Monday, January 02, 2012

Airport project triggers widespread protest

WANTON DESTRUCTION: The vast expanse of paddy fields that have been illegally converted in the name of a private airport project at Aranmula.
Photo: Leju Kamal

The seeds of the row over the proposed private airport project at Aranmula can be traced to nine years ago when the Kadammanitta-based Mount Zion Educational Trust had mooted setting up of an airstrip as part of an Aeronautical Engineering course at its engineering college. The Trust had purchased a large extent of waterlogged paddy fields (puncha) at Aranmula and had illegally converted it by bulldozing a hill located on its boundary.

Though various farm workers' and peasants' groups resisted the paddy field conversion, the illegal activity continued allegedly with the connivance of certain political and official quarters. The private party had stated that it had converted 90 acres of paddy field. But, the extent of illegal land conversion may not be less than 125 acres, said Harikumar, a local peasant.

In the meantime, a private company, Aranmula Aviation Ltd., was floated which announced a proposal to set up a Rs.1,500-crore private international airport at Aranmula, sowing the seeds of hopes of ‘development' among the local people. The protest by various political outfits against paddy field conversion too gradually weakened for reasons best known to the leadership concerned.

A portion of the natural stream cutting across the Aranmula puncha and a vast expanse of the paddy field was also illegally converted by the private party in the name of the proposed airport project.

Though the Revenue Department had registered cases against Abraham Kalamannil, Mount Zion Trust chairman, in connection with the paddy field conversion, the illegal activity continued allegedly with the support of the official machinery.

Two years ago, KGS Group, a real estate company in Chennai, announced that it had purchased the landholdings of Mr. Kalamannil and others to set up a Rs. 2,000-crore international airport, KGS Aranmula International Airport, by 2012. Environmentalists opposed the move on the grounds that it would require wanton conversion of the Aranmula paddy fields and wetlands.

Meanwhile, the company faced problems in the mutation process of the land it claimed to have purchased from Mr. Kalamannil reportedly owing to the cases pending against him in connection with land conversion.
No land in possession

In reply to a question under the RTI Act, the village officer at Aranmula had stated that KGS company did not possess any landed property in Aranmula as on November 28, 2011.

Anto Antony, MP; P.J. Kurien, Rajya Sabha member and KGS managing director Gigi George had stated that the company had obtained all key clearances for the airport project, including those from the Union Ministries of Defence, Environment and Civil Aviation.

“P.T. Nandakumar, executive director of the private airport company, had reportedly stated at a recent press conference in Pathanamthitta that all Union Ministers from Kerala as well as the Prime Minister's advisor, T.K.A. Nair, were among those who had extended active support to the airport project in Aranmula. In this context, they should allay the fears of the common man and state the circumstances that led to the granting of various Central clearances to the company, violating the prevailing laws of the land,” said P. Prasad, district secretary of the Communist Party of India.

K. Padmakumar, CPI(M) leader; V.N. Unni, BJP district president; K.A.Varghese, V.N. Gopinatha Pillai, staunch environmentalists; and Kerala River and Wetland Protection Council leaders have alleged large-scale corruption and misuse of power in the granting of clearances for the proposed private airport project to a private company that did not even possess any landholding of its own for implementing the project.

N.K. Sukumaran Nair, Pampa Parirakshana Samiti general secretary, alleged that the Environment Impact Assessment made in connection with the airport project never even mentioned that land as paddy field.
Industrial area notification

Interestingly, the Industries Department has notified 500 acres spread across the three villages of Aranmula, Mallappuzhasserry and Kidangannur as industrial area, besides setting up the Aranmula KGS Greenfield Airport Single Window Clearance Board through a Gazette notification on March 1, 2011.

Peelipose Thomas, former State Planning Board member, alleged that there was every reason to suspect that the notification was part of a “legal fraud” aimed at getting clearances through “short-cut” for certain key requests of the company that had been outrightly rejected by the State Cabinet, earlier.

With the newsbreak on the notification of three villages as industrial area, the common people of Aranmula have launched an agitation against the airport project and paddy field conversion.

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