The East Coast Road (Auroville Today, 1993)

Since the last article on the ECR project appeared in AUROVILLE TODAY one year ago, a small core group or Aurovilians has been actively engaged upon attempting to modify the project in collaboration with other concerned groups. Ardhendu and Ajit are part of this group, and here they give an update on the present state of affairs.

A major highway, called the East Coast Road (ECR), is planned to link Calcutta in the northeast with Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India. The first phase, between Madras and Cuddalore, has already been sanctioned. It involves the widening of an existing road, and something like 3,000 old trees have been cut down. Auroville would be directly affected by this road. It would run along the bottom of the Auroville plateau, separating the beach communities from the rest of Auroville, and would bring with it noise, pollution and environmental degradation. Many beautiful old Tamarind trees between here and Pondicherry have already been cut down in the past year.

Since last year, a small core group of Aurovilians has been actively engaged upon attempting to modify the project in collaboration with other concerned groups. It has produced papers pointing out that the proposed ECR is ecologically damaging, financially wasteful and that the process so far has not conformed to Government regulations. The group, in collaboration with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Consumer Action group (CAG), has proposed an alternative to the ECR proposal which would be cheaper, serve a much larger section of the population, and be much less destructive of the environment (see map).

Three major things have happened over the past year.
1. The Madras High Court issued an injunction in December 1992, prohibiting the further felling of trees along the proposed route of the road.  This was in response to a petition by two Aurovilians, by INTACH and CAG. This order is still effective, protecting more than 3,000 trees that were destined to be cut.

2. The construction of bridges and culverts, and work on widening a few stretches of the proposed road continues, but we have been assured by the Environment Minister of India that the local authorities have been advised to suspend work until an Environmental Impact Assessment has been made, and until clearance has been given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF) for the work to continue.

3. In response to the INTACH publication – ‘The East Coast Road; why it is neither cost-effective nor environmentally sound’ – the Highways and Rural Works Department presented an Environmental Impact Study, justifying the need for a National Highway standard road along the East Coast of Tamil Nadu. The Study is in many ways unsatisfactory. In our view, it is full of unsupported assumptions and is not a serious attempt to re-evaluate the need for the project. A number of critiques of the Study have subsequently been presented to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and recently an Environmental Appraisal Committee of the MEF visited the road construction site and had a brief discussion with some Aurovilians. The recommendation of the MEF is expected by the end of May.

In addition, the East Coast Road issue has drawn the attention of the Indian Press – the first article was published by Francois Gautier, an Aurovilian – and the project has been discussed in both the Tamil Nadu Assembly and the Indian Parliament.

In early May, twelve local non-governmental organizations invited a group of concerned Aurovilians to Madras to present the various aspects of the ECR project, and its potential impact on the coastal ecosystem. As a result, they formed an Action Committee to visit all the villages on both sides of the proposed ECR route to collect data and to raise awareness on the issue. The ECR will also be one of the main issues in a 5-day national workshop on ‘Human Rights-Environment and the Law’, to be held in Bangalore at the beginning of June.

It seems that the whole process of changing the original plan will be a long drawn-out one.  It has also taken us far beyond the environs of Auroville in our focus and thinking. After all, the southern stretch of the road alone, from Madras to Kanyakumari, is 700 kilometres long. So, while we started with focussing upon the tree-cutting problem, we are now drawing up an ecologically sustainable development strategy for the coastal area and we are trying to establish a network of collaboration between people all along the coast to tackle the problem.

We invite anybody who wishes to contribute ideas or resources to contact us at the Auroville Greenwork Resource Centre.

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