questioning or discussing the worth of the project seems to have been criminalised.

In the last month alone, the state police has harassed land owners along the alignment of the proposed Highway. They have been warned against associating with people opposed to the project or entertaining any opinions critical of the project. Social activists like Piyush Manush and Valarmathi and cine artist Mansoor Ali Khan have been arrested for opposing the project and for highlighting the dangers posed by it. On June 20, a hall meeting organised for farmers by the All India Kisan Sabha in Tiruvannamalai was disrupted by the police. Scores of organisers were arbitrarily taken to the police station for questioning and later released. Barricades were put up to prevent farmers from reaching the meeting hall. The police has become the only public face of the government.

The state’s overreactions come less than a month after the police-inflicted violence in Thoothukudi. That is sinister; it suggests that the state is intent in positing a dangerous new normal – where people’s constitutional rights to move freely, to choose who to associate with and to form and voice opinions now have to be mediated through the police department and the courts of law.

The 8-lane highway is a mega-project. At Rs 10,000 crore, the estimated cost of the 277-km long road is significantly higher than the plan allotment for the entire state in 2016-2017. Large projects have large impacts, both positive and negative. While positive impacts generally affect the general public, the negatives more often than not are localised.

At this point, there is nothing in the public domain that scientifically spells out the costs and benefits of the proposed project. The only public document – the Project Feasibility Report (PFR) – does not make a case for the project’s viability, nor does it justify the costs.

Entire sections of the PFR contain poorly disguised plagiarised content and irrelevant information that is provided merely to fill pages for essential chapters. Fudging the feasibility of a government-funded project like this one and making a risky project appear viable can potentially have disastrous financial consequences for the exchequer and tax payers.

Take the case of the International Container Terminal and port proposed to be constructed in Enayam, Kanyakumari district. The feasibility report for the project claimed that the local people welcomed the project as they saw it contributing positively to their lives. However, in October 2017, two years after announcing the project, the project proponent had to abandon the project due to intense opposition by local fisherfolk.

The Salem Chennai Highway is repeating the mistake of underplaying public sentiment against the project without even attempting to assess it.

In countries where the rule of law matters, plagiarism and fudging of feasibility reports results in prosecution of the consultants that prepare such reports and public agencies that act on the reports without verifying their content.

Tamil nadu: Chennai-Thiruvanamalai-Harur-Salem Expressway Project. Credit: Facebook/Smart Salem

What ought to be versus what is

A PFR assesses the feasibility of a proposal by evaluating its technical and economical viability. By virtue of their implications on the cost and desirability of a project, environmental and social assessments become integral components of such feasibility assessments.

A social assessment is expected to evaluate the social risks of the project in terms of its social impacts and its acceptability among the project-affected persons. Public consultation is key to a robust assessment.

Indeed, for the 8-lane Highway, the PFR prepared by Feedback Infra Pvt Ltd notes that the scope of work includes: “Public consultation, including consultation with communities located along the road, NGOs working in the area, other stakeholders and relevant government departments at all the different stages of assignment (such as inception, feasibility, preliminary design and final design).”

The consulting firm claims to have completed public consultation. It claims that “the consultations were carried out with both individuals and groups during the screening survey involving local people, health workers and administrators. During the consultation, the issue regarding HIV/AIDS has been discussed with truck drivers and local people like awareness about disease, medium of propagation, information, preventive measures and use of contraceptives. The presence of infected persons, line of treatment, measure precautions and presence of commercial sex workers in the area have been asked during the consultation.”

What HIV/AIDS has to do with the concerns of farmers that stand to lose their land is anyone’s guess.

There’s more.

In evaluating social impacts, particular attention needs to be given to understanding the impacts on vulnerable population, like women. The ‘contents’ pages of the PFR would make it appear that the consultant has this covered. Section 11.7 of Chapter 11 is titled “Gender and Development.” But the entire section is four short paragraphs long. The responses to three questions contain only plagiarised content and baseless conclusions.

For instance, in response to the first question, the PFR claims that “The project will enhance the urban road network and public transit system which benefits women and men equally. The mobility of women in Xi’an is already very high and the Project will enhance the quality and frequency of transportation services in a safer manner.”

Xi’an is a city in Shaanxi province of China. It is commendable that the Salem-Chennai Highway will have positive impacts on the lives of women in places as far away as China. But the PFR would have more value if it also dealt with the implications of the road in Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Tiruvannamalai, Kancheepuram and Chennai. Even better if it had dealt with the merits of an 8-lane expressway rather than the urban road network and public transit system in China.

The second question is “Does the proposed project/program have the potential to promote gender equality and/or women’s empowerment by improving women’s access to and use of opportunities, services, resources, assets, and participation in decision making?” The PFR deals with this serious question with a one-line answer – “There is no serious gender equality or empowerment issues related to urban transport.”

After the hard work of finding answers to the first two questions, the consultant seems to have lost its stamina for the third. There is no answer to the question of whether the “proposed project [could] have an adverse impact on women and/or girls or to widen gender equality?”

The obviously farcical PFR with its sham public consultation ends with a section titled “Identification of Issues” which makes it seem as if people welcome the project, have some minor apprehensions and are eager to see the project completed in record time. For instance, the report claims that “Many people worried whether the work will be taken up due to political conflicts. The construction work should be taken up on an urgent basis, rather than conducting surveys again and again.”

Much ado about many things

The government of Tamil Nadu has entertained criticism of the project. It has branded as instigators people who attempt to educate people on their legal rights to demand information regarding the project and to take recourse to law to protect their rights.

High-speed, access controlled roads such as the Salem Chennai Highway will have significant negative impacts on the environment and local economies. They place a heavy demand on scarce local resources during construction, which in turn aggravate local environmental stress. Such roads require immense quantities of sand – the quantum required has not been specified. For the 8-lane project, sand is expected to be mined from Palayaseevaram in Palar River, Neeyadipakkam and Polur Vandavasi Road in Cheyyar River, and Bhavani village in Kaveri River.

Palayaseevaram is already a water-stressed village notorious for illegal sand mining and the rule of the mining mafia. Cheyyar and Bhavani are no different. At a time when NITI Aayog has warned Tamil Nadu of an imminent water crisis, activities that will cause further harm to our rivers and groundwater need to be discussed threadbare.

NITI Aayog has warned Tamil Nadu of an imminent water crisis. Credit: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

NITI Aayog has warned Tamil Nadu of an imminent water crisis. Credit: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

The 286-page Feasibility Report devotes 183 pages to discussing aspects of road design to optimise smooth flow of traffic. There is no discussion on the design aspects that will also optimise the smooth flow of water. For instance, in Nattarasanpattu, Kancheepuram district, the road passes through two major tanks. Eight-lane expressways are no ordinary roads. They are built on elevated beds of mud and gravel and loom up like dams above the local contour. In November 2015, in the prelude to the Chennai floods, the regions around Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) were severely flooded. That was caused by the recently upgraded OMR, which blocked the eastward flow of rainwaters.

Along the 8-lane’s alignment, flooding may not be the issue as much of the land is agricultural or forest. Here, the issue is the alteration of the surface and groundwater regimes on either side of the road.

It is not only the road and its impacts, but also what the road will bring that is of concern to local people. For instance, the PFR elaborates on the expansion plans of Southern Iron & Steel Company Ltd (SISCOL) in Salem. It reports that  SISCOL “aims to develop the Kanjamalai, Kavuthimalai and Vediappanmalai iron ore mines in Tamil Nadu on receipt of requisite approvals to improve raw material security.”

What is said and left unsaid in the feasibility report gives room for skepticism about the bonafide credentials of the project. The government of Tamil Nadu will do well to drop its hostile attitude towards any opinion that is contrary to theirs. The only project document that is in public domain contains fraudulent and unreliable information, and does not support the Government’s claim that the project is either viable or desirable.

If the project is as important as it is made out to be, then the rule of law must be respected. Reliable, scientific and data-based information must be put out in the public domain. The government must facilitate a civilised debate among stakeholders, and depute the police to deal with real criminals.

Vital statistics of 6/8-lane Access Controlled Salem Chennai Greenfield Highway

Project Proponent National Highways Authority of India
Project Length 277 km
Project Cost Rs 10,000 crores
Land Requirement 2791 hectares
Nature of Lands Farmland, Forest, Residential, Poromboke commons
Route Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Thiruvannamalai, Kancheepuram, Chennai
No. of Villages along Alignment: 854
Access Points 8 locations with toll booths

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.