Illegal Aranmula Airport Project
Dr. K. V. Dominic
One of the major anxieties the people of Kerala has been going through for the past three months is the illegal airport project at Aranmula. Kerala having three international airports has no necessity of a fourth one in between Kochi and Trivandrum international airports. Aranmula is 136 kilometres from Kochi and 117 from Trivandrum. KGS group, a private real estate and construction group consisting mainly of three billionaires—Kumaran, Gigy and Shanmugham, backed by Reliance Anil Dhirubai Ambani Group and a few other billionaire real estate groups managed to get sanction for the project overcoming all obstacles from various departments through unprecedented illegal foul means. To make things worse, the government of Kerala has taken 10% shares of the company to facilitate the construction at the earliest. The project needs minimum 700 acres (they are planning in future for an airport city which requires 3000 acres) which are located in Arnamula and two other neighbouring grama panchayats. Hundreds of acres of paddy fields and wet lands are to be filled with the earth razed from four neighbouring hills. Moreover it will affect the serenity, sanctity and rich heritage of the world famous Parthasarathy temple which is only 200 metres near to the site. In protest of this looting of the State’s sustaining bosom lands by the corporate mafia, indefinite satyagraha started at Aranmula on 10th February 2014 under Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council led by the great Malayalam poet and environmentalist, Smt. Sugathakumari and reputed social reformer, Shri. Kummanam Rajasekharan, just opposite to the site and office of KGS international airport project. People from all categories—politicians of all parties, trade unions, writers, environmentalists, nature lovers, religious leaders and laymen, sanyasis, farmers, government servants, merchants, labourers, students and pupils, ex-service men and even soldiers are flooding in teams of a hundred and more for the satyagraha every day from different taluks and panchayats of Kerala.
A brief history of the project
A timber merchant named Abraham Kalamannil bought hundreds of acres paddy fields and wet lands of Arnamula for his own Mount Sion Group’s Aeronautical College in 2004 at a very cheap price of Rs. 100 and Rs. 200 per cent. He filled those lands with earth without getting sanction from the government departments. The government lands were also encroached by him. Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union (KSKTU) staged protest against this illegal filling. Later a small plane landed there for Mount Sion Aviation Club. The local people never suspected that it was going to be an airport project because they could never think of their government’s environmental department giving sanction for it. Such is the richness, beauty and diversity of nature and environment at Aranmula, besides the rich heritage of the place with the world renowned Parthasarathy temple, Pamba river, holy groves, snake boats (palliyodangal) and their race etc. The ministry of environment and forest granted the sanction for the project with twenty conditions but has found very strangely that there are no wet lands in Aranmula. The government deliberately ignored the findings and petitions of the following groups: the great environmental scientist Prof. Madhav Gadgil, Biodiversity chairman and Salim Ali Foundation member Dr. V. S. Vijayan, renowned Malayalam poet Sugathakumari, Former Justice Shri. V. R. Krishna Iyer, nine MLAs of environmental committee, 74 MLAs of Kerala Legislative Assembly, members of various parliament committees, innumerable social workers, political leaders of all various parties and above all the entire people of Arnamula. As per government records in 2012, from Abraham Kalamannil and others, KGS Group bought 268.54 acres. At present KGS Group has 362 acres of lands of which 50 acres of paddy fields and wet lands have been filled with the earth taken from the neighbouring hills. From 1st January 2013 onwards KSKTU has been protesting against the airport under a thatched shed built on the filled land.
KGS is a private business company having its headquarters at Chennai. The company under the label ‘KGS Arnamula Airport Limited’ is trying to construct a Greenfield airport on the vast lands spreading over the grama panchayats of Mullappuzhassery, Arnamula and Kidangannoor in Kozhancherry Taluk of Pathanamthitta District. The company in its environmental studies as well as application papers submitted to the government has mentioned that it needs only 500 acres of land for the project whereas in its website the figure has gone to 700. It is very clear that an international airport with a runway 2800x45 metres, car parking area for minimum 250 cars, highways, terminal for passengers, hotels, shopping mall, apron for parking planes, fire station, electricity station, drainage, drinking water source etc. can’t be provided in 700 acres. It is to be genuinely doubted that the hidden intention the KGS group is not the airport but the deal of lands and make profit of billions.
Environmental, Social and Economic Dangers of the Airport Project
Dr. V. S. Vijayan, the former chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board as well as the member of Salim Ali Foundation Charitable Trust made a thorough survey and study of the area meant for the airport project. After four years of survey and study he submitted the report which cautioned the huge crisis and great havoc the project can cause to the environment, economy and society. For the comfortable flight of a few people 1417 hectres of paddy fields and wet lands which yield annual income of Rs. 315-440 crores are to be sacrificed. Kerala needs 45 lakh tons of rice per year whereas it produces only 6 lakh tons. The government shall never support destruction of the existing paddy fields.
212 species of plants are found in this area of which 27 are rare species found only in the Western Ghats. 110 species are herbal plants which yield great income. 88 of these herbal species are found only in wet lands. 60 species of fishes are found in this area of which 6.6% are endangered species and 5% fast ending species. 48% species get high price in markets. 10% fishes are ornamental species. 35% of the fish species migrate to the wet lands from the Pamba river taking it as hatchery. There are 160 species of birds in these areas. 8 species are migrating birds of which 2 are endangered ones.
The vast ocean of paddy fields and wet lands spread over the villages of Mullappuzhassery, Arnamula, Kidangannoor, Mezhuveli and Elanthoor is nature’s own means of averting flood in the Pamba. This Pamba and the biodiversity on either side are the rich heritage of these villages. These vast paddy fields and wet lands which save the people from the disaster of flood during monsoon in the Pamba are the chosen lands for the airport project. In September after the heavy monsoon, parent fishes along with their fry come back from the wet fields to the Pamba. The water from the wet lands and paddy fields of Mullappuzhassery, Arnamula and Kidangannoor flows to the Pamba through the tributary Valiathod (also named Kozhithod). Since the main part of this tributary was filled with earth for the airstrip, cultivation in these paddy fields has become impossible. Thus 400 acres of fertile paddy fields have been destroyed because of this airport project. Even if these wet lands and paddy fields remain neglected and uncultivated, they act as source of water in plenty in the wells, ponds and streams in Aranmula and neighbouring villages. These wet lands preserve water as an oceanic reservoir during monsoon and pumps to the Pamba when the water level goes down in summer. These wet lands if turned to dry lands for the airport project, the heavy loss of environment and biodiversity will amount to 35.48 and 47.31 crore rupees respectively. If 400 acres of wet lands and paddy fields are filled and turned dry lands it will affect 3500 acres of wetlands ultimately and the loss would be from 314 to 419 crore rupees. If the paddy fields in the proposed airport project (1457 hectres) are made cultivable, 7085 tons of paddy could be yielded and thus can earn 21 crores per annum. Paddy cultivation needs only five months and the rest of the year can be used for fish cultivation which will yield 11. 34 crores per year. The airport construction will affect 14.17 hectres of paddy cultivation which can yield 335-440 crores per year.
Nearly 1000 houses are to be evicted for the project and it will affect 3000 people. The price of land near Arnamula temple has shot up from Rs. 5000 to 5 lakhs and 10 lakhs per cent now. An ordinary man can never think of buying any strip of land for his shelter.
Threat to INS Garuda
The Ministry of Defence objected to KGS’s proposal in 2010 on the ground that Greenfield Airport at Aranmula would impose severe restrictions on the availability of airspace for conduct of military flying at Naval Air Station INS Garuda at Kochi. But after a few days the same ministry granted the Group permission.
Threat to Parthasarathy Temple
The Parthasarathy temple is world renowned for its unique heritage and rituals. Palliyodams (snake boats or chundan vallam) from 52 neighbouring karas (rustic parts) on the banks of the Pamba come to the temple through the Pamba with the offerings for Lord Krishna. Valla sadya (grand feast to the rowers) for several days is another beauty. The water carnivals taking place at the temple include a boat race during the Onam season. Snake boats from 39 karas take part in it. But if Pamba’s flow is obstructed by the airport project these cultural and ritual activities will disappear totally. The temple is only 200 meters near to the airport cite and the Company has recommended in the proposal to lessen the height of temple’s flagpole by six metres. As flagpole is not just a pole for the flag but the spine and spirit of the temple, the devotees will never allow it to be cut short.
Airport Company’s violations of government rules
The Airport Company of Aranmula has violated the following laws of the central and state governments:
1. Environmental protection law
2. Kerala land reform law
3. Kerala land conservancy law
4. Kerala land conservation of paddy land and wet land law
5. Indian penal code
6. Irrigation law
7. Anti-corruption law
8. Kerala land utilization order
But the Company could get clearance from all the departments through foul means. On 2 April 2013, The National Green Tribunal granted an interim stay on the project banning any construction at the site. It also stayed the Kerala Government's order to convert the 500 acres of land for industrial purpose until further orders. But the airport project was given environmental clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, New Delhi on 19 November 2013.
KGS Group, which is just a land and construction mafia, could manipulate the central and State governments since the governments are immersed in corruption. It is high time we examine if the people of this country should promote such corrupt politicians and administrators in the name highest democracy in the world. Our elected representatives in the State and Central governments have no prick of conscience to betray us as well as our mother land to such billionaire corporates and mafias who suck our blood. Unless we are vigilant and resist such mass plunder through democratic agitation methods, the future of our nation will be bleak and this God’s own country will turn to devil’s own hell. We have been experiencing the torrid heat caused by the irreparable loss to the Western Ghats. Another instance of plunder by land, forest, quarry mafias supported by the government officials. If we allow these vast paddy fields and wet lands to disappear, Kerala will turn to a desert. God has created this earth not for a few rich human beings but for all human race and other non-human beings. It is our duty to see that this planet is a home for all creatures, and fighting for their right is nothing but a divine duty. Let’s strive for it.