pic courtesy-Aranmula airport websiteThese are some of the findings of an investigation that I and Vishal Menon had carried out last month in Aranmula, where a private airport is proposed to be constructed. This report takes a look at the issues of large scale land grab, effects on ecology, the irregularities in the approvals for the airport and related issues. We would like to thank Sri Ranganathan, retired rubber board officer and now an active campaigner against the Aranmula airport, for taking his time out and helping us out with this work. Most of the Government documents that you see in this report were obtained by him through months of painstaking effort, using RTI. The rest were sourced by him from an ex-employee of KGS group, one of the partners in the airport project. We would also like to thank the villagers and other officials who took their time out to interact with us. This version is tailor made for the blog and is slightly different from the original report.
Kerala, once known for producing surplus food grains, is now facing an alarming decline in area under crop and as a result, a drop in food production. This fact was revealed in the latest state economic survey released few weeks back. The area under cultivation reduced from 2,34,013 ha to 2,13,185 ha in the past one year. It has been an ongoing process over the past several years, with the area reducing every successive year. The state hardly produces 11 % of its total requirement of rice. In a densely populated state like Kerala, there is a shortage of unused land. This has led to reclamation of paddy fields for public developmental activities and for private real estate business. One such case of Kerala’s food security being sacrificed for the sake of development is the proposed private airport at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district.
Aranmula is a quaint little village by the river Pamba, famous for the Parthasarathy temple and the annual boat race associated with it. Another claim to fame is the Aranmula kannadi, the unique metal mirrors made by some traditional families residing here. It was declared as a heritage village by both the central government and the UNDP. The main activity centre of the village is marked by a handful of small shops. Even being a tourist centre, there are no big hotels or resorts here. These are situated in the towns of Chengannur and Pathanamthitta, which are at half-an-hour’s drive from here. A proposal for a private airport was announced here in 2008.
The airport proposal also includes a township consisting of a five star hotel, a three-star hotel and an International School. Promoters of this airport also promise direct jobs for 1500 persons and indirect employment to 6000 people. Land value has doubled in this village after the announcement and it is only going to increase further if completed. Yet, the residents of Aranmula strongly oppose this plan and fear that the setting up of this airport would destroy the social fabric of their village.
The airport is promoted by a Chennai based real estate firm called KGS developers. It is being planned at a cost of Rs.2000 crore with the use of 500 acres of land for the first phase and further 700 acres for its expansion into an International Airport. Discrepancies surrounding the land that has been earmarked for this airport and doubts regarding the viability and environmental impact questions the need for such an airport here. The initial land acquisition for the airport was carried out over the past decade citing other plans.
The Aranmula Airport was envisaged as this village's ticket to development. The initial optimism shared by residents of this village quickly turned into bitter opposition after the murky dealings of the "developers" became apparent. The peace and harmony associated with this village has been disturbed and now these villagers are fighting to reclaim the village they grew up in. The project has already damaged the ecosystem of Aranmula with the villagers suffering from water shortage and destruction of their paddy fields.
"Till a few years back, we could never have imagined that we would be facing water shortage, but ever since these wetland were filled for the airport, all the wells in this area have dried up and now I have to walk some distance everyday to fetch water," says Nirmala, a mother of two who is sure to lose her land if the airport becomes a reality. The proposed runway is just a stone’s throw from her house.
Over 1000 families stand to lose their homes if the project goes on as planned. Moreover, construction of access roads and the widening of roads to Aranmula will further increase the number of displacements. The politicians of the village, eyeing an opportunity, have picked sides in this protest. CPI (M) leader A. Padmakumar said, "We will oppose any plan in the name of development which will come up at the expense of our paddy fields and houses. Also, sensitive sectors such as aviation should not be under the control of private parties." Even though the project was cleared during his party's regime, he claims that the party had nothing to do with it as the decision was taken by the industries secretary.
The ruling Congress party of Kerala strongly supports this project and local leaders are campaigning to gather support for the airport. Sadasivan Nair, Aranmula M.L.A of the Congress party said, "This airport will change the face of Aranmula and will provide employment for our youth. It will surely become a reality." He got particularly angry when I started asking uncomfortable questions regarding land acquisition and the viability of the airport. He refused to answer more questions over the phone and ended the call.
Non resident Indians from this area are the ones who will benefit from the airport as it will reduce their travel time by 2-3 hours. They are a disappointed lot seeing the strong opposition from the locals. Joy.T, an NRI working in the US said, "This has always been the case in Kerala. Even when a nuclear plant was proposed, opposition drove it away saying that it would destroy the environment"
Ever since the plans for the airport were announced, land prices in the area have multiplied resulting in Aranmula becoming a hot spot for real estate agents. A simple search for Aranmula in Google shows sites pointing to real estate projects such as apartments and villas near the airport. All these activities have raised suspicions in the minds of the residents of this village. "This is not an airport project; it is a veil for a large scale land grab" says, Sriranganathan, a retired government employee and an active campaigner against the airport.
P.T Nandakumar, Chief Operating Officer of K.G.S Group, however rubbishing all the allegations against the proposed airport said, "The people who are opposing this airport haven't seen one in their lives. Such land acquisitions have taken place in the case of many other airports too.” There were several contradictions in the statements made by him, the most notable one being “All land acquisitions are over”. He later contradicted this by saying “People will surely sell their land if they get money”, while answering a query on whether people in the area will be ready to part with their land. He also said that the preliminary work has started, though on our visit to the area all we could see were the filled up paddy fields, where no work has been done in the past 2-3 years.
On a query on the viability and profitability of the project, Mr. Nandakumar gave this surprisingly undiplomatic reply- “It’s our money. Why should others worry?” The conversation deteriorated from there with the man questioning my credibility in asking these questions. He also gave me a list of his degrees implying that I have not grown enough to question someone of his ‘stature’. More questions and the man ended the conversation.
This project also threatens to disturb the sensitive social structure of this village. The annual Aranmula boat race is an intra village boat race contested by teams from the 52 sections of this village called kara. The construction of this airport will destroy three such sections or Kara's bringing to an end to this age-old local tradition. This Hindu majority village also stands to lose three temples which come under the total land area of this project. Displacement of close to 1000 families (based on satellite images) will also pose a challenge to the promoters who are facing stiff opposition from the villagers here. Kochukunju, an old farmer whose house stands on a four cent plot right next to the reclaimed paddy fileld says, "Whatever happens, I will not move from here" - proof that the dream of a few may be a nightmare.
Systematic take-over of farmlands
“Till 2002, a part of the area currently taken over for the proposed airport was under paddy cultivation. The rest were wetlands. Two streams used to run through this place and the wetland used to regulate the water availability during summer and also worked as a flood control mechanism. A bridge that came up here in 2002 created a bottleneck at the stream and this resulted in widespread crop destruction due to water logging. In 2004, Abraham Kalamannil, a local businessman, approached the farmers here and bought some of their lands citing the purpose of fish cultivation in the wetlands,” says Sri Ranganathan, a retired government employee and a native of Aranmula. The land was brought under the name of Zion charitable educational society. He also bought a hill adjoining the wetlands.
By the end of 2004, a part of the hill was bulldozed and used to fill up the paddy fields, wetlands and rubber plantations. Due to strong opposition from the natives, work was temporarily stopped and Abraham filed a writ petition asking for police protection. At this point, the stated purpose for the use of the land was changed as an ‘airstrip’ for the aeronautical engineering course in Zion engineering college, run by Abraham in the adjacent town of Kozhenchery. As per the judgement dated 24th February 2005, police protection was granted. However, the court also said that “any building activities or development activities can be done in the paddy field only after they have got statutory clearance.”
This judgement clearly says that the plan is for a flying school and it objects to the construction activities in the paddy fields
A letter from the tahasildar which says that Abraham Klamannil had cut off a stream which was part of the wetlands by land filling. This move affected the paddy fields and the natural flood control system in the area.
A letter from the Assistant Engineer to Abraham asking him to clear up the stream and restore it to the previous condition.
The remaining part of the hill which was bull dozed to fill up the paddy fields and the wetlands. Abraham Kalamannil, a local bussinessman bought this hill and the adjoining paddy fields and wetlands in 2002. The stated purpose was fish cultivation in the wetlands. But later, he bulldozed these hills and filled up the wetlands and announced his plans to set up an airstrip here, which later morphed into an international airport project.
After a hiatus of about an year, Abraham restarted filling up the land in 2006. Acting on a complaint from the natives, the village officer ordered (on 17th July 2006) to stop all construction or land filling activity in the area until further notice. But the land filling activities continued. During this time, one of the streams that were part of the wetlands was cut off by land filling. This badly affected the few paddy fields that were left in this area. The stream and a part of the wetlands were part of the Govt’s puramboke land and a private party does not have any rights to carry out any activity on such land. More prohibitory orders from the Tahasildar and the district collector were not honoured.
A letter from the Revenue divisional officer asking the local police to take the vehicles used for illegal land filling at night times into custody. It also talks about the illegal transfer of paddy fields to a trust.
A part of the kozhithode stream that was cut off from the Pamba river by the wetland reclamation activities for the construction of the Aranmula airport
The local court had registered two cases against Abraham on 15th March 2008 for illegally reclaiming government land. But the accused never appeared on court. The true intention for the buying up of so much land was revealed only in late 2008 with the formation of the company Aranmula Airport Limited, a consortium of Non- Residential Keralite’s organization and Mount Zion trust owned by Abraham. This was when the plans for an international airport in this little village were announced. In 2009, the land that was acquired by Abraham was transferred to KGS group, a Chennai based real estate group. A look at the group’s website will tell you that the group has never done any construction activity other than flats.
“No paddy cultivation has happened here in the past 25 years. With so many farmer suicides happening, everyone is trying to get out of agriculture. When the state government gives rice at such low rates who will want to continue with farming,” says P.T. Nandakumar, Chief Operating Officer of KGS group. But he evaded the question on the shrinking agricultural area in the state and the illegal ways in which paddy fields were acquired for the project.
An important document that disproves the claims of KGS group that paddy cultivation stopped in this area 25 years back is this certificate from the agriculture officer of the local krishi bhavan. It says that “Paddy cultivation has become impossible due to the filling and conversion of paddy fields and also the filling of valiyathodu (big stream). During 2004-05, 45 ha of paddy had been cultivated in this area and it has been reduced to 20 ha in this year (2009). Due to the filling of the stream, the cultivated paddy crop faces the threat of flooding during the summer rain.” In 2010, there were news reports in the local media that there was crop destruction in this area owing to flooding.
The final nail on the coffin was this Government order on 24th February 2011, converting the 500 acres of land proposed for the airport into an industrial area by the Kerala Industrial Single Window Clearance Boards and Industrial Township Area Development Act 1999. This meant that the Conservation of Paddy and Wetland Act of 2008 was not applicable for this area, thus paving the way for reclamation of the land for any purpose. This Government order was released as a secret gazette on 1st March 2011, the day on which the assembly elections were announced in the state. The peculiarity of a secret gazette is that it is not as easily accessible to the public as the normal gazettes. The gazette was signed by T. Balakrishnan, the then additional chief secretary of the Industries and Commerce department.