The development conundrum of Aranmula Airport

Will the development of the Aranmula International Airport bring higher growth to the people in Kerala or become the reason for its doom?

By Narayanan S

Kerala’s development always poses a dichotomy. Kerala is traditionally assumed to be not such a friendly state to investors. Labour strikes, politically supported trade unions and a skepticism towards large businesses have all made industries turn their face away from Kerala. But even with all these presumable challenges to growth, Kerala is one of the most developed states in India. It has over the time fashioned out an economic model of a unique kind. In fact there is a Wikipedia page called ‘Kerala Model’. The high literacy rate of Kerala can be attributed as one of the main reasons for this success. It leads to high levels of political participation from people of every class and thus Kerala has managed to bring in so much of progressive changes keeping in mind the welfare of the public.

A new project which has created a lot of controversy in Kerala is the proposed Aranmula International Airport. It is a private airport planned to be built by the KGS group at Aranmula, a heritage village in Pathanmathitta district. Aranmula is a famous pilgrimage centre with the Parthasarathy Temple being one of the prominent Vaishnava temples in Kerala.

An aerial view of the international airport at Kochi

The proposed Aranmula airport is a private one which, if it comes to existence, will be the fourth international airport in Kerala adding to the ones at Trivandrum, Kochi, and Calicut. But it will be the first private airport in the state. Ever since the project was announced, there has been a massive protest from environmentalists and social workers, citing that it is supposed to serve vested interests of private parties rather than the public. Now let us have a look at the arguments for and against the airport.

The main factors supporting the claim for the airport are:

Demand from NRIs

It is a well known fact that Kerala has a healthy NRI population. Over the last eight years, air traffic in Kerala has increased five times. The supporters of the project says that an airport in Pathanamthitta is an aspiration of millions of people from here, who are working outside the country and who are instrumental in supporting the Government exchequer with the much needed supply of foreign income. Also some studies have shown that 40% Kerala’s air traffic is hailing from the influential zone of this airport.

Influential Zone

The airport is expected to serve four districts in Kerala namely Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki and Alappuzha. Out of the foreign and domestic tourists arrival to Kerala, these four districts together account for about 21 percent of foreign tourists and 14 percent of domestic tourists.

Employment Potential

There is also a huge employment potential that a project like this generates. Some estimates have shown that around 1,500 direct and 6,000 indirect employment opportunities may arise as as a result of this project. Also, there are plans to have a Special Economic Zone, a multi-speciality hospital, a shopping mall, a luxury hotel, and an international school within the airport complex.

The main arguments against the Aranmula airport are:

Environmental Challenges

The conversion of paddy fields for setting up big industries is a not a new thing in Kerala. The Kerala State Biodiversity Board observed that 80% of the 500 acres of land taken over for the project were paddy fields. In April 2013, the National Green Tribunal stayed any constructions at the proposed site. But the airport project was given environmental clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in November 2013.

In January 2014 , in a report filed to the Kerala High Court, S. Subash Chand, Advocate Commissioner, said that indiscriminate reclamation of paddy fields and blocking of the tributary of the Pampa river would endanger valuable plant species, fish, and micro-organism. The report also added that such large-scale conversion of paddy fields would have an adverse effect on the food chain and would accelerate the depletion of fish resources and other flora and fauna in the Pampa river. The reclamation would deprive fish species of its breeding grounds. Also biodiversity loss and water shortage would be caused due to razing of hills in the nearby areas.

Proximity to the temple

The proximity of the airport to the Parthasarathy Temple has been a major cause of concern among its detractors and the local people. Aranmula has been declared as a heritage village by UNESCO and the temple is an iconic and integral part of the cultural fabric of the place.

Aranmula temple

As per studies by the Project Planning Report of Airport Authority of India, the flag post (Kodimaram) of the temple is to be shortened for the airport project. Apart from that the report also calls for a change of the temple’s entrance from its current position.

Land Acquisition and Eviction of people

The biggest concern for people would be the eviction of people. Around 3,000 families face the prospect of being displaced for the project.

Destruction of Heritage

Supposedly, the new airport would bring in more tourists. But it would destroy much of what is attractive to visitors. Aranmula has been declared a global heritage village by UNESCO. The place is renowned for metal mirrors made from unique clay and the exciting annual snake boat regatta along the Pampa river. The runway of the airport would be less than 1 kilometre from the Parthasarathy temple, visited by pilgrims from far and wide.

Right from the very start, the airport project has come under a lot of scrutiny from the public. The agitations against it have been led by the Aranmula Paithruka Grama Karmasamithy (Heritage Village Action Council) with the support of eminent personalities like poet cum environmentalist Sugathakumari, social worker Kummanam Rajashekharan, politicians like V.M Sudheeran, political activist and writer C.R Neelakandan and many others. There have been a lot of protests going on in Aranmula for the last three years. Rallies, fasting and human chains have all been conducted as means of conveying the public’s dissent.

The question now remains. How long can the people of Aranmula protect their heritage. How long can they hold on to the soil under their feet ? The airport may fulfill the flying aspirations of many people, but will it be at the cost of cutting the wings off a lot of other people.

All photos courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


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