Aranmula (Kerala), April 4: A virgin plot of land has done what no veteran politician has been able to do, even in this age of coalitions.
Sections of the Congress, the BJP, the CPM and the far Left, the Church, Muslim outfits, Dalit groups and the Sangh parivar have closed ranks against a proposed private international greenfield airport in this Unesco-certified Global Heritage Village in central Kerala.
The unlikely unity has been giving sleepless nights to the sitting Congress MP, who has been accused of promoting corporate interests at the cost of the environment.
The 700-acre plot is near the Western Ghats and is home to wetlands.
“We are not against development. But we cannot allow destruction of wetlands, which play a critical role in managing the water table. Groundwater levels are depleting and the heat is rising every year,” said Kummanam Rajasekharan, a key organiser of the struggle and general secretary of the Hindu Aikya Vedi, a Sangh outfit backing the protest that recently crossed 50 days.
Rajasekharan, known for his organising skills, has brought various groups — divided on caste, religious and political lines — under one umbrella.
Since February 10, sections of the Church, Muslim groups, the CPI(ML) and Dalit organisations have been taking part in a dharna led by the Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council. Rajasekharan is the chief patron.
The protest has now taken on a new dimension — pitting one-time political friends against each other in the coming elections.
Sitting Congress MP Anto Antony, who is seeking re-election on a party ticket from Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency, which includes Aranmula, faces serious competition from friend-turned-foe Peelipose Thomas.
Thomas, who was an AICC member and has always been opposed to the airport project, has quit the Congress to contest as an Independent and is being backed by the CPM.
The BJP, which has been a key player in the anti-airport agitation, has also joined the fray, fielding M.T. Ramesh, a popular leader and vice-president of the state unit.
Antony stands by his support for the project, proposed to come up at a cost of Rs 2,000 crore. He says the airport, to be developed by Chennai-based private promoter KGS, will change the face of Pathanamthitta, in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and surrounding areas. The project will also benefit the large number of non-resident Malayalees in the district and in the neighbourhood, he argues.
His party, however, is a divided house.
While chief minister Oommen Chandy, Rajya Sabha deputy chairman P.J. Kurien and local Congress MLA K. Sivadasan Nair support Antony, the newly appointed state Congress chief, V.M. Sudheeran, is opposing the project tooth and nail.
So are Sudheeran’s deputy, V.D. Satheesan, and MLA K. Muraleedharan, son of former chief minister K. Karunakaran.
Asked why he was batting for a project that the public and environment activists oppose, Chandy said: “It was the (previous) Left government headed by V.S. Achuthanandan which gave approval.”
While it has emerged that the VS government did give in-principle sanction in September 2010, CPM politburo member M.A. Baby says the then regime had made a mistake. Now the Chandy government has gone on to acquire 10 per cent stake in the project.
Antony and local Congress MLA Nair also deny that the people of Aranmula are against the airport.
Not many agree, especially after an advocate commission appointed by the high court reported that the project would adversely affect the famed Sree Parthasarathy temple located not far from the site.
The report said the temple’s 30m-tall flag mast would have to be fitted with a red beacon light and its height reduced. Four hills near the site, it added, would have to be razed and hundreds of acres of paddy field reclaimed. This would affect the flow in the Pampa river, which originates in the Ghats, and cause flooding, the report said.
P.T. Nandakumar, the proposed airport’s executive director, rubbished the fears. “The conclusions are baseless and contrary to facts. An obstacle study to identify hindrances… was conducted and on the basis of the findings, the runway has been planned without in any way affecting the temple or the hills,” he said in a statement.
K. Krishnankutty, co-convener of the People’s Joint Action Council that has been spearheading the protests, said a small state like Kerala already had three international airports — in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode.
“A fourth is under construction in Kannur district. There is a requirement on the minimum distance between two airports, but Aranmula is not that far from either Thiruvananthapuram or Kochi…. We feel this is only an attempt to convert the paddy land to revenue land so that the real estate mafia can make a killing out of it.”
The defence ministry, too, had earlier refused clearance, saying the project would affect operations of the naval air station INS Garuda in Kochi, but later gave in.
Land picked for the project has been the subject of controversy ever since 2004 when local businessman Abraham Kalamannil first bought it for shrimp farming. Kalamannil later allegedly started filling up the plot with soil from a nearby hillock, inviting protests from Left outfits.
The businessman, who ran an engineering college, then announced a change in plans, saying he proposed to build an airstrip for the college. In 2008, some non-resident Malayalees teamed up with Kalamannil and came up with the idea of an international airport. But with the land reclamation running into legal impediments, Kalamannil sold it to KGS in 2009.
KGS, in which Anil Ambani’s Reliance ADAG has a 15 per cent stake, says that all apprehensions about the project had been put to rest after the Union environment ministry cleared it in November 2013.
The protesters say cases are still pending before the National Green Tribunal and the state high court.
“We will fight this tooth and nail. The environment committee of the state Assembly headed by Congress MLA C.P. Mohammed had come out with a report opposing the project. Even a parliamentary committee, headed by (CPM leader) Sitaram Yechury, opposed it. Yet, the government glossed over several illegalities while granting sanction,” said Malayalam poet and activist Sugathakumari.
Western Ghats expert Madhav Gadgil, too, has opposed the project.
Rajasekharan says Aranmula was designated a heritage village for its unique cultural aspects. “Changes to the landscape will also affect the water level in the Pampa river and adversely affect the annual boat race, another feature unique to this place,” he said.
“We will never allow the destruction of the paddy fields and the temple for the sake of the airport.”
Kerala votes on April 10