Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hunger Strike Against BOT (Toll) Model at Palliakkara, Kerala

 When I was in India two months ago, I witnessed on the TV screen, the Kerala Police on order from the government brutally removing the protesters against an impending BOT toll collection at Palliakkara, a place on the  Mannuthy -Idappally national highway.
The protest in the context of India’s neo-liberal market projects, noted for non-participation and support by trade unions or major political parties including the C.P.M (Communist Party of India, Marxixst) noted for its interest in socialist causes, is dubbed as a new social phenomenon.  It showcases the Kerala publics’ direct answer to toll collection on their roads.   A hunger strike, started as part of the protest, since 19 February 2012 is still on, as per my knowledge.
Though protesters are of the opinion that the toll is an additional burden on the finance of the road users, that is not all for what they are protesting.  They have deeper issues brewing in their mind, racial, historical, socio-cultural, economical and structural.  They see it as their government’s blatant support to the finance capitalists’ enrichment at the expense of their right to use the national highways.
The protesters have formed a Committee Against Privatisation of National Highways and land Displacement (CAPNHD).  Land eviction and privatisation of road go hand in hand that is the government evicts the owners of land from both sides of the road after paying nominal compensation and  present it to the constructors.
Road use in Kerala is a very sensitive thing that has serious historic and racial connotations.  There were, once, racist rules, which effectively chased the public- the majority- away from the use of Kerala roads or paths, tinkered and used by the upper castes.  Only after independence such practices were brought to a halt through laws and not through social reforms.
Though the present situation is seemingly somewhat different, it brings back to their mind the old memories.
Structural problems are the most severe ones.
In India, roads have always been a serious problem to the extent of hampering its development, progress, communication and image, ever since it became a free nation. Nothing much has changed even now.  In Kerala, during holidays, I take to cover a thirty KM the equivalent time needed to cover a hundred KM here in South Africa.  On a long trip your nightmare is ‘traffic jam’ which can cause a delay from three to five hours in reaching your destination.
When compared to conditions in other parts of the world, the  Kerala roads and highways are a disaster.  Filled with potholes, broken edges, single lane in most parts, ugly, smelling, dirty, and no pedestrian paths, traveling on them are like taking big risks.
Traditionally Indian roads  were constructed through public procurement which had two defects: 1. budgetary constrains 2. weak planning and implementation that resulted in serious time and cost overruns.  So ever since the eighties that is since the 7th Five Year Plans the nation was looking for non-conventional source of resources and private sector participation.

The leap from that stage to the current BOT toll gate is rationalized in the  government document……
So Pallikakkara is not an isolated case, simply a for-runner to what is going to happen on state and national highways all across India.
So, if the construction of roads and highways is of such a high necessity, why are  they protesting at Palliakkara?
According to them, or the people of Kerala at large, Palliakkara toll gate have serious structural issues.
On April 19, 2012, dr.A .Achuthan an activist on environment suggested in a CAPNHD  meeting that the public demand is not to reduce the toll rate at Palliakkara on Mannuthi -Idappally road but to completely eliminate it.
He pointed out that 1. the road construction on the BOT toll gate is simply intended to enrich the owners of the global capital.  2 The government’s argument for introducing the BOT toll as lack of money is not the truth. The government is paying millions in tax rebate and commission to the constructors  which is more than the real cost.  3. The government is busy making rules to implement the land eviction 4. According to the decision of the Road Congress of India for a four lane highway only 30m width is needed, but the government is extending it to 45m. This is to promote the interest of the fast moving road users, thatcomes only 10 percent.  5 It is infringing upon the people’s democratic rights on highways and the roads and 6. The BOT constructors have not completed the road work as per promise and standard practices.
The editorial of  Madhyamam, a local language news paper is more graphic on the structural issue.  According to which the cost suggested by Kerala’s Public Works Department (PWD) is 6 t0 7.5 crores per KM, while it is 17 to 25 crores for the BOT toll constructors.  That is for a four lane highway from Kasargode to Idappally costs only Rs. 3000 crores if done by the PWD the BOT toll cost is 8000 Crores. Also the government should pay a forty percent of this as commission to the BOT toll constructors. That is the government should pay RS. 3200 crores (40% of 8000) which is 200 crores more than the PWD charge.  On top of this the government should find the land eviction cost.
Also after the construction the BOT toll company is given a 30 year right on the road during which period it can charge toll on the road users.  Also no new road should be constructed closer to the BOT toll roads during this period.
It is also pointed out that there was no real road construction done on the Mannuthy- Idappally road by the BOT (Toll) constructors. Instead they had only scratched the sides of the existing 30m highway to make it 45 m wide.

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