An epic campaign against construction of an airport on paddy fields, used for growing rice, in Aranmula, Kerala has achieved a monumental victory.
On 28th May, India’s National Green Tribunal revoked environmental clearance for the project, which threatened to displace 3,000 families and would have devastating environmental impacts on farming and biodiverse wetlands hosting many rare species of plants, fish and birds. Aranmula is also a cultural jewel, designated as heritage village by the Indian government and UNESCO it is renowned for an annual snake boat regatta along the Pampa River and beautiful mirrors crafted from clay unique to the area. The airport runway would be less that 1 kilometre from the famous Sree Parthasarathy Temple, and the height of its golden mast would have been reduced.
One of many protests against an airport at Aranmula. Photo: Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council
The airport project was planned, and construction commenced, without the consent of villagers. Wetlands bought ostensibly for fish cultivation in 2004 were filled in for an airstrip, disrupting a network of small canals used for irrigation and depleting groundwater borewells. The project morphed into plans for a far larger development on the site, an international airport. In 2011, over 200 hectares of land was declared an industrial area for the airport and associated development such as hotels. Families facing eviction knew nothing until they received land acquisition notices.
A broad based campaign to stop the airport, involving a plethora of social and environmental organisations, was led by the Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council. Investigations revealed that claims by the developer - KGS, a real estate firm - to be in legal possession of the land were false, and that granting of clearances by government agencies was fraudulent and illegal. The site is within 100 kilometres of two airports, Cochin and Trivandrum, contravening a policy of not allowing new airports within 150 kilometres of an existing airport.
There were endless rallies and processions, relay fasting and a human chain. Effigies of planes were burned and 200 children planted saplings on the land under threat. On 11th February 2014 a raft of petitions against environmental clearance for the airport was submitted and thousands of people from the length and breadth of Kerala gathered to pledge their support for an indefinite ‘satyagraha’, meaning a strike or civil resistance, and an insistence on truth. They committed to maintaining a constant presence outside the developers’ office, until government approval for the project was cancelled.
Campaign organisers aimed to maintain a presence of 100 people, but the groundswell of support snowballed into a mass movement. On most days there were 800 people, even 1,000, in attendance. 20th May marked the 100th day of the satyagraha and three marches, representing 100 places and 100 organisations, converged at the site. In a show of solidarity, appeals for justice were staged at all taluks, the administrative centres of groups of villages, in Kerala.
The final day of the indefinite satyagraha against an airport at Aranmula. The writing on the banner says ‘Stop Illegal Aranmula Airport Indefinite Strike - 108th day - by Anti-Aranmula Airport joint council’. Photo: Dhanish Shanavas
Agitation was sustained for another week, then, on 28th May, environmental clearance for the airport was cancelled and the developer ordered not to undertake any construction activity. The Green Tribunal found that the agency which conducted the Environmental Impact Assessment was incompetent, that the public hearing was not conducted in the required manner and that the developer failed to give an accurate account of the community’s response to the project.
Unity, determination, passion and formidable organisation have secured a triumph for social and environmental justice. The success of the struggle to save Aranmula from being wiped off the map is a historic verdict for conservation of farmland in Kerala and a sign of hope for rural communities all over India who face displacement for industrialisation.