In Aranmula, row over the airport project vitiates the festival spirit — even the famous Uthrittathiboat race was a doubtful starter
Onam celebrations at Aranmula are unlike any other. But this time, dark clouds hover over the festivities in the village. Even the famous Uthrittathi boat race on the Pampa, which lines the village, was a doubtful starter on the festival calendar.The rancour has its roots in an airport planned in the village.“It is sad to say that my village has started witnessing the brutal infiltration of neoliberal self-interests in the form of development that seldom cares for the sustenance of nature and humankind,” Thomas P. Thomas, academic and environmentalist, says.
“The problem facing Aranmula is typical of those propagated by self-styled promoters of development elsewhere in the country, making it a ‘test dose,’ or rather a ‘pilot plot,’ to ravage various other places across the State known for their natural beauty and social harmony.”Aranmula is a temple village, famous for its centuries-old Sree Parthasarathy Temple.Its heritage reflects in the metal mirror Aranmula Kannadi and an assortment of rustic festivities. It is a village of tradition.But it is the private international airport project, planned on 280 hectares of land, mainly paddy fields and wetlands, that is now keeping the village in the news, even when Onam is just days away.The State government has accepted 10 per cent sweat equity in the private company promoting the airport and later decided to allot “Poramboke” land for the airport project, leading to a State-public confrontation. Sad state Raveendran Nair, a septuagenarian villager, says governments that ruled the State in the past decade are responsible for the sad state of affairs in the otherwise calm Aranmula.The previous Left Democratic Front government gave in-principle clearance for the project proposal in 2011.The United Democratic Front government that came to power that year has taken a step further in supporting the project opposed by the local population, environmentalists and scientists.The Bharatiya Janata Party leadership maintained a studied silence on the project till the people, especially those belonging to certain Palliyoda Karayogams on the banks of the Pampa that own snakeboats (Palliyodam), came out in the open against the project.The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Sangh Parivar organisations entered the scene with the Palliyoda Pallivilakku Samrakshana Samithi protesting against the inclusion of sacred groves and places of worship having close ritualistic links with Sree Parthasarathy Temple on the project site.Kummanam Rajasekharan, general secretary, Hindu Aikyavedi, has taken over as the chief patron of the Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council.Mr. Rajasekharan says the airport project that require conversion of a vast expanse of the Aranmula “Puncha” (paddy fields) will have a catastrophic impact on the Pampa and the environment, ultimately bringing an end to various unique customs, traditions and festivities, including the regatta, the village is known for.Now leaders of Communist parties, the Congress and the Sangh Parivar share a platform in opposing the project.P. Prasad, district secretary of the Communist Party of India and close associate of Medha Patkar, social activists, says the action council has highlighted the gravity of the issues around the controversial airport project with the Union Ministries and the State government.Leaders having diverse views share a common platform, airing their protests against land conversion, at Aranmula.It is a sign of people losing faith in the political leadership, V.N. Gopinatha Pillai, leader, All-Kerala River Protection Council, says.However, Anto Antony, MP, and K. Sivadasan Nair, MLA, stood firmly with the Chennai-based KGS company, saying they were supporting the project which could bring about development to the entire region. Support Sugathakumari, poet, who hails from Aranmula, joined the agitation and various socio-political and religious leaders aligned with her to launch a mass movement under the banner of the Joint Action Council. V.M. Sudheeran, T.N. Prathapan, V.T. Balaram, Peelipose Thomas and K.K. Royson, Congress leaders, backed the public agitation.Philipose Mar Chrysostum, senior Metropolitan of Mar Thoma Church, Ms. Patkar, and V.R. Krishna Iyer, eminent jurist, backed Sugathakumari’s crusade.The Ecological Concerns Department of the Church of South India launched a campaign of its own against the project. Geevarghese Mar Coorilos Metropolitan of the Jacobite Syrian Church and Swami Golokananda of Sri Ramakrishna Ashram were among those who opposed the project, which require reclamation of paddy fields and razing of hills.Pinarayi Vijayan, V.S. Achuthanandan, Panniyan Raveendran, Mullakkara Ratnakaran, N.K. Premachandran and Benoy Viswom, Left Democratic Front leaders, and V. Muralidharan, BJP State president, addressed various public meetings in protest against the airport project at Aranmula during the past one year. Clearances Gigi George, KGS managing director, says the company had obtained all clearances for the Rs. 2,000-crore airport project, which can be made operational in 2014.But replies given by Union Ministers in Parliament show that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has not yet given the mandatory clearance.There were allegations of corruption and a misinformation campaign by the company for obtaining certain clearances from the Union Ministries of Defence and Civil Aviation.The environment impact assessment conducted on behalf of the company has not classified the land identified as the project site as paddy land or wetlands, besides keeping mum on the archaeological importance of the ancient Parthasarathy temple, V.S. Vijayan, former Chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, says. Land usurped Another allegation is of land mafia usurping land belonging to a few poor Scheduled Caste families in the name of the airport project.The District Collector and the Taluk Land Board have reported gross irregularities to favour the airport company. The Board even declared 92 hectares of land in the possession of the company as excess land.The mass movement against the airport project entered a crucial phase with the government and the MP and the MLA hardening their stance in support of the private company. Tents pitched As many as 400 landless farm-worker families owing allegiance to the Kerala Karshaka Sanghom encroached upon nearly 21 hectares of illegally converted paddy land in January, demanding distribution of excess land among the landless.In places outside Aranmula which have many NRIs, the airport project finds some support.“We need not go a long way to Nedumbasserry or Thiruvananthapuram to pick up our children and grandchildren coming from abroad once the Aranmula airport comes up,” Achenkunju of Elanthoor, near Kozhencherry, says.“What is the use of an airport, if it destroys the environment and the Pampa, the lifeline of the Central Travancore region?” asks R. Induchoodan, general convener of the Palliyoda Pallivilakku Samrakshana Samithi.Mr. Sivadasan Nair says development of his constituency is his prime concern and the agitation against the airport project is anti-people, anti-development. Panel report The Legislative Committee on Environment, chaired by C.P. Mohammed, visited Aranmula and submitted a report to the Assembly, strongly opposing the airport project.The tactical war over the controversial airport project between politico-corporate forces on the one side and socio-political and religious groups on the other have started disturbing the peace in the region in recent times. The alleged assault on the MLA on the temple premises and the violent protest that followed a few weeks ago are examples.Ms. Sugathakumari says it is time such an ecological disaster and a legal misadventure at the hands of a democratically elected government were checked by the people through a non-violent movement. What is the use of an airport, if it destroys the environment and the Pampa, the lifeline of the Central Travancore region? Courtesy : Shri. Radhakrishnan Kuttoor, The Hindu