Aranmula is a quaint village in the Pathanamthitta district of kerala, known for its ancient Krishna temple and handicrafts. But this could soon change, as plans are being made to flatten it to make way for an airport. Named the Aranmula greenfield Airport (AGA) project, this Rs 2,000 crore airport is being built by Chennai-based KGS Aranmula international Airport Ltd, a conglomerate of several NRI businessmen.
As land acquisitions in india go, Aranmula too is shrouded in allegations of illegal transactions and protests. At the heart of this protest is noted poet and environmentalist Sugathakumari. “I will fight against the airport project till my last day,” she thunders. Sugathakumari, 79, has been leading the protests for the past three years and says the proposed airport will wipe out the wetlands and disturb the ecological balance in the region. Her campaign has derailed the NRI dream to set up a fourth airport near Sabarimala, the famous Hindu pilgrimage site.
Sugathakumari’s protests have found able support from political quarters in the state, including leaders from the congress. Not to mention the hundreds of poor people who have joined her campaign.
On the other hand, chief Minister Oommen Chandy has placed his bets on the project and has even successfully lobbied for it to get a mention in the Presidential address in the Budget session of Parliament.
However, on 2 April, the Chennai Bench of the National Green Tribunal issued an order staying the construction of the airport. on 30 April, the bench reversed its earlier decision and allowed the stay to be lifted, giving KGS a shot in the arm.
Controversies have clouded the 700-acre Aranmula greenfield Airport project ever since a few NRIs started acquiring land in the temple village in 2011. They had strong support from then legislator and CPM leader kc rajagopal. Rajagopal lobbied to get the land exempted from the Land ceiling Act and got the project cleared through a single window clearance in March 2011.
In a letter dated 11 November 2010 to then CM Vs Achuthanandan, rajagopal prevailed on the chief minister to direct the district collector of Pathanamthitta to withdraw the ban imposed on the land transfer. The cM’s decision to support the project took many of his own loyalists by surprise and invited resentment from environmental activists. in an ironical twist, Achuthanandan now vehemently opposes the project he once supported.
For its part, the KGS group alleges that the company has been a victim of blackmail and politics. “We have got all clearances from the concerned ministry,” says PT Nandakumar, coo of the KGS group, “and we are committed to start the construction of the airport at the earliest.” The green Tribunal clearance could not have come at a better time for KGS.
However, both the clearance and the Presidential mention could come to naught if the land is declared illegal. According to senior officials in the revenue department, proceedings are on to declare illegal the 232 acres that changed hands between NRI businessman Abraham Kalayamannil and the KGS group, according to the Kerala Land Ceiling Act.
“We have found that Abraham Kalayamannil was holding around 300 acres of land and transferred 232 acres of land to the KGS group,” explains an official on condition of anonymity. “A person is entitled to hold only 15 acres of land in his name.” That could mean more legal hassles ahead for the kgs group.
“The project is going to destroy around 200 acres of paddy fields and 150 acres of wetlands,” says Philipose Thomas, a senior congress leader from Pathanamthitta. “It’s most unfortunate that successive governments allowed the company to violate existing rules.” Philipose, a practicing lawyer, objected to KGS’ transactions, and has been blacklisted by his own party leaders.
On 23 April, the government transferred Pathanamthitta District collector VN Jitendran for initiating action against the land acquisition. At the time of this going to press, he was yet to be assigned a new post.