The Kerala cabinet is divided over the issue of the width of new National Highways (NHs) in the state, stretching from Kasargod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram at the other end.
This has become a political issue due to the state’s high population density. Building wider highways -- either new ones or expanding existing ones -- would mean evictions in this politicaly volatile state.
Two ministers in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government have strongly protested against the decision of a recent all-party meeting and the government’s own stand, on reducing the width of four-lane highways to 30 metres, from the Centre’s proposal of 45 metres.
Minister for local bodies, Paloli Mohammedkutty, said the highways should be built with a width of at least 45 metres. Otherwise, the state’s development would be affected and the central government might deny aid for highways. He got support from Transport Minister Jose Thettayil, who also advocated 45-metre, four-lane highways in the state.
Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem is also known to be a supporter of Paloli and Thettayil. The current ‘division’ over the width of highways is not only restricted to the state cabinet, but also in the LDF and the CPI(M), the main party in the ruling front.
The central government had earlier intimated that new highways should be developed on a build-operate-and-transfer (BOT) basis, with a width of at least 60 metres.
This created widespread protests across the state, as thousands of families face the threat of being evacuated. According to Hashim Chennambilly, who is spearheading a protest against building 45-metre-wide roads, at least 350,000 families should be evacuated across the state.
Considering this, the central government had approved a 45-metre width for the highways in Kerala. The state has a population density of 819 per sq km, one of the highest in the country, as against the national average of 324.
The government had convened an all-party meeting and sent a delegation, including the chief minister and the leader of opposition, to the Prime Minister to cut the width to 30 metres, considering the state as a special case.
A sharp increase in the number of vehicles in the state in recent years has created turmoil on the roads, especially in major towns like Kochi, Kozhikode, Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram. Every year, road collisions in Kerala claim about 4,000 lives, costing about Rs 600 crore to the government, according to the police. So, a majority of political leaders favour wider highways as essential for the development, especially in the information technology, tourism and industrial sectors.
Trade bodies like the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry have strongly demanded that the NHs should be developed with a width of 45 meters.