PREDATORY pursuit of cement and concrete ‘Development’ model was bound to lead to scams and scandals. That is what has precisely happened in Kanyakumari, the southern-most and one of the smallest district of India endowed with natural bounties. This has come in the form of a duplicate National Highway that has all the ingredients of corruption, scam and scandal ‘Development’ has been the mantra of the Modi government and infrastructure formed the core of this agenda. In infrastructure, National Highways were given the pride of place. After the gradual increase in highway construction in the initial two years of the Modi government, it seems to have entered a higher growth trajectory in recent months: as against 22.3 km per day in the last financial year, the pace of building highways has accelerated to 30 km per day-mark in May, 2017.
As it is, the pace of construction has been growing steadily since the NDA government assumed power in May 2014. Compared with 4,216-km highway construction in 2013-14, the number grew to 4,410 km in 2014-15, 6,061 km in 2016-17 and would be 8,142 km in 2017-18. This is indeed creditable, but no one thought that such a fast pace of ‘development’ would include ‘duplicate’ highways planned and designed to loot public funds.
The duplicate National Highway being planned and executed in Kanyakumari district is a typical case. The existing National Highway-47 (NH-47), the stretch between Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari, earlier known as ‘Rajapathai’ (Rajpath), had varying width ranging from 27 to 40 metres. The Government of Kerala prepared a litho map in the year 1955, which contains the present NH-47 stretch. This was handed over to Tamil Nadu when Kanyakumari district was bifurcated from Kerala and became part of Tamil Nadu in 1956.
Though there are encroachments in some patches, the width of this road in most part continues to be between 26 to 40 metres. Standard width of four-lane highway being 23.5 metres, this is more than sufficient for upgrading the existing NH 47 and cater to the traffic needs which has been dwindling on this route ever since the advent of the railway line.
Where needed, the encroachments could have been easily removed, particularly after the Control of National Highways (Land & Traffic) Act 2002 came into force on January 27, 2005. To implement the Act, Highway Administrations and National Highway Tribunals have been set up throughout the country. Yet, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) did not take any step to remove these encroachments on the existing NH 47.
In 2012, a research team of IIT Roorkee made a critical analysis of NH 47—both existing and duplicate—and published the paper in the Institute of Town Planners, India Journal 10 x 3, July-September 2013. The paper rips open the manipulated report of SECON. The key points made in this paper are:
- The road width of existing NH 47 given in the SECON Report (7 metre) is false. A letter from the NHAI office Valliyoor, dated September 11, 2011, states that the existing NH 47 has 10-metre width under bituminous surface and government land (Puramboku) of varying width on both sides.
- Comparative cost-benefit analysis for the upgradation of existing road and the proposed new alignment (duplicate road) has not been done. Though a number of surveys have been claimed, there is no clarity about them.
- In the report, it is argued that the proposed new alignment would provide strong potential for self-employment, but it is not stated how this is going to happen.
- The claim of creating new road connectivity between the villages and industries, trade and commercial centres, etc., resulting in ‘industrial growth of the area’ is a clear attempt at deceit.
- Neither Environmental nor Social Impact Assessments have been made. There is absolutely no rehabilitation scheme for the villagers who are being displaced.
- The statement that religious structures are present on either side of the existing road, and therefore widening is not possible is false. There are no such structures at a single spot.
- The statement that commercial establishments are developed all along the highway is totally false. Only small establishments are there near some junctions on encroached government land.
- The statement that ‘the biodiversity of the area is not likely to be disturbed’ by the new alignment is the height of falsehood. In fact, the duplicate NH 47 could destroy the entire eco-system by felling of trees, and destroy the inhabitation, farm land, herbal coverage, water bodies (rivers, canals, tanks (ponds), tube-wells, wells and streams), etc.
- Encroachment on few junctions of the existing NH-47 road has gradually occurred after Kanyakumari district became part of Tamil Nadu. While Kerala has removed the encroachments, and built the four-lane highway, mysteriously in Kanyakumari district this has not been done.
- The proposed new alignment needs huge quantum of land acquisition for its construction, almost all of which is fertile agricultural land, with large numbers of water bodies.
- The onsite evidences unambiguously show that there is 100 per cent possibility of widening and upgrading the existing NH-47 as four-lane without much land acquisition.
While so, NHAI took a decision to upgrade the existing NH 47 by removing encroachments and on December 17, 2003, floated RFP for “Consultancy Services for Feasibility Study and Detailed Project Report”. Terms of Reference (ToR) clearly stated that the main objective of the consultancy service is to establish the technical, economical, and financial viability of the project and prepare detailed project reports for rehabilitation and upgrading of the existing two-lane National Highway (NH) sections to four-lane divided carriageway configuration. It also said that as far as possible, the widening work shall be within the existing right of way avoiding land acquisition, except for locations having inadequate width and where provisions of short bypasses, service roads, alignment corrections, improvement of intersections, including provision of grade separators etc., are considered necessary and practicable and cost effective.
IT was then the fraud commenced to convert this upgradation of existing highway into a totally new “Duplicate NH-47” of 70.36 kilometres. To facilitate this consultant M/s SECON Pvt Ltd submitted a manufactured Feasibility Report/DPR in September 2008 without holding any public consultation as laid down in the ToR. This led to the creation of duplicate NH 47, instead of the upgradation of existing NH 47 which is the mandate of the ToR.
Map 2 shows existing NH 47 (green) and duplicate NH 47 (black):
Duplicate NH 47 envisages totally new right of way as against the ToR specification of “existing right of way”, which is gross violation of ToR clauses. This new 70.36 km long alignment has several natural water springs, 76 irrigation tanks, 368 water canals, 200 wells and about 250 hectares of paddy fields and hundreds of hectares of coconut groves besides habitat of migratory birds. All these precious natural bounties will be permanently destroyed. Hundreds of houses in the 25 villages falling on the alignment will be demolished.
Though there are encroachments in some patches, the width of this road in most part continues to be between 26 to 40 metres. Standard width of four-lane highway being 23.5 metres, this is more than sufficient for upgrading theexisting NH 47
Based on the analysis, IIT Roorkee recommended that the existing NH 47 road area should be restored fully as per the 1955 Litho Map and the existing NH 47 should be widened and upgraded into four-lane without deviation after proper survey and mapping. To upgrade the existing NH 47 into four lanes, plausible designs may be evolved for constructing the required service roads, sub-ways, and overbridges wherever they are required.
Such an expert opinion was totally ignored and consigned to the wastepaper basket! Instead, acquisition of land for duplicate NH 47 with length of 70.36 km (70360 metres) and width of 60 metres, meaning about 1,050 acres of prime agricultural / horticultural land, was put on fast track. Given the fact that the Indian Road Congress norm for four-lane highway width is only 23.5 metres, this is a frontal assault on farming, farmers and districts natural bounties.
IN this process, provisions of National Highways Act have been severely breached. Fraud was committed in the Notification under Section 3A. There are reports that in stretches where there was opposition to land acquisition a farcical exercise was done by making the publication done in a few copies of newspapers with NHAI buying all of them and claiming that Section 3A has been complied with.
THERE was no compliance of Section 3G and, in fact, large scale corruption was indulged in. Sub-section 1 was severely distorted. No Order of Award determining the compensation was written and given to the land owners to enable them to apply to the arbitrator for proper determination as laid down in Subsection 5. Instead, agents were deployed by paying commission/bribe to induce the land owners to surrender the land and take the compensation. Most absentee land owners or those having dispute fell for this and gave the bank account details to the authorities. Only after depositing the money in the respective bank account, Award Order was given to the land owner making it fait accompli.
For land owners who did not want to give up their land and did not part with their bank account details, it was a matter of terror and repression. Without issuing any Notice, without announcing the Award and without paying any compensation, their properties were raided by NHAI officials with heavy machinery, who demolished their dwellings and cut down trees. Larsen & Turbo, who got the contract from NHAI to build the duplicate NH 47, went about devastating the natural heritage by destroying the entire morphology of the area. It is tentatively estimated that minions sent by L&T have cut over one lakh trees—coconut, Palmyra, tamarind and teak species—without calling for any tender, valuation or permission from the competent authorities. Even instructions given by District Collector, Kanyakumari were defied.
NHAI officials went on to commit perjury in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Project Director, Nagercoil, in his filing (Form 1) submitted for the extension of Environmental Clearance to the Ministry, gave false statement that no water bodies will be affected by the duplicate NH 47. He gave an assurance that ‘if any part of the data and information submitted is found to be false or misleading at any stage, the clearance given to the project will be revoked at our risk and cost’. His bluff was called by NGT vide its order dated June 15, 2017, directing construction of 34 major bridges, 43 minor bridges, 82 box culverts, and 91 hume-pipe culverts over the water bodies falling on the alignment. But the project has not been revoked!
This NGT order requires complete realignment of the duplicate NH 47 and NHAI, in July 2017, floated a tender for Consultancy Services for Preparation of DPR for realigning the road to cater to the major and minor bridges. The last date for submitting RFP was August 23-24, 2017.
Here also the TOR was for existing NH 47 and not the duplicate one. This means while NHAI HO has all the while been working on the “upgrading of the existing NH 47 to four lane configuration”, in the field a massive deceit was being perpetrated to build a duplicate highway costing a few thousand crore rupees. What is distressing is that even before the submission date of this RFP, fanatical steps were taken to evict the landowners on the duplicate alignment by demolishing buildings and cutting trees.
ADDING substance and strength to this scam is the rapid construction of two major flyover/overbridges—costing over Rs. 500 crore—on the existing NH 47 and floating of tenders in a hurry for construction of another two flyovers/overbridges and a pedestrian subway which will cost an additional Rs. 300 crore. It is learnt that at these places encroachers had offered to vacate the encroachment to facilitate upgradation of existing NH 47. But this was rejected and instead overbridges/flyovers are being built to give business to favoured contractors.
This is a case of innovative three-dimensional corruption amounting to a huge scam:
- Deliberately allow encroachments to continue in the existing NH 47;
- Manufacture a false Feasibility / DPR and making the ‘encroachments’ as the excuse to construct a Rs. 2,000 crore duplicate highway by adopting all foul means;
- And, then build flyovers / overbridges and pedestrian subways on the very ‘encroachments’ costing around Rs. 1,000 crore.
All these have been done against public interest to favour brokers and contractors and receive big kickbacks. This appears to be the present-day concept of ‘development’ which is a huge scam happening in the constituency (Nagercoil) of the lone BJP MP from Tamil Nadu who is the Union Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways under whom NHAI falls!
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer