A project shelved

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Residents of the Revas-Mandwa region near Mumbai, who fought and forced the government to abandon an international airport project, now fear that there could be ulterior motives behind the delay in denotifying the acquired land.

DATTA PATIL sums up, quoting a Marathi saying the controversy surrounding the proposal for another international airport near Mumbai: "If the king is a merchant, the state is doomed." The 76-year-old former legislator from Raigad district, a vociferous opponent of the airport project, has been at the forefront of the fight to stop it. After years of opposition, the Maharashtra government has informally announced that the project has been shelved. But the residents of the 14 affected villages in the Revas-Mandwa area sceptical as the government is apparently delaying the official de-requisitioning of the land. Datta Patil voices their fears when he says that "the government is just holding on to the land because of its proximity to Mumbai and its high real estate value." The land in question is located on the coast about 11 km south of Mumbai (Frontline, November 1, 1996).

First proposed in 1969, the airport project has a convoluted history with successive Central and State governments appointing task forces and investigative bodies to deal with protests from the residents. No government took any decision on the voluminous reports submitted by these bodies. More important, none has been able to explain satisfactorily why this particular site was selected for the project.

The residents of the area stepped up their campaign against the project in 1991 when the government formally declared its intention to reserve 45 sq km of land as part of the Regional Development Plan. In 2000 the State government indicated that an alternative site had been chosen for the airport. But it is yet to de-notify formally the Revas-Mandwa site.

The objections to developing an airport in the Revas-Mandwa region were based mainly on three factors. First, the present international airport at Sahar has enough land, only it has been encroached upon by slums. Vote bank considerations have prevented eviction of the encroachers and utilisation of the land for the airport's expansion. A report entitled "Traffic Trends and Capacities at Mumbai Airport", prepared by Ritu Dewan, a sociologist, says that the existing facilities are under-utilised and that the existing airport has not reached a saturation point. The second factor is that the Revas-Mandwa lies across the Mumbai harbour and there is no existing surface transport infrastructure between the site and the city. Thirdly, the building of the airport was projected as part of the development of the area, which was objected to by the residents who argued that their agro-fishing industries were adequate to sustain them, as was proved by the overall prosperity in the region.

The region has advantages such as fertile soil, adequate rainfall, proximity to a vast market (Mumbai is only an hour's ferry ride away), a sheltered harbour, a coastline that can be farmed for fish and other seafood, and opportunities for tourism. As Ralli Jacob, a resident who opposed the airport, said: "Development cannot emerge from destroying what you have. Had the authorities persisted in seeing the plan through, the residents of the 14 villages would have lost their livelihoods. They would not only have been displaced but unemployed as well. We have realised that self-help is the most effective course of action."

With this plan in mind the local people have organised themselves under the banners of the Fourteen Villages Environment Protection Association and the Revas Mandwa Ecodevelopment Trust. The first group comprises the residents of the 14 affected villages, and the second, largely of people who have weekend homes in the region. Kisan Patil of Mandwa village explains the presence of two organisations: "It is like a rail track, each rail needs the other. Members of the village group would give of their time, labour and natural resources. Members of the Trust would help with finance, development of skills and access to the markets in Mumbai. "

The two groups have adopted a three-pronged approach to tackle the problems that confront them. "We need to deal with education, conservation and utilisation of natural resources, and the broadbasing of the existing economy," says Jacob. Teaching schoolchildren English and making them computer literate are priorities. At the Awas village school, one room has been dedicated to computer classes. Every day 40 students are given hands-on training on five computers donated by Ajit Balakrishnan of Rediff.com. The course is recognised by the State Vocational Training Board. According to a Trust member, the educational programme has changed the outlook of the local people. "Initially they were apathetic about their future, but now their mood has changed. Until last year there used to be a 60 per cent failure rate in the local schools in the 10th standard examination. This year there was 64 per cent pass."

The conservation and augmentation of natural resources involves the harnessing of water resources through watershed development. So far, one recharging pond has been built with help from Gaumukh, a Pune-based organisation. The pond is expected to recharge wells in the area by this summer. Resource conservation is expected to improve the status of agriculture.

The development of tertiary activities is crucial to the region's economy. Activities such as ecotourism, fish processing and the farming of high-value vegetables are expected to provide new avenues for employment. Ecotourism has begun on a small scale with some families offering board and lodging to visitors. An effort will be made to break into the high-value vegetables market in Mumbai with the broccoli, lettuce, leek, celery and zucchini crops to be harvested in December.

Infrastructure development is crucial in boosting traditional fishing activities. Locals residents hope that the old fish landing port at Revas will be expanded with the provision of processing and warehousing facilities. The fish catch in Revas is over 2,000 tonnes a year and the fishing community forms about one-third of the affected area's population. Although plans to spur the development of the area are only a year old, that does not prevent the local people from seeing a bright future for themselves. They say that the only spoke in the wheel is political apathy.

Citing the example of the Revas jetty, a representative of the fishing community alleged that the local representative in the State Assembly, Minister for Ports Meenakshi Patil, "not only does not support the maintenance of the jetty but is actually working towards closing it down." Apart from serving as a fish landing port, the jetty handles about 1,200 passengers a day. It is the main link between the island of Mumbai and the mainland. .

THE plans for sustainable development of the area are strengthened by two enactments. One of them is the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1976, which made it obligatory for every citizen to "protect and improve the natural environment" while urging the State to "endeavour to protect and improve the environment". The claims of the affected villagers are supported also by the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution (Twelfth Schedule, Article 243 w), which give the gram panchayats or gram sabhas the right to decide the way in which the natural resources of the territory under them should be used and the right to choose the technology for and the path of development.

The peculiar characteristic of the Revas-Mandwa area is that though it is completely rural in character, its proximity to Mumbai meant its inclusion in the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority's 11-year plan for the region. However, even this urban development authority has preserved the region as a Green Zone. However, activities such as tourism and water sports and enhanced agricultural and fishing activities are permitted under the plan.

THERE have been fears that the airport project was actually a smokescreen for grabbing land which in due course was bound to become prime real estate. When the plans for the airport were first made public, the government claimed that 45 sq km would be required. Opponents of the plan pointed out that Hong Kong's airport along with its cargo facilities occupied only a quarter of that space. Later, as interest in the airport waned, the extent of land required dropped to 20 sq km. This is the land area that the government is yet to de-requisition.

Datta Patil says: "Land is gold to investors. There are two companies that have been buying land in the area for several years. One has about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of land both inside and outside the zone of the proposed airport. If the airport had come up they would have made a fortune. A part of the land would have been sold to the government and another part would have been used for airport infrastructure." Datta Patil believes that the delay in de-notification is an indication that the government plans to use the land for some other purpose. "There is a Supreme Court ruling that says that even if the land has been notified for a certain purpose, it can be changed at a later date."

Local people are worried that under the guise of development, the government will set up polluting industries in the area. They hope that their policy of self-development will effectively counter the government's development plans for the region.

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