Fortunately, Keralites of modern times are in general well mannered and educated and they would not resort to such inhuman acts, even while some of them keeping some jealousies and animosities deep in their minds. Those deep rooted jealousies and animosities could surface as peaceful or violent conflicts cleverly disguised as issues relating to environment, animal welfare, traditions, labor and the like, when issues of public interests are initiated to be resolved.
The general opposition of a majority of people of the local community to the proposed Aranmula International Airport project is to be understood against this background.
Ever since the Indian government moved away from socialism and embraced a mixed culture of halfhearted capitalism in the Nineties, what actually suffered a great deal in India is infrastructural development. Government almost stopped spending on infrastructure requiring major budgetary support such as airports, air transport, harbors, shipping, highways, road transport, postal service, education, telecom, etc all of which used to depend much on governmental support earlier. Instead, there was a major policy change wherein the government seemed to encourage private participation in these areas. Regrettably on account of various reasons, the Indian government could not install firmed up policies and laws which would be a win-win situation for all the stake holders in some generally acceptable manner maintaining reasonable transparency in its decisions, in this regard.
In Kerala, the Cochin International Airport Limited [CIAL] was one major successful project which got implemented specklessly during this time as a beautiful example of private-public participation with a determined and efficient leadership provided by a politically handpicked administrator belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). In a similar manner another one of its kind in north kerala, named the Kannur International Airport Limited [KIAL] is being planned. The small, but highly developed state of Kerala, is perhaps the only state in India with three working international airports within a span of about 600 kilometers and yet another in the making. If the proposed KGS Aranmula International Airport Limited becomes operational, this state Kerala would have five international airports in the same distance. Indeed a remarkable achievement for any Indian state!
If the plans of the Indian government goes well, all the commercial airports in India would become privatized in the near future.
Now, coming back to the story of the Aranmula Airport. Aranmula, as I have stated, is only a quiet hamlet in Central Kerala. There is not much commercial activity visible. But Kerala is different from other parts of India in many ways. It is a full and evergreen state with a full coastal region , a full mountain region and a some plain lands. It has both wetlands and dry lands. It has the sea, rivers and the backwaters. It has the green and cold hill stations like the Munnar. What is perhaps not found in Kerala may be the snow and the desert sands! Big cities are a recent phenomena in Kerala. In reality, Kerala as a whole could be considered as a big urbanized land with all benefits of the farmlands. Population density, literacy and percapita real incomes in Kerala are the highest among the Indian states. Millions of Keralites work abroad and millions from other nations prefer to visit Kerala as it is now a very preferred international tourist hot spot.
Over the years, road traffic density in Kerala has increased many times. Due to this, it would take hours for any one to travel to the capital city Thiruvananthapuram [തിരുവനന്തപുരം] or Kochi [Cochin-കൊച്ചി] or Kozhikode [കോഴിക്കോട്] from any other place. Most affected in this respect is the people of the central Travancore areas. At least one member from a majority of the families of this region either work in the foreign lands or in other states of India. If they travel to their home state by air, they have to either depend the Kochi or the Trivandrum [Thiruvananthapuram] Airports and then take the road route to reach their respective homes. A decade ago, they could reach home in just about 2 hours. But now it takes more than double that time. In the years to come, that would increase further, if the government does not act to enhance the transport facilities.
Thus, there is much commercial and infrastructural logic in having an airport in the central travancore area. The prospects of such a thing was visualized first by a businessman from the same area who happened to amass a great fortune by his decades of work in the United States of America. This gentleman knew that an airport would need a considerable stretch of land, a scarce thing to mobilize in the densely populated central travancore.
But without no one ever noticing much, there was a great piece of land belonging to many local people which many of us of that locality identified as Pannivelichira [പന്നിവേലി ചിറ ] a wet land earlier used for paddy cultivation , fish farming or perhaps even pig farming. Panniveli literally means pig enclosure in Malayalam. In my teenage days, I remember visiting this place and remember it as not used for any useful purpose by its owners for most of the time. The owners of the land considered it as a burden and were ever willing to sell their portions of land to any one who was willing to purchase their pieces of wet land that had become not so worthy now.
So, this gentleman slowly purchased this pieces of land and consolidated it in one single ownership. It was a few hundred acres. Perhaps, while purchasing this land, he had no idea of its future use.Anyway, no one found any thing objectionable for this person to become the owner of this land. In later years, he declared his intentions to construct a private airport in this land. He needed the clearances of the state and the central governments and accordingly moved the applications for this purpose. Remember, this is a case where a private citizen has decided to spend his money to create a treasured infrastructure in a place which was otherwise much inferior in developmental aspects.
But India is a land of differing interests. No one actually does anything unless there is some personal benefit. No one thinks of the overall benefits that can accrue to a nation or its people on the whole. What is the benefit if this man is going to spend money, make an airport, run it and amass more money for him and his descendants? For those in the central government, there is not much benefit if the small state of Kerala gets another airport.
So the files kept moving from department to department and I personally heard from reliable sources about the errands this gentleman made meeting the various VIPs to get the clearances for his pet project of a life time. Many times he became apparently successful when the governments, either in the state or in the center declared some kind of approval, only to be realized later that it was nothing final. In the initial period, there was not much opposition from the local people. But as the project got some favor from one political outfit, the others opposed it. Later, the political leaders got successful in initiating some of the locals too to their fold.
Frustrated, the gentleman realized about his folly and somehow escaped from his mission by handing over his land and project to someone more influential than him.
Now that group seems to have managed to gather the much required central government and state government supports and clearances. No, India is a divided state of opportunists now. It is not that easy to go ahead when the house is divided!
If anyone analyze the whole issue from a pure common sense approach, it would have been the local people who would have given the support to a project like this. If the project, that too an international airport, takes shape, the people in the immediate vicinity are going to be benefited.
There are other projects in India where people are opposing. But in those cases, it is the people who are going to lose land when the government tries to grab land in the name of acquisitions using the infamous land acquisition law.
But in Aranmula, it seems that the issues are quite different. The main opposition here is due to something very different. Let me quote the reasons as quoted from an online media:
"The local people and the Greens fear that the airport to be built on a 700 acre land at a cost of Rs20 billion will destroy paddy fields and upset the ecological balance. They also fear that it would destroy the ‘global heritage village status’ conferred on the town by the UNESCO." [ See the Report ]
Yet another local group says that the airport would affect the tall flag mast of the Parthasarathi temple and conduct of the snake boat race. [See the report here!]
But apparently these are not the real issues. It is not very difficult to see that the airport is not going to disturb the Pamba river or the boat race or even the temple in any manner. On the other hand, it would help more people to come to Aranmula and visit the temple and witness the boat race.About the issue of the airport damaging the paddy fields, it is true to some extent. There cannot be any cultivation where the air port facilities are built. But for that matter, the majority of the land had already been rendered un-cultivatable because much construction actions had proceeded in the land that had been privately acquired. As I have stated, paddy cultivation in many parts of Kerala are not being resorted to by the owners due to the high costs and non-availability of cheap labor. It was true for this land too. That is the common stand adopted by the leftist political parties when they are determined to oppose a project!
But Aranmula is an interesting case in this regard too. It was the leftist government that gave the green signal to the project earlier. Now while the central government ruled by the Congress led coalition (UPA) gives the go ahead clearance duly supported by the Congress CM and some of his cabinet colleagues, another strong group of peoples' representatives from the same party oppose it together with the those of the left parties!
The matter may not be very understandable by the unbiased onlooker. But it is easy to understand, if you look into the whole issue a bit closely.
The issue apparently lies with the ownership of the private project. The original business man who took up the project and the present chennai based business group, KGS, are both from the Christian community, with their ancestral roots in Central Travancore. How can the upper caste Hindus who were the masters of the olden culture and traditions easily accept such a thing? Community jealousies are not easy to be removed from the mind even when you say that you are much literate and educated! Owning a gold jewelry chain and owning an airport are two different things!
But when a developmental project like this Aranmula airport is causing some heart burns on the majority community on whatever reasons, a democratic government in my opinion, should not proceed further. Honoring the majority is what democracy is. Development should not be at the cost of hurt feelings, even when such developments appear as quite logical or reasonable.
But how could you determine majority opinion in a democracy? It is a big task in an yet-to-mature society.
Whatever be that, let not Aranmula cause building the communal tensions in the Malayalee [മലയാളീ] minds for a potential future explosion, just as it had been happening elsewhere in this great nation for centuries, now and then!