Proposed National Highway Threatens Auroville (Auroville Today, August 2018)
Survey markings in the Greenbelt installed by a consultant working for the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) revealed that plans were afoot to build a four-lane National Highway through the Auroville Green Belt for a length of 3.5 kilometres, crossing the Forecomers, Pitchandikulam and Aurogreen areas. The NHAI has now agreed to move the highway slightly to the east of the Master Plan area.
The two-lane congested road from Villupuram to Nagapattinam via Puducherry, Cuddalore, Chidam-baram, Sirkazhi and Karaikal will be widened into a four-lane highway by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). All towns and cities along this highway will be bypassed, Pondicherry included.
The projected new highway near Auroville aims to connect the Pondicherry bypass to Marakkanam, north of Auroville, where it will join the East Coast Road to Chennai. The new highway will bypass all the villages on the East Coast Road between Pondicherry and Marakkanam.
Once these highways have been made, they will not only carry the Nagapattinam – Chennai traffic but also traffic from the congested Tiruchirappalli – Villupuram – Chennai highway, which has the highest number of traffic accidents in the country. Part of that traffic will be diverted via the Villupuram – Pondicherry – Chennai highway that runs near Auroville.
The new highway will also serve as an artery for an ambitious programme of industrialization. The government aims to turn the port of Nagapattinam into a deep water port, and to make a petrochemical hub in the districts of Nagapattinam and Cuddalore. There are also plans to make an industrial hub in the Marakkanam area. The highway near Auroville, then, will become a busy freight corridor between these industrial estates and other places in Tamil Nadu. It may reasonably be expected that in future, the four-lane will need to be widened to six.
The Auroville Response
The work of the consultants, who were doing their work without prior intimation to the Auroville Foundation (allowed under the NHAI Act) was discovered on May 17th when markers appeared in the Greenbelt. A member of the Working Committee managed to get an appointment with the Project Director of the NHAI in Chennai a few days later and expressed the concerns of Auroville. The Director, who initially was not familiar with the area and the Master Plan of Auroville, later agreed to instruct the consultants to move the alignment slightly away from the Master Plan.
A few days later, the consultants joined a meeting in Auroville in which alternative highway solutions to the west and north of Auroville were proposed. They replied that they had been hired to mark out the stretch of the Pondicherry bypass that would cross Auroville, and had not been given instructions to seek alternatives. Moreover, they argued, it would be technically difficult to shift the road west and northwards.
The Secretary of the Auroville Foundation wrote to the Chairman of the NHAI in Delhi on June 4th expressing concern that the road programme would compromise the future of Auroville, which is protected by an Act of the Parliament. He requested that the integrity of the Master Plan area and also of the surrounding zone be preserved, especially in the south-eastern direction and towards the coast, which has a very fragile ecosystem. The Working Committee brought the matter to the attention of the Governing Board of the Auroville Foundation.
In the beginning of June, a delegation of Aurovilians discussed the matter with the Union Transport Minister, Mr. Nitin Gadkari, in New Delhi. The Minister agreed that the Auroville Master Plan area should not be affected. But Auroville’s alternative proposals to route the highway to the west and north of Auroville were not entertained. The Minister’s staff observed that those alternatives would lengthen the highway by another 20 kilometres and would not address NHAI’s concerns of traffic congestion. They agreed to adjust the routing by 200 metres in such a way that the highway would go outside the Master Plan area, except if required from a technical perspective; in such a case the highway would encroach a little on the Master Plan. But Auroville areas located outside the Master Plan, such as the Forecomers – Ravena area, and communities nearby Kuilapalayam village, such as Arya and New Creation Field, might be affected by the proposed highway.
With the upgrading of the Villupuram-Pondicherry highway, traffic from Tiruchirappali (Trichy) can now reach Chennai via the highway near Auroville.
In a general information meeting on July 12th, the Working Committee informed the community about the proposed highway and the discussions in New Delhi. As was expected, the community was not satisfied with the concession of the Minister. For Auroville is not only the Master Plan area but extends to include many areas beyond the Master Plan located around Kuilapalayam village, such as Auromodèle, Aspiration, Fraternity, Douceur, Petite Ferme, Arya and New Creation. This “outer city” is as vital to Auroville as the “inner city” defined by the Master Plan. The proposed highway, even if built outside the “inner city”, would cross the road between Pitchandikulam bridge and Kuilapalayam and so become a massive divider of Auroville. That was considered unacceptable, even if the NHAI would build an underpass.
In subsequent discussions and postings, residents pointed out that the highway would have an heavy impact on the villages of Bommayarpalayam and Kuilapalayam, destroy their social fabric, and bring unregulated urbanization.
Comparisons were made with the “100-feet road” in Pondicherry, a bypass where agricultural lands were turned into commercial and residential areas in just a few years. Moreover, the highway would become a safety hazard for the large number of schools and sports grounds located nearby, giving rise to the prediction that “a large number of traffic accidents are just waiting to happen.”
“India since ancient times has nurtured sanctuaries for human development,” argued another resident. “These sanctuaries have been located away from urban sprawls in order to provide a safe space for human development. Auroville is one such sanctuary in modern times. A highway near a fast-growing town like Pondicherry will soon become the lifeline of a new town, causing haphazard growth of residences and shops along the road, and bringing tens of thousands of people, who will also want to visit nearby Auroville.”
While the consultants are surveying a route outside the Master Plan area, an Auroville task force has been created to design a strategy to convince the authorities to change the routing of the proposed highway.
A paper outlining the consequences of the proposed highway for the future development of Auroville and the villages is being prepared. It specifies, amongst other things, the safety and security issues – especially with the transport of hazardous industrial products – the impact of sound and vibration, the damage to forests and fauna, the social impact due to the increase of population, and the consequences on the already overstretched aquifer.
The paper will also detail the alternatives and the advantages of the alternative routings proposed by Auroville. Two options have meanwhile been studied: the route along the Keezupudupettai – Kiluperrumbakkam Road connecting the East Coast Road and the Tindivanam– Pondicherry Highway [the route marked in pink on the map] and the route along the proposed new railway. They are both three to four kilometers longer than the NHAI proposed route. However, this disadvantage is more than compensated for by the fact that land acquisition will certainly be less difficult.
The plans to route the highway to the west and north of Auroville also gain credence as the Railways Authorities a few years ago agreed to realign the proposed new railway from Pondicherry to Malmallapuram to the west and north of the Auroville Master Plan area and so connect to Pondicherry’s northern industrial zone at Sedarapet.
The new highway could be routed next to the proposed railway line and so also benefit the Industrial zone at Sedarapet. This would create a minimum of environmental and social problems.
The Response from Affected Villagers
At the end of May, the NHAI called a meeting of all landowners who would be affected by the new highway and discussed with them the proposed acquisition of their lands. Many villagers voiced their disagreement with the project. On July 22nd, the headmen of Bommayarpalayam and Kuilapalayam villages visited the Working Committee and expressed their unhappiness that “Auroville had moved the routing outside the Master Plan area,” which now affected their lands. They were informed that the change of routing outside the Master Plan was a concession of the Highway Minister, and that Auroville had asked to reroute the highway to the west and north of Auroville.
“Auroville,” it was explained, “is equally unhappy with the routing that is now being marked.” The headmen then expressed that they too will object to the highway going in-between Kuilapalayam and Auroville. A signature campaign of the villagers requesting the NHAI to realign the proposed highway in such a way that the Auroville plateau and coastal area is avoided will be started.
Who to Approach
A major part of the strategy will be to request the Prime Minister of India, the hon’ble Sri Narendra Modi, who during his visit to Auroville in February this year spoke so highly and movingly of Auroville as “a beacon for the future”, to reroute the highway. The fact that the Government of India has recognized that the ideals of Auroville are part of India’s highest aspirations and that the project of Auroville is in the national interest of India and serves the public interest, may be of relevance.
Other measures being contemplated are objecting to giving environmental clearance for the highway and finding legal grounds to fight the proposed routing and going to court.
An Uncertain Future
With the rapid growth of Pondicherry and its suburbs towards Auroville, and the Pondicherry airport finally getting up steam and waiting to extend its runway for larger planes, Auroville needs to rethink its Master Plan, regardless whether the authorities will agree to re-route the highway to the west and north of Auroville. The “outer city” needs to become part of the Master Plan and Auroville needs to design appropriate mobility plans which not only cover the “inner city”, but also the access into Auroville.
If Auroville’s and the villages’ objections are overruled and the highway between Kuilapalayam and Auroville manifests, Auroville should give thought to the area between the new highway and Auroville. This area would need to be designated as a special development zone in tune with Auroville’s values and practices or, if possible, be acquired by Auroville, as random developments along the highway would have too great an impact on Auroville. To take immediate steps, the community will need to take a decision on applying for a New Town Development Authority [see Auroville Today #347-348 of June-July 2018], as only such an Authority can lay down restrictions on the land usage by private individuals along the highway.