Monday, 25 November 2013

Airport land grab in India, and the resistance

Last week I wrote an article for The Ecologist website about aggressive acquisition of farmland for new airports, and airport expansion, all over India. It is part of a bigger picture of aggressive land grab for industrialisation such as mining, dams, power plants and manufacturing. In a great many instances, compensation for land acquisition is far below its value. Rehabilitation is similarly inadequate, often dumping people in miserable dwellings without any means of making a living or health and education facilities. This blogpost is supplementary information about some of the sites mentioned in the article, and some other projects. Also included are four important videos, an opportunity to hear the voices of just a few people affected by the airport land acquisition. These are the only videos I have found that are either in English, or with English subtitles.

Expansion of Imphal Airport has displaced over 100 settlements since 1960. Yet much of the land remains unutilised inside the airport fence. In May 2008, agitation by affected villagers culminated in pitch battles with police. Four months later, protestors blocked the road to the airport and burned effigies of the government officials driving the land acquisition, only to be met with teargas and stun grenades. This February 2012 video by Achungmei Kamei for Video Volunteers (a fantastic resource which helps disadvantaged communities all over the world, for the most part ignored by the mainstream media, to report their stories) was made while forcible eviction of 17 families for expansion of the airport was taking place. Compensation is a fraction of the land’s value, and they have to start their lives all over again in a new location with no infrastructure such as roads or electricity, and no social fabric, not even a school.

This second video, below, about Imphal Airport expansion, made a month later, by Mercy Kamie, includes testimony from villagers already evicted and relocated three times, facing being moved yet again. They have been moved from farmland where they made an income from their produce to a barren area with no facilities at all, no school or hospital or even water supply. Development commences without the consent, or even consultation, of affected people or the legally required Environmental Impact Assessment. Their democratic right to protest is being eroded, and people who speak out against the airport expansion have been imprisoned.

Plans for a second airport for the tourist magnet city of Goa, at Pernem, Mopa, threatens 15,000 people from five villages - Mopa, Chandel, Ambrem, Varkhand and Casarvarnem - with loss of their land and livelihood. The site is on a plateau with 4 million cashew nut trees. This 2011 video by Devidas Gaonkar for Video Volunteers interviews farmers in the project site, cultivating coconuts, groundnuts and other crops, and facing loss of their land with little compensation and nowhere to resettle.

Resistance to the Mopa airport project continues. In September 2013, 150 residents of Varkhand village slammed the Mopa airport compensation offer as ‘peanuts’ and the rehabilitation plan as totally inadequate. They stated their commitment to safeguarding their village both through the courts and taking to the streets.

In Kerala, three greenfield airports (on undeveloped sites) are planned at Aranmula, Wayanad and Anakkara, on sites of approximately 200 hectares of prime farmland (1 hectare is about the size of a football pitch). If the airports are built thousands of villagers will be displaced and land will be irrevocably removed from food production. Check out the websites for the campaign groups attempting to prevent the construction of greenfield airports, in Aranmula, and the Save Anakkara Forum.

Also in Kerala, a greenfield airport is already under construction at Kannur. As with all airports, the requisite road network also takes up land. Surveying for a greenfield road to the airport site was suspended in mid-2012, due to agitation culminating in a road blockade by 700 people. This October, the Action Committee opposing the road stated that any attempt to resume surveying for the project would meet with similar protests.

Traffic projections for Kerala’s greenfield airports are dubious. There are no capacity constraints in the state, which already has three international airports: Cochin, Trivandrum and Karipur. All three of these airports are attempting to expand. Cochin Airport recently invited tenders for a new terminal. People from seven villages who lost land to the airport 12 years ago are still fighting for justice in land compensation and rehabilitation. In August, 700 people held an all-party rally. Trivandrum Airport’s plans to expand its domestic passenger terminal would demolish a temple and 130 families are fighting against eviction. The current phase of expansion of Karipur Airport is opposed by the panchayats (assemblies) of all three affected villages. A school, church, temple and several houses have been earmarked for demolition, triggering a series of protests.

In Ranchi, agitation against Birsa Munda Airport’s expansion over fertile land has involved hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people since 2007. In 2009, a  considerable armed police deployment failed to 800 villagers blocking the entrance and exit to the airport for an hour. The villagers demanding withdrawal of notice of land acquisition, disputes over previous land acquisition unresolved.
This is a shocking video of protests against forceful eviction for expansion of the airport, in March 2011. People from villages adjoining the airport protested against forceful land acquisition and smashed up vehicles on the airport road.

Villagers blocked the road, and attacked vehicles, again in July 2012. Three months later, security could not prevent a small group of displaced villagers from entering the site with cattle and ploughs. They dug up plots of land they claimed still belonged to them. 

Land acquisition seems inexorable. Once a site is earmarked for airport development there are a great many clearances before construction actually begins, but projects tend to be delayed, or stalled, rather than downright cancelled. But protest can and does work. A proposed greenfield airport in Bellary was stopped in its tracks when a petition to the Karnataka High Court, by 70 farmers, was successful and land acquisition notices were quashed. Landowners in three villages have prevented Gaya Airport, Bihar, from extending its runway for over 10 years. 

In Pune, Chakan villagers have resisted acquisition of 25 square kilometres of land for an airport for ten years. Four-fifths of the land is irrigated, and the project threatened 1,200 farmers from seven villages with loss of their land. The latest news is that the Chakan project has been abandoned because of the opposition from villagers. But, as is often the case, an alternative site has been selected, putting other communities at risk of being wiped off the map. The alternative site for the new Pune airport is at Khed. The site includes land that farmers have a 75 per cent share in and the government’s proposed change in utilisation of the land happened suddenly without consultation. Two organisations, Anti-Khed SEZ Airport and Anti-Khed Developers Limited Save Farmers Action Committee are opposing the use of their land for the airport, and held a protest on 19th November.

This blogpost and the Ecologist piece cover just a few instances of aviation expansion in India, and the predominantly rural communities facing displacement. I am aware of about 50 sites in India where rural communities are fighting against displacement for aviation expansion and aim to share information and work with campaigns concerned with land rights and social justice. More soon.


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