Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, Sep 30, 2004
Industry & Economy
Logistics - Roadways
Expressway - A road of discord that divides the State
Vipin V. Nair
Kochi , Sept. 29
THE proposed `express highway' connecting both ends of Kerala has had people of the State literally divided on its two sides: lined up on one side are those who oppose it; on the other are those who want it.
Over the past couple of months, the express highway has emerged as the most debated subject in the State with environmentalists and other activists clamouring for abandoning the project, while people such as businessmen say it is probably the best ever thing to happen for Kerala's development.
The 507-km long, four-lane `access controlled high speed corridor' is aimed at connecting Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram. Travel time from one end to the other will be less than six hours as against the present 12-15 hours, it is claimed.
Throughout its length, there will be only 19 entry points into the highway, which will entail an estimated investment of over Rs 6,500 crore. A per kilometre toll will be levied on vehicles to ply on the expressway.
Opponents to the highway question its viability and worry about the impact on the environment and social aspects of the State. They also ask why such a project should be taken up when there is room for further development of the existing highways such as the NH 47, NH 17 and the Main Central Road.
According to Dr R.V.G. Menon, eminent environmentalist, construction of the highway will lead to further reduction in the already shrinking paddy fields in the State, causing severe environmental problems. "As per the present estimates, the highway would require 4,028 hectares of land. It is said that in order to minimise evictions, the highway will acquire more of paddy fields, to the tune of 890 hectares, and plantations of 2,800 hectares. But the highway will practically require much more than this," Dr Menon says.
Also, huge quantities of construction materials such as sand and crusher metal would also be needed. "There is already a shortage of such materials and we fear that more hills will be levelled," he said.
Dr Menon also argues that an access-controlled highway is not suitable for a densely populated State like Kerala. "The continuous habitation in Kerala makes the express highway a difficult proposition."
He also suggested that the existing highways in the State be further widened before embarking upon the expressway project. As for easing the traffic congestion, the highway may not be an answer since it will not help congestion within cities and interiors.
Supporters of the project, on the other hand, argue that the express highway is the best possible answer to reduce accidents in Kerala, which has one of the highest rates of road mishaps in the country.
They also say that the highway will boost the economic activities, help faster delivery of the State's agro-products and bring about all-round development.
The vehicle population in Kerala is growing rapidly and touched 5,958 vehicles per 100 sq. kms in 2003, up from 3,011 in 1996. "Studies have shown that even if we made the existing highways into four-lane, they will not suffice to contain the growing number of vehicles," says Dr M.K. Muneer, Minister for Public Works, whose department is implementing the project.
He said widening the NH-47 and NH-17 would involve demolition of about 46,000 structures, including many religious ones, which makes the task more expensive and difficult compared with the expressway project, which will need to pull down only some 4,000 buildings and no social structures.
Dr Muneer said the Government was not prejudiced in any manner towards the expressway and its implementation will be done only after addressing all the concerns raised by different sections of people.
"We first need to get the detailed project report (DPR) done to get a clearer idea. Let the DPR be complete and only after discussing and debating it will we decide how to go about the project," the Minister said. In many places, activists who oppose the express highway have blocked the DPR surveys.
Many of the businessmen in Kerala are bullish on the project, as they believe that the expressway will resolve a great deal of the State's infrastructure bottlenecks and help it attract more investments.
"This is the single most important milestone in Kerala," says Mr V.K. Mathews, Chairman, IBS Software Services. "Normally the economy gets six times benefit of the money you spend. So we are talking about a benefit of over Rs 36,000 crore to Kerala's economy," he says.
The project will also give a boost to Kerala's service industries, Mr Mathews points out.
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