Aranmula airport: an investigation  

Posted by Praveen in , , ,

pic courtesy-Aranmula airport website
These are some of the findings of an investigation that I and Vishal Menon had carried out last month in Aranmula, where a private airport is proposed to be constructed. This report takes a look at the issues of large scale land grab, effects on ecology, the irregularities in the approvals for the airport and related issues. We would like to thank Sri Ranganathan, retired rubber board officer and now an active campaigner against the Aranmula airport, for taking his time out and helping us out with this work. Most of the Government documents that you see in this report were obtained by him through months of painstaking effort, using RTI. The rest were sourced by him from an ex-employee of KGS group, one of the partners in the airport project. We would also like to thank the villagers and other officials who took their time out to interact with us. This version is tailor made for the blog and is slightly different from the original report.

Kerala, once known for producing surplus food grains, is now facing an alarming decline in area under crop and as a result, a drop in food production. This fact was revealed in the latest state economic survey released few weeks back. The area under cultivation reduced from 2,34,013 ha to 2,13,185 ha in the past one year. It has been an ongoing process over the past several years, with the area reducing every successive year. The state hardly produces 11 % of its total requirement of rice. In a densely populated state like Kerala, there is a shortage of unused land. This has led to reclamation of paddy fields for public developmental activities and for private real estate business. One such case of Kerala’s food security being sacrificed for the sake of development is the proposed private airport at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district.
Aranmula is a quaint little village by the river Pamba, famous for the Parthasarathy temple and the annual boat race associated with it. Another claim to fame is the Aranmula kannadi, the unique metal mirrors made by some traditional families residing here. It was declared as a heritage village by both the central government and the UNDP. The main activity centre of the village is marked by a handful of small shops. Even being a tourist centre, there are no big hotels or resorts here. These are situated in the towns of Chengannur and Pathanamthitta, which are at half-an-hour’s drive from here.  A proposal for a private airport was announced here in 2008.

The airport proposal also includes a township consisting of a five star hotel, a three-star hotel and an International School. Promoters of this airport also promise direct jobs for 1500 persons and indirect employment to 6000 people. Land value has doubled in this village after the announcement and it is only going to increase further if completed. Yet, the residents of Aranmula strongly oppose this plan and fear that the setting up of this airport would destroy the social fabric of their village.

The airport is promoted by a Chennai based real estate firm called KGS developers. It is being planned at a cost of Rs.2000 crore with the use of 500 acres of land for the first phase and further 700 acres for its expansion into an International Airport. Discrepancies surrounding the land that has been earmarked for this airport and doubts regarding the viability and environmental impact questions the need for such an airport here. The initial land acquisition for the airport was carried out over the past decade citing other plans.

Displacement, Destruction

The Aranmula Airport was envisaged as this village's ticket to development. The initial optimism shared by residents of this village quickly turned into bitter opposition after the murky dealings of the "developers" became apparent. The peace and harmony associated with this village has been disturbed and now these villagers are fighting to reclaim the village they grew up in. The project has already damaged the ecosystem of Aranmula with the villagers suffering from water shortage and destruction of their paddy fields.

"Till a few years back, we could never have imagined that we would be facing water shortage, but ever since these wetland were filled for the airport, all the wells in this area have dried up and now I have to walk some distance everyday to fetch water," says Nirmala, a mother of two who is sure to lose her land if the airport becomes a reality. The proposed runway is just a stone’s throw from her house.

One of the wells in the vicinity of the proposed airport, which dried up following the wetland reclamation for the Aranmula airport. Till 2002, water shortages were an unimaginable scenario in this village. Now, people in this area have to walk some distance everyday to fetch water.

Over 1000 families stand to lose their homes if the project goes on as planned. Moreover, construction of access roads and the widening of roads to Aranmula will further increase the number of displacements. The politicians of the village, eyeing an opportunity, have picked sides in this protest. CPI (M) leader A. Padmakumar said, "We will oppose any plan in the name of development which will come up at the expense of our paddy fields and houses. Also, sensitive sectors such as aviation should not be under the control of private parties." Even though the project was cleared during his party's regime, he claims that the party had nothing to do with it as the decision was taken by the industries secretary.

Site for proposed Aranmula airport few years back, before these paddy fields were reclaimed.

The same site now, after reclamation

The ruling Congress party of Kerala strongly supports this project and local leaders are campaigning to gather support for the airport. Sadasivan Nair, Aranmula M.L.A of the Congress party said, "This airport will change the face of Aranmula and will provide employment for our youth. It will surely become a reality." He got particularly angry when I started asking uncomfortable questions regarding land acquisition and the viability of the airport. He refused to answer more questions over the phone and ended the call.

Non resident Indians from this area are the ones who will benefit from the airport as it will reduce their travel time by 2-3 hours. They are a disappointed lot seeing the strong opposition from the locals. Joy.T, an NRI working in the US said, "This has always been the case in Kerala. Even when a nuclear plant was proposed, opposition drove it away saying that it would destroy the environment"

Ever since the plans for the airport were announced, land prices in the area have multiplied resulting in Aranmula becoming a hot spot for real estate agents. A simple search for Aranmula in Google shows sites pointing to real estate projects such as apartments and villas near the airport. All these activities have raised suspicions in the minds of the residents of this village. "This is not an airport project; it is a veil for a large scale land grab" says, Sriranganathan, a retired government employee and an active campaigner against the airport.

P.T Nandakumar, Chief Operating Officer of K.G.S Group, however rubbishing all the allegations against the proposed airport said, "The people who are opposing this airport haven't seen one in their lives. Such land acquisitions have taken place in the case of many other airports too.” There were several contradictions in the statements made by him, the most notable one being “All land acquisitions are over”. He later contradicted this by saying “People will surely sell their land if they get money”, while answering a query on whether people in the area will be ready to part with their land. He also said that the preliminary work has started, though on our visit to the area all we could see were the filled up paddy fields, where no work has been done in the past 2-3 years.

On a query on the viability and profitability of the project, Mr. Nandakumar gave this surprisingly undiplomatic reply- “It’s our money. Why should others worry?” The conversation deteriorated from there with the man questioning my credibility in asking these questions. He also gave me a list of his degrees implying that I have not grown enough to question someone of his ‘stature’. More questions and the man ended the conversation.
The runway for the proposed airport is set to be laid on this part of the reclaimed paddy fields.

This project also threatens to disturb the sensitive social structure of this village. The annual Aranmula boat race is an intra village boat race contested by teams from the 52 sections of this village called kara. The construction of this airport will destroy three such sections or Kara's bringing to an end to this age-old local tradition. This Hindu majority village also stands to lose three temples which come under the total land area of this project. Displacement of close to 1000 families (based on satellite images) will also pose a challenge to the promoters who are facing stiff opposition from the villagers here. Kochukunju, an old farmer whose house stands on a four cent plot right next to the reclaimed paddy fileld says, "Whatever happens, I will not move from here" - proof that the dream of a few may be a nightmare.

Systematic take-over of farmlands

“Till 2002, a part of the area currently taken over for the proposed airport was under paddy cultivation. The rest were wetlands. Two streams used to run through this place and the wetland used to regulate the water availability during summer and also worked as a flood control mechanism. A bridge that came up here in 2002 created a bottleneck at the stream and this resulted in widespread crop destruction due to water logging. In 2004, Abraham Kalamannil, a local businessman, approached the farmers here and bought some of their lands citing the purpose of fish cultivation in the wetlands,” says Sri Ranganathan, a retired government employee and a native of Aranmula. The land was brought under the name of Zion charitable educational society. He also bought a hill adjoining the wetlands.

By the end of 2004, a part of the hill was bulldozed and used to fill up the paddy fields, wetlands and rubber plantations. Due to strong opposition from the natives, work was temporarily stopped and Abraham filed a writ petition asking for police protection. At this point, the stated purpose for the use of the land was changed as an ‘airstrip’ for the aeronautical engineering course in Zion engineering college, run by Abraham in the adjacent town of Kozhenchery. As per the judgement dated 24th February 2005, police protection was granted. However, the court also said that “any building activities or development activities can be done in the paddy field only after they have got statutory clearance.”

This judgement clearly says that the plan is for a flying school and it objects to the construction activities in the paddy fields

A letter from the tahasildar which says that Abraham Klamannil had cut off a stream which was part of the wetlands by land filling. This move affected the paddy fields and the natural flood control system in the area.

A letter from the Assistant Engineer to Abraham asking him to clear up the stream and restore it to the previous condition.

The remaining part of the hill which was bull dozed to fill up the paddy fields and the wetlands. Abraham Kalamannil, a local bussinessman bought this hill and the adjoining paddy fields and wetlands in 2002. The stated purpose was fish cultivation in the wetlands. But later, he bulldozed these hills and filled up the wetlands and announced his plans to set up an airstrip here, which later morphed into an international airport project.

After a hiatus of about an year, Abraham restarted filling up the land in 2006. Acting on a complaint from the natives, the village officer ordered (on 17th July 2006) to stop all construction or land filling activity in the area until further notice. But the land filling activities continued. During this time, one of the streams that were part of the wetlands was cut off by land filling. This badly affected the few paddy fields that were left in this area. The stream and a part of the wetlands were part of the Govt’s puramboke land and a private party does not have any rights to carry out any activity on such land. More prohibitory orders from the Tahasildar and the district collector were not honoured.

A letter from the Revenue divisional officer asking the local police to take the vehicles used for illegal land filling at night times into custody. It also talks about the illegal transfer of paddy fields to a trust.

A part of the kozhithode stream that was cut off from the Pamba river by the wetland reclamation activities for the construction of the Aranmula airport

The local court had registered two cases against Abraham on 15th March 2008 for illegally reclaiming government land. But the accused never appeared on court. The true intention for the buying up of so much land was revealed only in late 2008 with the formation of the company Aranmula Airport Limited, a consortium of Non- Residential Keralite’s organization and Mount Zion trust owned by Abraham. This was when the plans for an international airport in this little village were announced. In 2009, the land that was acquired by Abraham was transferred to KGS group, a Chennai based real estate group. A look at the group’s website will tell you that the group has never done any construction activity other than flats. 

“No paddy cultivation has happened here in the past 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,” says P.T. Nandakumar, Chief Operating Officer of KGS group. But he evaded the question on the shrinking agricultural area in the state and the illegal ways in which paddy fields were acquired for the project.

An important document that disproves the claims of KGS group that paddy cultivation stopped in this area 25 years back is this certificate from the agriculture officer of the local krishi bhavan. It says 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, there were news reports in the local media that there was crop destruction in this area owing to flooding.

The final nail on the coffin was this Government order on 24th February 2011, converting the 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. This meant that the Conservation of Paddy and Wetland Act of 2008 was not applicable for this area, thus paving the way for reclamation of the land for any purpose. This Government order was released as a secret gazette on 1st March 2011, the day on which the assembly elections were announced in the state. The peculiarity of a secret gazette is that it is not as easily accessible to the public as the normal gazettes. The gazette was signed by T. Balakrishnan, the then additional chief secretary of the Industries and Commerce department.

What we see here is a systematic destruction of paddy cultivation in the area by private parties with the help of some elements from the Government over the course of several years for the sake of an airport, the viability and the need for which has already raised questions.

The latest news in this regard is that “the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had reportedly taken a serious view of the conversion of paddy fields and wetlands for setting up the project and sought clarifications from the State government.” 
The google map showing the project area of the airport. (See the next survey map for details)

The Taluk map marked with the survey numbers which come under the first phase of the airport project. There are close to 1000 houses coming in this marked area, which was revealed when this was matched with corresponding images from google maps. The standalone red markings mean that the unmarked areas between these will be acquired for the airport. This will increase the number of houses that will be evicted for the project. KGS, the company which is developing the airport claims that only six families need to be evacuated for the project and that all of them have agreed to the same. More houses will be evacuated for the proposed 40m approach road to the airport, which is currently a narrow road with houses densely located on eaither side. Three temples are also present in the marked area. This map was prepared by Sri Ranganathan, a retired Government employee and an active campaigner against the airport project.

Flaws galore in airport clearance

The procedures through which the various clearances for the Aranmula airport were obtained have raised questions on their legality. The first proposal for the setting up of a Greenfield airport in Aranmula was given by the KGS group to the Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Board (KINFRA) in 2009, requesting KINFRA to take sweat equity of 3 % in the project. A new airport which is built from scratch in a new location because an existing airport is unable to meet the projected requirements of traffic is called a Greenfield airport. According to the Government's Greenfield airport policy, no such airport would be allowed within an aerial distance of 150 km from an existing airport. However, the proposed Aranmula airport is located at less than 100 km air distance from both Trivandrum and Cochin International airports.

In this initial proposal, KGS group had stated that 'work of the airport is already in progress and 300 acres, out of the 500 acres identified, has already been registered.' This claim is repeated in a letter to the State Government (on 12th April 2010), requesting NOC for the project. A natural question that arises is on how the work on the airport started before getting any clearances. It is another matter that even now, all one can see in the site location is a piece of filled land reclaimed from wetlands.

The State Government gave 'in principle' approval to KGS group for the project on 8th September 2010. However in two separate letters to the Chief Minister, one from KGS group and another from the then Aranmula MLA K.C. Rajagopalan, it is mentioned that 'we have approached the district collector, Pathanamthitta for getting the land transacted to the present company. But we are told that since the owner of the land, Abraham Kalamannil, has developed the land in violation of certain rules, it cannot be transacted unless a direction is issued by the Government.'

This makes it amply clear that while applying for project approval and even after the project was approved, the company did not even have the land registered in their name. Abraham, although a stakeholder in the project, is not part of the KGS group, which applied for the project. KGS has 65 % (15% with reliance) and Abraham has 30 % stake in the project. While applying for approval, the company even claimed ownership of land owned by others and government puramboke land.

After this, came the Government order on 24th February 2011, converting the 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. As per section-18 of the Industrial Single Window Act, those places notified as industrial area would not only remain outside the purview of the master plan or zonal plan but also remain excluded from any legislation passed by the State Assembly. It is worth recollecting that the controversial Coca Cola factory in Plachimada was given clearance by utilizing the same Act. This Act has never been used in the case of an Airport, which is not an industry per se.

This meant that the Conservation of Paddy and Wetland Act of 2008 was not applicable for this area, thus paving the way for reclamation of the land for any purpose. One of the clauses of the wetland act states that, "The Government may grant exemption from the provisions of this Act, if such conversion or reclamation is essential for any public purpose. Such conversion or reclamation shall not adversely affect the cultivation of paddy in the adjoining paddy land and also the ecological conditions in that area." However, most of the paddy cultivation in the area stopped after reclamation of streams and wetlands for the project. And, the 'public purpose' of a privately owned airport in an agricultural village is debatable. It is also to be noted that the wetlands and paddy fields were filled up much before it was converted into an industrial area, which clearly was against the law. According to the 73rd amendment of the constitution, only Grama sabhas have the rights to plan development in their respective areas. This was not followed in the case of the Aranmula airport where it was over ridden was the help of other industry friendly Acts.

The Pathanamthitta District Collector is yet to take a decision on KGS's letter dated 1st November 2011, requesting for mutation of 300 acres of land spread over four villages. Effectively, the KGS group is still not in possession of the land that is planning to build the airport in. The Defence Ministry refused to grant clearance for the airport in a letter dated 20th January 2011. It said that, "since the establishment of Greenfield Airport at Aranmula would result in imposing severe restrictions on the availability of airspace for conduct of military flying at Naval Air Station INS Garuda at Kochi, it was not possible to agree for NOC." However, the company claimed to have got a 'No Objection Certificate' from the ministry in August 2011. It is still not clear what exact change in conditions prompted the Ministry to change their stance suddenly. Consequent to the Defence approval, in October 2011, the Ministry of Civil aviation granted the site clearance approval.

Many people we spoke to, cited the name of TKA Nair, adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as the person responsible for the airport getting most of these clearances so easily through dubious ways. But then, we could not gather any proof to substantiate such claims. Meanwhile, yesterday’s Hindu carried a report on how TKA Nair used his clout in the allotment of land to two of his relatives in the co-operative society of BEML employees. This was allegedly done in violation of society rules which states that the plots should be allotted only for BEML employees, which Nair’s relatives were not.

A tale of two Environmental Impact Assessments

The environmental impact of the proposed airport in Aranmula has now become an issue of debate with two separate agencies releasing conflicting reports on the same. The first report, the official Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) commissioned by the KGS group, was conducted by Envirocare, a private agency based in Chennai. The Ministry of Environment and Forest gave environmental clearance for the project based on this report. But there are many glaring omissions in this assessment, the most notable one being the conversion of 500 acres of paddy fields and wet land for the airport. Another one is the blocking of the kozhithode stream by land filling activities for the airport, which resulted in the destruction of acres of paddy in floods.

The point till which wetland reclamation has taken place for the airport

According to the Envirocare study, there are no rare and endangered species recorded in the study area. “The present site is devoid of trees and shrubs. The only vegetation covered on the land is grass, which will be disturbed and some part will be lost in construction activity.  As no forestland is involved in the core zone, the flora and fauna of the area will not be affected.  Also, the core and buffer zone does not contain any endangered plant, animals and species, which might be affected due to the plant operations. The existing status of flora and fauna will continue to prevail almost undisturbed even after the commencement of the project operations,” the report goes on to add.

Another contestable claims goes-“Construction of the airport does not involve any heavy construction equipment.”

In sharp contrast to this is the environmental impact report released last week by the Salim Ali Foundation based on a study conducted by Dr. V.S.Vijayan and team. According to this report, out of the 212 plant species recorded from the area, 27 are endemic to the Western Ghats and 110 are economically important, mainly for its medicinal properties. Out of the 60 fish species, 42 % are endemic to the Western ghats.

In a particularly damaging allegation, Dr. Vijayan said that most of the local plant species mentioned in the Envirocare report is not even present in the area. Except one, all others mentioned in that report are dry land species, whereas the project area is a wetland. The official EIA which is eloquent on technical details of the airport is bereft of facts and figures when it comes to assessing the biological impact.

“The contiguous paddy fields and wetlands are the flood plains of the river pamba and serve as natural flood control in the area, reducing the impact of flood on the local population and their lives considerably,” the report by Dr. Vijayan says. The wet lands are also said to act as breeding grounds for the fishes. Another important contribution is in maintaining the water level in the wells and ponds in the surrounding villages.

Mr. Vijayan pegs the total loss of intangible benefits due to the filling up of the wetlands as anywhere between Rs. 314 to 419 crores. Added to this is the loss of tangible benefits in the form of fish and paddy production. The report also says that at least 1000 houses will come under the project area, resulting in the eviction of around 3000 people. The official EIA is silent on this aspect even though many pages are dedicated to describe the social and economic status of the people in this village. The Envirocare report also talks about a 23 m wide approach road from Aikkara junction to the airport, but does not say anything about the number of houses to be evicted. This is currently a narrow road with houses densely located on either side.

Instead of this, the EIA makes vague statements on the company’s CSR initiatives- “The corporate social responsibility commitments of KGS Airport Authority will lead to the development of socially and economically marginalized communities and the underserved sections of the society. These activities will lead to community development for those who are living near to the Airport.”

A controversial claim in the official report is that there are no archeological and cultural monuments within 10 km radius of the site. The famous Aranmula temple is only 200 m from the boundary of the proposed airport. Also, some small temples come inside the project area, so does some small traditional workshops which make the Aranmula mirror. On top of all that, Aranmula itself was declared as a heritage village by both the Central government and the UNDP.

Another question is about the source of sand for filling up the wetland. A preliminary assessment by the Salim Ali Foundation says that a minimum of 96 lakhs tones of sand is required for the project. Also, the total requirement of raw water for this airport will be 7.55 KLD, which according to Envirocare will be met from own Bore wells and municipal water supply. This is bound to deplete the groundwater resources further, adding to the effects of wetland reclamation.

The latest report in this regard is that the MoEF was yet to give clearance for the airport project, despite the National Expert Environment Impact Assessment Authority recommending the same on the basis of an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared by a Chennai-based consultant.

Why an airport?

The promoters of the project in their website have said that air travelers from the districts of Alappuzha, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam would benefit due to the strong "non-resident Indian base here" which accounts for more than 40 per cent of Kerala's air traffic population. Aranmula is centrally located between the International airports at Kochi and Thiruvanathapuram with an air traffic distance of under 100 kilometres. The proximity to the Sabarimala temple (located 94 kilometres away) and to the venue of the annual Christian convention called the Maramon Convention has also been cited as the need for this airport.

Mohan Mathew, a non-resident Keralite working in Dubai says, "It takes us about three and a half hours to reach either of the two airports. It takes longer for us to reach our homes from the airport than for us to reach India from Dubai"

However, this does not justify the need for an airport here. Among the four districts claimed by the promoters as standing to benefit, air travelers from the districts of Kottayam and Alappuzha would still use the airport at Kochi which is closer than the proposed airport. Also, among the pilgrims who come to the state to go to Sabarimala, not even one per cent travels by air. Similarly only a small part of the one lakh pilgrims who attend the Maramon convention need an airport.

Also, if the need for an airport was to reduce travel time from and to the airports at Trivandrum and Kochi, a plan to build better roads to these places would have proved to be more convenient and cost-effective considering the falling profitability of the present airports.

PS- All the available documents have not been included in this post, considering its length. If anyone wants to go through the whole set of documents and the two complete environment impact reports, drop me a mail -

It would be great if you could spread the word regarding this illegal land grab in the name of an airport. We were surprised at the lack of knowledge about this issue outside the village. Most of the mainstream media has ignored it. One of the local journalists with one of the two leading malayalam dailies, who had given us some vital information, said that we would never find these in his own newspaper as they never spoke anything against big business. While our media spend hours discussing such inane issues as 5th minister in the cabinet and all other petty party group fights, our rice bowls are being slowly gobbled up by the corporates.