The photograph of a frail woman being led away by a posse of policemen does the image of Tamil Nadu no good. This senior citizen was protesting that her 4.5 acre of land would be gobbled up by the proposed eight-lane 277-kilometre-long Salem expressway that proposes to cut the driving time between Chennai and Salem from the present six hours by half. For the 'crime' of raising her voice, she and a few other women were taken away in a police van.
Tweeting the photograph, MK Stalin asked if this is a democratic land or a police hunting forest. His sister and DMK leader Kanimozhi says that Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, who incidentally hails from Salem, is following a "shoot to kill, arrest, NSA and no protests in Tamil Nadu'' policy. She tweeted saying "Palaniswami's keen interest to see the Salem eight-lane project complete would put any ruthless dictator to shame''.
On the ground in Salem district, work on marking lush green fields that will soon become tarred road, is on. On 8 June, RS Narayanan, a farmer in Kuppanur village in Salem district got into an argument with officials asking them why they were marking fields without giving any farmer a notice or telling them how much they will get for the land.
"The next morning, at 4 am, a police team came home and picked me up. Till 1 pm, I was detained at the police station. Is it a crime to ask questions? No one tells us anything, no one is bothered about our problems. If you ask or object, you get arrested. We are being intimidated,'' bemoans Narayanan.
The 43-year-old owns 4.18 acres of land, on which he grows coconut trees, lime and chikku (mudapples). Narayanan is upset that he will lose four acres to the expressway.
"They can easily widen the existing four-lane highway. What is the rationale in making so many farmers lose their land?'' he asks. The government's counter argument is that acquiring land 15 metres on either side of the existing highway will translate to 2,200 hectares of land. What is glossed over is that the Expert Appraisal committee that met on 7 May noted that for the greenfield expressway, total land acquisition would be 2,560 hectares.
MGM Moorthi, another farmer in Kuppanur village, will lose all the four acres he owns and worse, get a raw deal. Moorthi has been told he will be compensated at the rate of Rs 8 lakh for an acre. The market rate, he points out, is Rs 60 lakh per acre. The irony, Moorthi says, is that Palaniswami also hails from an agricultural family and yet does not feel for what the farmers are going through.
"If Palaniswami had become chief minister because of the votes cast by the people, he would have understood our pain. But we voted for J Jayalalithaa. He benefited after her demise,'' says Moorthi.
In the last three days, three activists " Piyush Manush, Valarmathi and actor Mansoor Ali Khan " have been arrested on charges of inciting violence. Their contention was that the project, besides robbing farmers of their livelihood, would cut through environmentally fragile forest area.
Though the government assessment is that 6,400 trees will be felled, environmentalists estimate the number will be close to a lakh. Mansoor was arrested for his threatening remarks that he will kill eight people if the eight-lane expressway was implemented. The Tamil Nadu government charges the activists with riding on the Rs 10,000 crore highway project to disrupt peace.
"The Tamil Nadu government is not anti-people. But people should represent issues, not take law into their own hands,'' argues D Jayakumar, fisheries minister.
It is obvious that the Tamil Nadu government is seeing the expressway as a prestigious project, an example of Centre-state cooperation.
"Between February 2018, when Palaniswami proposed the project and May 2018, when all the approvals were in place, the project has moved at breakneck speed. This is clearly a project in which both the Centre and the state are interested,'' says A Shankar, political commentator.
But what is worrying the activists is that the Tamil Nadu government has learnt its lessons from Tuticorin, where protests resulted in the police shooting down 13 people last month. The intention, it seems, is to ensure things do not get out of hand and that explains the strong-arm approach.
"Today, if I go to Salem, I will be picked up,'' says Henri Tiphagne of the human rights group People's Watch.
While the government is within its rights to plan and execute development projects, what is of concern is the 'my way or the highway' attitude, that does not respect public opinion. Making it worse is the surround system that labels anyone who objects as an urban naxalite.