The bold numerals, written with chalk on a blackboard in Ekanapuram village, are the first thing anyone notices in the village public space. Nearby, a few people are on a dharna. These are the villagers who have formed an association to oppose the construction of the new airport for Chennai. Every night they gather at the village and sit in silent protest.
The people of this village form part of an umbrella of 13 villages opposing the new airport for fear of losing their livelihoods and land. In all, the 13 villages will lose nearly 5,000 acres.
Environmentalists and local residents are opposed to the airport, but the Tamil Nadu government insists that this is the area where the new airport will come up. On August 2, 2022, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said on Twitter: “It’s imperative for Chennai to have a new airport to meet its demands, attain our goal of one trillion USD economy & make Chennai the best destination for investments in Asia. In this regard, I’m glad to announce that Chennai will have its new greenfield airport at Parandur.”
The selection of Parandur
Parandur is about 70 km from Chennai. The site was selected after a prolonged delay. The first attempt to construct a new airport to cater to Chennai came up soon after the DMK came to power in 2006. At that time, Sriperumbudur, which is some 50 km away, was surveyed as a possible location. Since airports are long-gestation projects, the proposal did not take off quickly enough. In, 2011, after the AIADMK was voted into office, there was some noise but no movement on the plan.
Later, the question of a second airport was again revived, with the AIADMK pushing for the project in a big way. But the COVID-19 pandemic stalled all progress. Once the worst phase of the pandemic was over, the new government, led by Stalin, pushed for the finalisation of location of new airport. The options were Parandur, Thiruporur, Pannur, and Mamandur. Of this, Parandur and Pannur were shortlisted.
But it has not been a smooth ride for the project. There is opposition from the public and environmentalists have issued warnings. Also, the government has been forced to call for bids aa second time to select consultants for preparing a detailed techno-economic report. It is clear that opposition to the project is making consulting companies wary. A panel of Ministers constituted to negotiate with the protesting villagers has not been able to make much headway.
Last year, three State Ministers held discussions with the agitating villagers twice. In August, when the Ministers met the villagers for the first time, they promised them that government would pay compensation for land at 3.5 times the market value, provide a government job for one person in each family, and identify an alternative site for relocation.
In December, the villagers began taking out a protest march but called it off after the Ministers invited them again for negotiations.
“There is a trust deficit,” a government official told Frontline. “Villagers are not prepared to believe the assurances given by Ministers or the government,” he added. Another official said that the government was making promises and projections which had no connect with reality. The villagers, who are not willing to believe even those assurances that can be carried out, are in no mood to listen to the government.
Day 200 of protest
Even while negotiating with the government, the villagers continued their agitation. On February 12, the 200th day of the agitation, the villagers had planned a massive show of protest. A few environmentalists from Chennai were to join the protest. But a strong posse of police prevented the entry of activists from Chennai. Vetriselvan, an advocate and office-bearer of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO, who had gone to the village to join the protest, was taken to a police station nearby. The police claimed that this was to prevent any untoward incident at the site of the protest.
T. Velmurugan, an MLA whose party is an ally of the DMK, has said that he would relay the people’s concerns to the government. He spoke on the 200th day of the protest and assured the people that he was on their side.
The people’s demand right now is that the government stop any further work on the project. Most of the protesters are agriculturists, and if their lands are taken away, they will be forced to migrate to the cities in search of jobs, an activist said.
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