Don’t use force against landowners, High Court tells State government

The Madras High Court on Wednesday strongly disapproved of the use of police force against landowners who oppose proposed acquisitions for the ambitious Rs. 10,000 crore greenfield 8-lane expressway between Chennai and Salem.

Finding that the acquisition process was at a nascent stage, the court said the officials could have avoided so much of confusion if they had anticipated resistance and handled the situation in a better way.

A Division Bench of Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan made the observations during the hearing of a batch of cases including a few public interest litigation petitions filed against the proposed acquisition of wet lands for the project.

The judges expressed concern over video clips, being circulated on the social media of police not sparing even elderly women who had been opposing the acquisitions tooth and nail.

“We fail to understand why there should be use of police force. Police should be the last to come into such issues. You are only focussing on how fast the cars can go if the expressway was laid, how much of fuel can be saved and what kind of infrastructure would be created. You are not focussing on how to bring solace to the common man at whose cost we are going to enjoy the luxuries of travelling on a greenfield expressway,” Mr. Justice Sivagnanam said.

Stating that resistance to any kind of change was inevitable, the judge said the row over acquisition of lands, which was at the preliminary stage, would not have grown to gargantuan proportions if the officials had created better awareness about the project among the locals whose lands had to be acquired. He said there were far more problems in four laning of Nagercoil-Thiruvananthapuram National Highway, yet the Project Director handled them efficiently.

To this, Advocate General Vijay Narayan said that he would instruct the officials concerned to handle the issue appropriately. However, Assistant Solicitor General G. Karthikeyan contended that the land owners were being incited by “fringe elements.”

Making an oblique reference to the political situation in the State since the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in December 2016, he said: “every industrial activity in Tamil Nadu is being opposed in the last one and a half years.”

Fringe elements

His remarks drew sharp rebuttal from a bunch of lawyers representing the petitioners. Advocate A.P. Suryaprakasam, one of the PIL petitioners, vehemently objected to use of the expression fringe elements. Advocate K. Balu brought it to the notice of the court that the State government was so oppressive that it was not granting permission even to sitting Member of Parliament Anbumani Ramadoss to conduct a public hearing to ascertain the views of the people on the project.

After hearing them, the judges said the cases could be heard peacefully only if use of force against the protesters was stopped. They pointed out that a counter affidavit filed on behalf of National Highways Authority of India gives an impression that actual acquisition of lands was a long way away since many time consuming processes such as conducting environmental impact studies and obtaining permission for acquisition of reserve forest lands were yet to be carried out.

They adjourned further hearing of the matter to August 2 and asked the ASG to make sure that a senior level official from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change was present on the next date of hearing to assist the court.

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