A takeoff aborted

Print edition : June 27, 2014

The Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council celebrates the NGT order stopping work on the airport near the temple town. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Artists paint on a long canvas to express solidarity with the protesters, in March. Photo: Leju Kamal

A CONTROVERSIAL private international airport project at Aranmula in south Kerala, facilitated by the State government despite tenacious protests against the environmental, ecological and land-use changes that it would bring forth, was stopped in its tracks by the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on May 28.

The ‘Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council’, a coalition of local people, environmentalists, legislators and cultural outfits, called off its 107-day satyagraha against the project soon after the NGT ruling. The promoters of the project announced that they would go in appeal to the Supreme Court.

The airport and ancillary facilities were proposed to be established on about 280 hectares in the temple town in Pathanamthitta district, which has one of the largest concentrations of “NRI households” in the State.

The hill shrine of Sabarimala, where millions of pilgrims congregate every year in December-January, is only about an hour’s drive from the proposed airport. The Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple, on the edge of the project site, is one of the most important Vishnu temples in south India. The airport was also expected to cater to tourists heading for the State’s backwaters and hill stations.

The Chennai-based KGS Group, the promoters of the project, is involved in property development, construction, infrastructure development, health care, engineering and paper manufacturing. Anil Ambani’s Reliance group has a 15 per cent stake in the group. The Kerala government had agreed to have 10 per cent equity participation in the airport company floated by the group.

The Rs.2,000-crore project, to be financed in a debt-equity ratio of 2:1, also included the creation of a special economic zone and an integrated airport city with a multispecialty hospital, shopping mall, hotels and an international school.

The project location is 100 km from two major airports in the State in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. It was a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government that gave “in-principle approval” to the project in 2009, a fact that the present Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government points to as the explanation for going ahead with it.

The LDF took the position that its government only accorded “sanction in principle” on the condition that the promoters would have to adhere to all legal formalities. Its leaders demanded that the project should be stopped as the promoters had violated various State laws and in view of the widespread protests and environmental concerns it had generated.

The Kerala Biodiversity Board in a report submitted to the State government in 2013 said that of the 200 ha already earmarked for the project nearly 160 ha were paddy fields. It said the construction of the airport would severely affect the health of the rest of the wetland region, disturb the food chain and deplete fish and other plant and animal resources in the Pampa river basin. The runway was to be constructed over a rivulet, a tributary of the Pampa river, and many hills in the region would have to be mined for soil to reclaim the paddy fields. All this would lead to unsustainable land-use changes, biodiversity loss and other ecological changes.

There were also allegations of grave irregularities in the land deals linked to the project. But the UPA government gave the green signal for the proposal in October 2012, pending environmental clearance, which came in November 2013.

Petitions were filed before the Kerala High Court challenging the State government sanction for the project and it became a major political issue in the Lok Sabha elections, with prominent UDF leaders taking positions against it along with those of the LDF, the BJP and the VHP.

The NGT, in its order, restrained the promoters from going ahead with the project, cancelled the environmental clearance for it and banned all construction work at the site. It said the consultant, Enviro Care India Pvt. Ltd., which conducted the environment impact study, was not competent to do it. Moreover, the public hearing for the project failed to follow norms and was done in violation of the mandatory provisions.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the State government would not challenge the NGT’s decision nor would it oppose the project if its promoters obtained a favourable decision from the Supreme Court.

R. Krishnakumar