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Thumbs down to airport, Left loses green mantle to Sangh in Kerala

The paddy fields of Aranmula; (below) a victory march after environmental clearance for the airport was revoked

Aranmula (Kerala), June 7: Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy had laughed it off when senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak Kummanam Rajasekharan joined the anti-airport struggle in this village on the foothills of the Western Ghats in July 2012.

Less than two years down the line, it was Rajasekharan’s turn to chuckle as the Chennai bench of the National Green Tribunal revoked the environmental clearance for the project last week.

The tribunal found the environment impact assessment report for the project lacking on several key aspects, such as the ecological impact of levelling hundreds of acres of paddy fields and wetlands.

It concluded that the private agency that prepared it was not qualified to do so, pulled up the environment and forests ministry for acting in haste, and scrapped the green clearance it had granted.

Celebrations erupted across Aranmula. The joy of humbling the state apart, the victory was a morale booster for the Sangh parivar.

This was the Sangh’s first big victory on the environment front, something that used to be the preserve of the Left through the 1970s and 1980s. The message was clear: saffron was the new green in Kerala.

Chronologically, the anti-airport struggle was the third among the most significant and successful campaigns in the state’s environment history, the first two being the 1973 movement against a hydro-electric power project in the Silent Valley rain forest and the early-2000s anti-Coca Cola plant agitation, both in Palakkad district.

No wonder then that the leaders of the first two struggles — environmental scientist V.S. Vijayan, poet Sugathakumari and activist Vilayodi Venugopal — allied behind the Aranmula struggle too.

But there was one notable difference, which perhaps mirrors the waning Left influence on the state’s green movement.

The pro-CPM Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (Kerala Forum for Science Literature) — movement for popularising science — was one of the key voices in the Silent Valley and the anti-Coca Cola fight. But by the time Aranmula happened, the outfit seemed to be losing its sway.

The CPM had been a direct beneficiary of the growth of the Parishad’s influence, but those were the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Parishad had been opposed to the Aranmula project right from its inception in 2004, when it was conceived as an airstrip for an engineering college by the then owner of the land, local businessman Abraham Kalamannil, says the Parishad’s state president, N.K. Sasidharan Pillai.

Rajasekharan (left) feeding prasad to one of the oldest farmers in the village after the tribunal order

Faced with cases under the Land Ceiling Act, Kalamannil sold off the roughly 250 acres to a Chennai-based group that was into real estate development. Subsequently, the KGS Aranmula International Airport Ltd came into being with the object of developing what would have been India’s “first private international greenfield airport at a cost of Rs 2,000 crore on 700 acres of land”.

Pillai agrees that the Parishad hadn’t been able to achieve much on its own in Aranmula but claims it had lent full support to the struggle. He also denies that the fact of the Left government under V.S. Achuthanandan having made the first moves for the airport in 2010 had blunted the Parishad’s initiative.

The Achuthanandan government had notified 2,000 acres in Aranmula as industrial land to make way for the airport, but regretted having done it after losing power in 2011. The Left sought to blame it on some bureaucrats, claiming the cabinet had not been kept fully aware of the move.

Former CPM member and political commentator Appukkuttan Vallikkunnu has a different perspective.

“It is not enough to brand a party as Leftist. To be one, it has to believe and follow some fundamental aspects (of the ideology), like the importance of environmentalism to socialist thought,” he said.

“Karl Marx had written that ‘to solve the global ecological crisis and begin a genuine social and ecological reform, there must be a world proletarian revolution and establishment of socialism’. But for this, the party has to have close links with class and mass organisations. (It does) not (have such links) any more. Even the so-called Left parties now swear by globalisation and don’t have leaders who have risen from the ground.’’

Parishad chief Pillai argues that the Sangh’s triumph in Aranmula had to do with its success in linking environment to heritage.

“Rajasekharan (the Sangh pracharak who led the fight) was the patron of the Aranmula Heritage Village Protection Council. The slogan was that nature was inextricably linked to the area’s heritage,’’ he said.

Indeed, Rajasekharan and his team had succeeded in drawing people’s attention to Aranmula’s status as a Unesco-certified Global Heritage Village. Pledging support were the makers of the Aranmula kannadi, a rare handmade metal-alloy mirror.

The select families here that know the craft feared that the wetlands, from where the clay for the mirror comes, would be eaten up by the project.

The protesters also cited a possible threat to another heritage: the annual boat race on the neighbouring holy river Pampa. They argued that the river’s natural flow would be affected by the levelling of the paddy fields for the airport project.

That the boat race is linked to festivities at the nearby Parthasarathy temple strengthened the emotional quotient. The proposed runway was expected to affect the shrine too requiring it to reduce the height of its ritualistic flag mast.

The promoters denied all these but their arguments failed to cut ice even with the tribunal.

“When we started off in 2012, the odds were against us. The local MP and MLA, the state government — they all supported the project. The promoters got some judicial orders too to back their case,’’ recalled Rajasekharan, 61.

But it was for a good reason that the Sangh had drafted one of its best hands into the Aranmula agitation. Rajasekharan, a journalism graduate, had earned the parivar its first major win in 1983 as convener of the Nilakkal movement that thwarted plans to erect a Church at Nilakkal on the way to the Sabarimala temple.

Four years later, Rajasekharan quit his job with the Food Corporation of India to become a full-time Sangh volunteer.

In Aranmula, he succeeded in bringing under one umbrella not just the local people and the environmentalists but even the CPM, the CPI, sections of the Church and the Congress, minority groups and Left hardliners.

Its success in Aranmula has emboldened the parivar to press ahead with its next agenda — implementation of the Madhav Gadgil Committee report for the protection of the Western Ghats.

The Catholic Church’s firm opposition to the report has spawned a dilemma for both the CPM and the Congress, which do not want to risk losing Christian votes. The Church fears that tighter environmental controls in the hilly forest areas would hurt the livelihood of farmers living on the forests’ borders — who are mostly its flock — and force them to relocate.

Opposition to the Gadgil report had prompted the Centre to appoint the Kasturirangan panel, which in many ways watered down Gadgil’s recommendations. Kerala’s Congress government even got the Centre to start acting on the Kasturirangan report in the run-up to the general election.

The Left began consorting with a miffed Church and floated an action forum that put up an “Independent’’ candidate against the Congress nominee from the Idukki seat where the Ghats see the maximum settlements and encroachments. The Independent won, proving the Church’s grip over the region’s voters.

But the parivar seems undeterred. The Sangh national executive, which met in Kochi in October last year, had criticised the dumping of the Gadgil report without a debate. “Several recommendations of the panel are in the larger national interest,” it had said.

Last December, the Sangh lost a man to the cause when activists of its affiliate Hindu Aikya Vedi came under attack from alleged CPM workers during a dharna demanding implementation of the Gadgil report in Kozhikode district.

Notification of the Gadgil report was one of the promises made by the state BJP during this general election campaign. With nothing to lose, the party believes that disenchantment with the Left and the Congress will in the long run draw Hindu votes into its kitty.

In Aranmula, for instance, the BJP improved its vote share from 7.06 per cent in 2009 to 15.98 per cent this time. Gadgil, it hopes, will provide the additional boost it needs.