Aranmula airport project and the ongoing agitations: How the land was treacherously acquired

published on March 3, 2013
The proposal to set up KGS International Airport- a private venture in Kerala’s global heritage village Aranmula has drawn the ire of an entire society. The project, if implemented, will benefit only a handful. What stands to be lost will be an entire dwelling, steeped in heritage, antiquity and culture. Janam TV makes an attempt to cover all aspects of what Kerala and infact India stands to lose, if vested interests have their final victory. The first episode in the series focuses on how the land was acquired by the KGS group.

In 2004, around 232 acres of land in Aranmula was purchased by Abraham Kalamannil, a local businessman of the Mount Zion Trust in 2004 under the pretext of fish cultivation in the wetlands. He also bought a hill adjoining the wetlands. Soon after the purchase, his team went on a mass bulldozing spree, blustering the hills, using the material to fill up the wetlands and paddy fields and leveling the rubber plantations. However, owing to strong protests from natives, work was stopped temporarily.

It was at this juncture that Abraham Kalamannil announced a change in intention behind the land purchase: the purpose of the land was changed to that of an ‘airstrip’ for an aeronautical engineering course in Zion engineering college, run by Abraham in Kozhenchery.

Abraham received police protection from the protesting locals in accordance with a judgment dated 24 February 2005. However the court specified that “any building activities or development activities can be done in the paddy field only after they have got statutory clearance.”

In spite of the court order, Abraham resumed his refilling activities. But following protests, the village officer issued an order in June 2006 to stop all construction or land filling activity in the area. More prohibitory orders were issued by the Tahsildar and District Collector, which was not abided by. The result was that a large part of a stream, part of a wetland, stood cut off, affecting the paddy fields in the area. In 2008, two cases were registered in the local courts against Abraham for illegal reclamation of government land.

In 2008, a syndicate was formed between Non- Residential Keralite’s organization and Mount Zion trust owned by Abraham resulting in the Aranmula Airport Limited. The plans for an international airport was thus announced. In 2009, Abraham transferred the land to the KGS group, a real estate group based in Chennai.

Making matters seem bright for the KGS Group was the order issued by the LDF government just before the conclusion of its tenure. On 24 February 2011, the state government granted permission to convert 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.

The order was released as a secret gazette on 1March 2011, the day on which the assembly elections were announced in Kerala. A secret gazette is easily accessible to the public as normal gazettes are. The gazette was signed by T. Balakrishnan, who then held charges of additional chief secretary of the Industries and Commerce department.

The release of the gazette meant that the Conservation of Paddy and Wetland Act of 2008 did not stand applicable for this area. This gave a green signal for the reclamation of the land for any purpose.

One of the chief contentions of the KGS group towards the construction of the airport is that no paddy cultivation has taken place in the area in the last 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,” argued Chief Operating Officer of KGS group PT Nandakumar.

However, a certificate from the agriculture officer of the local krishi bhavan states 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, local media carried reports of crop destruction in the area owing to flooding. These two factors prove the KGS group wrong.
In spite of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) having taken a “serious view of the conversion of paddy fields and wetlands for setting up the project and sought clarifications from the State government”, a systematic destruction of paddy cultivation in the area continues unabated. Influential private parties have been seeking the aid of government representatives to further the interests of a real estate lobby. All at the stake of grave environmental hazards, displacement of thousands of families, destruction of culture and heritage, subjugation of practices!

Kerala does not need another airport. We have a total of 5, in a tiny air distance of 600 km. The presence of the proposed international airport would only make things perilous in the air space. What is urgently needed is the maintenance and upkeep of the existing airports, both domestic and international. The proposed Arnamula airport will serve the materialistic interests of only a select section of society, all at the cost of native mass destruction.

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