Excavating farmlands for highways

  • Farmers, lured by quick returns in Haryana, have sold the soil from the ancestral lands to contractors for road construction.
  • Topsoil excavation affects the land’s fertility and impacts farmers’ livelihoods.
  • The central government has written letters to states to use fly ash in the construction of highways and to use soil from ponds and other sources.

The top soil on a farm determines how bountiful a crop will be. In Haryana, farmers have sold this crucial resource to the government for highway projects.

Among them is the Trans-Haryana Expressway, a 227 km long highway that connects Ambala to Narnaul within the state, which was opened to the public in August 2022. Engineers who worked on the project, told Mongabay-India, that a share of soil used to elevate this and other highways, crisscrossing the agrarian state, has been excavated from farmers’ agricultural land. Requesting anonymity, they said that the central or state government route the excavation of the land through local contractors who arrange for the soil.

The farmers, meanwhile, enticed by the promise of quick returns, agreed to sell the top soil to private contractors. They are now facing the unfortunate consequences of that decision, something they say they were unaware about.

In the last five years, Haryana has seen construction or expansion of 19 highways. The state’s chief minister recently said that Haryana is perhaps the only state in which all district headquarters have been connected to the National Highway. Several projects are also in the pipeline.

Highway construction in progress. Photo by Sat Singh.
Highway construction in progress. Engineers working on the Trans-Haryana Expressway project, state that the topsoil from agricultural fields nearby is used for the construction of highways in the state. Photo by Sat Singh.

Beyond the sheen of progress

In the heart of Jind district lies Budha Khera Lather village, home to several affected farmers who have sold the top soil from their agricultural lands for construction of the 152D or Trans Haryana Expressway.

Behind the much-lauded success story of highway construction in Haryana are the harsh consequences that these farmers are facing. Excess monsoon rains last year and in June-July 2023 has transformed around 200 acres of once-productive fields here, into waterlogged wastelands. The land now lies submerged for a significant part of the year.

Umesh Lather, a seasoned farmer of 52 with four daughters, was among the earliest farmers to sell his top soil, a decision he said he made in desperation in return for quick money. “When the contractor offered Rs. 50,000 per foot of excavation, I consented. Driven by need, I agreed to a depth of one-and-a-half feet. But they excavated down to three feet, leaving me powerless and exploited.”

Farmer Umesh from Jind village had to sell soil to meet urgent needs. Now, he says that after the excavation to sell the soil, his agricultural field is barren and nothing grows. Photo by Sat Singh.
Farmer Umesh Lather from Jind village sold the top soil of his farm in return for money which he used to meet urgent needs. Now, he says that after the excavation to sell the soil, his agricultural field is barren and nothing grows. Photo by Sat Singh.

Another farmer, Karambir Singh, who owns four acres of agricultural land adjacent to the national highway 152D, said while he did sell the top soil, it was done with a heavy heart. “Feeding my family from the earnings on this land was a source of immense pride,” he said. “The land once yielded various crops. Now, paddy is the only survivor, though its fate is also uncertain.” Due to the excavation, his land now lies lower than the surrounding terrain and during monsoon, the water, unable to find its way out, gathers into stagnant pools.

Jagdish another farmer in the closeby Lajwana Kalan village shared the same experience. Two acres of his land was excavated against a price of Rs. one lakh per acre. “I used the money for meeting my urgencies and debts but now lost my farmland forever,” he said.

Satyawan Lather, a farmer with ten acres of land in Budha Khera village, said that farmers in all the villages near the highways were lured with the one-time money and given up their land for excavation. “From Narnaul to Ambala, the highway was elevated wherever required. The requirement of earth was filled from farmers’ land. But farmers are exposed to the drawback of excavation during monsoon season when their agricultural land was waterlogged with no productivity left due to loss of topsoil,” he said.

A local contractor, supplying soil for highway projects in the state, emphasised the importance of sourcing earth and soil locally for highway elevation. While construction companies can import machinery, labour, and expertise, they need to obtain earth/soil from local sources to raise the highway.

The contractor, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that although there are regulations regarding not excavating too deeply from agricultural land, the extent of excavation often depends on the farmers’ needs. He stated that if a farmer agrees to excavation, even up to ten feet, they proceed accordingly.

The contractor noted that substantial soil has been excavated from agricultural land in villages near the new highways. He mentioned that many farmers consented to sell the earth due to financial difficulties, as they were already grappling with debts and losses resulting from crop diseases and harsh monsoons.

Soil being transported by construction companies via small contractors from local sources. Photo by Sat Singh.
Soil being transported by construction companies via small contractors from local sources. Photo by Sat Singh.

A senior expert employed with a private construction company based in Gurugram and making highways, said that, on average, 4 to 5 metric lakh tonnes of soil is required to build one kilometre of the highway. The Ministry of Highways claims to have built 1872 km of highways between 2014 to 2018 in Haryana. Recently, union minister Nitin Gadkari claimed that the government has built 2200 kilometers of highways in Haryana since 2014. These thousands of kilometres of highways have likely utilised several thousands of tonnes of soil and other components like fly ash for making these highways, the expert said.

The expert, who also preferred remaining anonymous, said that soil is an important commodity and highway project companies struggle to obtain it from local sources. “As an alternative, they have started obtaining fly ash from thermal power plants in Panipat and Delhi. As per norms, the highway is to be given a level (height) of at least three metres above the ground level and in case of flood-prone areas, it will increase to five to six metres,” the expert added. He reveals that the soil is being purchased by local construction at different prices; in the case of the Delhi-Amritsar-Katra expressway (600 km long), soil is being purchased at Rs. two lakh per foot per acre, while it varies in other highway projects depending on the need and availability of the resources.

A view from Trans Haryana expressway. Rainwater has left the fields nearby, flooded. Photo by Sat Singh.
A view from Trans Haryana expressway. Rainwater has left the fields nearby, flooded. Photo by Sat Singh.

In 2017, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways highlighted the need for considerable earthwork for highway construction. The ministry wrote a letter to all the states to link the requirement of soil for the construction works of national highways with the digging/desiltation of ponds in drought-prone areas and other areas of the country. The ministry has written several times to chief secretaries of states and requested fly ash use in road construction.

However, the issue of using topsoil for road construction remains a concern in other states, too. Recently, an MLA in Punjab wrote a letter to the chief minister of state in this regard, highlighting the concern. Construction of NH-66 in Kerala is also facing trouble due to a shortage of soil and protest by local people.

Farmers unaware of government efforts

Narhari Singh Banger, the director of Haryana’s mines and geology department, told Mongabay-India that the norms permit excavation up to a depth of five feet (1.5 metres) for any purpose such as for the brick kiln, highway foundation making, or any other purpose. Any excavation below five feet, including of agricultural land, is not permitted by the norms, he said, referring to the Haryana Minor Mineral Concession, Stocking, Transportation of Minerals and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules, 2012. On being told about the practice of digging below five feet in many areas surrounding highways, he said that the department would look into the matter seriously.

During its visit to Jind and Rohtak districts, Mongabay-India witnessed eight to ten feet of excavated agricultural land in the villages.

Responding to the email query on the importance of topsoil, the Haryana Agriculture University Hisar soil department said that topsoil is most fertile and rich in nutrients and crops absorb most of their nutrients from it. On the practice of farmers selling topsoil, the soil department said it is not good as it is important for fertility of soil.

Neena Suhag, an assistant soil conservation officer in Rohtak, said that the government has been making soil health cards to ensure fertility of the soil and farmers can grow crops that suit their soil. She said that her department organises routine meetings with farmers’ clubs in the state to make them aware of the importance of topsoil.

However, the affected farmers claim that the government has not reached out to them with any such initiative, and they were unaware that selling topsoil would render their farm barren.

Mongabay India has written mail to National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in this regard and has not received a response so far.

Read more: Residents in Haryana point to stone crushing units for their respiratory troubles and drop in crop yield


Banner image: Farmers at Budha Khera village of Jind district showing difference in terrain after getting their soil extracted for highway projects. Photo by Sat Singh.

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