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This unconcern over stalled projects

At the root of the several stalled projects is the law relating to land acquisition. Soon after coming to power, Narendra Modi attempted to pass the bill on land acquisition. The combined opposition wreaked vengeance by stalling this bill in the Rajya Sabha. It was diluted denying the power to the government to acquire land for a public purpose.

Nirmala Sitharaman as Minister of Defence tried to push two large projects of defence corridors in Tamil Nadu and UP. She also organised a mega Defence Expo in the outskirts of Chennai. Subsequently, she also inaugurated the Tamil Nadu Defence Industrial Corridor in Tiruchi.

It was a highly imaginative project designed to link the infrastructure strengths of Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Salem, Coimbatore, and Tiruchi. These cities already have defence production units and high levels of engineering skills. The plan was indeed ambitious, to focus on the manufacture of highly sophisticated defence products including helicopters, submarines, light combustion aircraft, and advanced communication equipment. The Tamil Nadu government enthusiastically welcomed this initiative.

Defence corridor demands high-speed highway to Salem

The eight-lane Chennai-Salem highway is an essential component of the defence corridor. Imagine the need for rapid movement of heavy equipment from Chennai to Salem, Coimbatore, and Tiruchi. With the steep slowdown in manufacturing activity and the decline in investments, the Defence corridor project initiated by the Centre is of vital importance. Should it be subjected to bottlenecks and delays by a few landowners supported by parties in opposition blocking it?

A defence corridor promises significant investments running into thousands of crores of rupees. High power delegations have been visiting developed countries for technology and investments. Recently such a delegation comprising senior bureaucrats of Tamil Nadu and UP and from the Defence and Finance ministries visited Sweden. Large companies like the Ashok Leyland, Tatas, Reliance, L&T, Mahindra & Mahindra have been on the move to bring in investments and technology. Even while such initiatives are taking place, should we not take care of the construction of infrastructure that is vital?

The record of Tamil Nadu over the last decade and more has been a cause for serious concern and demands corrective action. Several major infrastructure projects have been stalled, causing loss of enormous economic value. The elevated road project from Maduravoyal connecting the ports has suffered a delay of nearly seven years. Look at the consequential escalation in costs: when the project began in 2010, the four-lane expressway was to cost Rs 1815 crore. But it was put on hold in 2012 after objections were raised about the alignments. At current rates and with two additional lanes, the expressway is likely to cost nearly three times.

Gas pipeline construction stopped

The gas pipeline project connecting Kochi with Bengaluru via Tamil Nadu is another. The elegance and economy of natural gas have been realised in full by Gujarat and Maharashtra. It is a vital fuel for a variety of industries including fertilizers, power, glass and ceramics, chemicals and petrochemicals, apart from public transport and domestic piped gas. This can replace highly polluting coal and furnace oil.

Despite the ruling by the Supreme Court, the project is in disarray, causing enormous loss to GAIL and to the user industries.

At the root of the several disruptions pointed out is the law relating to land acquisition. Soon after coming to power in 2014, the Modi government attempted to pass the bill pertaining to land acquisition. The combined opposition stalled this bill in the Rajya Sabha. It was diluted denying the power to the government to acquire land for a public purpose. The amendments resulted in a few landowners stalling vital projects that would benefit several lakhs.

The gas pipeline project and blocking construction of a small stretch of 500 meters to link the Velachery and St Thomas Mount MRTS railway stations are glaring instances of the damage done by the Land Acquisition Act. The basic principle of benefit to the largest number of people in democratic governance is sadly overlooked.

Precious copper production stopped

Sterlite Industries has been accounting for close to 40 per cent of the production of copper in the country. For 16 months, the company has remained closed with no clue about its future. If pollution is the issue, don’t we have the expertise and the wherewithal to address this satisfactorily? The closure of 600 tanneries in Tamil Nadu ordered by the Supreme Court in 1997 was averted by the government and tanneries effectively addressing the pollution issue. The huge investments made on a vital project that produces much-needed copper, phosphoric acid and sulphuric acid has been allowed to gather rust. In full production, this company has been moving around 15 lakh tonnes of raw material and finished goods engaging over 4000 trucks every day. The closure also directly caused loss of jobs to close to 4000 and indirectly another 20,000 plus. Political parties have been blindly opposing this without looking for viable alternatives to save the project so vital to the economy. Surprisingly, the Centre has been unconcerned.

There seems to be a congenital opposition to every development project like exploration of oil in the Thanjavur-Nagapattinam area or the Nutrino project in Theni. Add to this the very high cost of land in Tamil Nadu. With the delay of every year, an already expensive land becomes even more costly and unaffordable. In the 20 years delay in acquisition of land for the MRTS project, the land cost has increased from around Rs 10,000 a ground (2400 sq.ft) to Rs 5 crore. Even this is not acceptable with the landowners demanding now Rs 7 crore!

Even while the governments at the Centre and the states stress the importance of attracting investments, they should focus on getting the best out of investments made and on completing the projects in quick time. China’s ascent as an economic power in just a few decades has precious lessons on these.

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