An international airport project undertaken by Chennai-based KGS Group has the potential to devastate the ecology and livelihood of inhabitants of the sacred town of Aranmula, claim activists. This happens even as the swish Delhi Airport is flooding at every big downpour
Brushing aside the concerns raised by environmentalists, local residents as well as the opposition parties in Kerala and also the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the state government has decided to go ahead with the construction of Aranmula International Airport. Chennai-based KGS group has received an in-principle approval for the Rs2,000 crore project from the Union government. However, according to environmentalists, the construction of an airport at a land that is home to 212 species of plants and 60 species of fishes would devastate the ecology and take away livelihood of several people.
In the Aranmula Airport project, the Kerala government has a 10% stake. The project is to be funded through a debt-equity ratio of 1:1. ICICI Bank, IDBI Bank and State Bank of India (SBI) have funded the debt portion.
The project, spread across 700 acres, met with opposition right from its initial stages from leaders of various streams of society including social worker Kummanam Rajasekharan, poetess-cum-environmentalist Sugathakumari and politician VM Sudheeran. Even, the Legislative Assembly Committee on Environmental Affairs, chaired by CP Mohammed, found the Aranmula Airport Project “highly detrimental to the environment”.
The protesters contend that the KGS Group also intends to construct an airport city or Aerotropolis that requires more than 3,000 acres of land and that such a large project would cause irreparable and devastating damage to the environment and ecosystem at Aranmula.
The Salim Ali Foundation, spearheaded by Dr VS Vijayan which focuses on conservation of biodiversity through research, found out that the implications of having an unnecessary airport on one of the ecological regions in Kerala could be large and dangerous. The Foundation sent a team of conservationists to perform a thorough due diligence. Its report, which was released on 29 March 2012, is an eye opener. Here is what the Foundation found out:
There are many more findings and what has been described above is just a small part of the exhaustive Salim Ali Foundation report.
Even, a report submitted by Kerala State Biodiversity Board to the state government in March this year, has expresses reservations over “the land use changes and ecological imbalance that the project will entail”. The Board observed that 80% of the 500 acres earmarked for the project were paddy fields. Conversion of a portion of the 3,500-acre paddy field would “impact the remaining wetlands, disturb the food chain, and accelerate the depletion of fish resources as well as other flora and fauna in the Pamba river basin”, the Board report says.
Incompetency in Environment Impact Assessment
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) required for environmental clearance (EC) is also drawing ire from activities because of the sheer incompetency of Enviro Care India Pvt Ltd (Enviro), one of the consultants hired to undertake the EIA assessment. KGS Aranmula Airport Ltd got its EIA done through a private agency, namely Enviro, based in Madurai.
According to the EIA, Enviro seem to have missed the ecological scenario completely.
“When it comes to the biological scenario, the report is appallingly bereft of facts and figures. And it appears the EIA team has not taken even the minimum required efforts to document the biodiversity. Still worse is when it talks of the ecology, nothing is given on the ecological impact,” lambasted the Salim Ali Foundation Report. The EIA is silent on the major impacts of reclaiming wetlands and paddy fields that extends approximately 400 acres. Worst still, according to the Foundation, the report does not even acknowledge that Aranmula is a wetland!
Does Kerala need another international airport?
This is one of the more pertinent questions that policy makers need to answer and the answer is clearly a no as per the activists are concerned.
Kerala already has two international airports, at Trivandrum and Cochin. Aranmula is in between these cities, near Sabarimala, the second largest pilgrim centre in India with annual pilgrims of around 60 million. One of the excuses given by the promoters of the airport project is ease of access to this holy site for non-resident Indians (NRIs). However, as per government guidelines for obtaining clearance, an airport should not be closer to 150 km from another airport. According to Salim Ali Foundation report, the proposed Aranmula airport is 122 km from Trivandrum and closer to Cochin (104 km). Moreover, competition is bound to drive down prices and make all three airports economically unviable. The aviation industry in India is already going through difficult times.
Earlier, the ministry of defence disallowed issuing a no-objection certificate (NOC) for construction of the greenfield airport but surprisingly changed its stance. On 12 November 2010, AK Anthony, the minister of defence wrote, “Since the establishment of greenfield airport at Aranmula would result in imposing severe restrictions on the availability of military flying at Naval Air Station INS Garuda at Kochi, it is not possible to agree for NOC from Ministry of Defence.’’
Strangely, several months later, there was a U-turn. Vide Ministry of Defence letter No.19(79)/11/(DN-II/Ops)(669), dated 24.08.2011, site clearance was given. However, they claim that it is under certain specific mandatory conditions required for all clearances.
According to media reports, on 12 February 2013, CPI leader Atul Anjan, besides CPI (M) leader MM Mani alleged that defence minister Antony was favouring the project owing to the involvement of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The project has been controversial from the beginning when around 350 acres of fertile land was bought by an educational trust, Mount Zion Educational Trust, under the pretence of building an aircraft institute and fish farming. However, the locals later found out that they were fleeced and it was to build a full-fledged greenfield international airport. The Kerala State Legislative Committee had even unanimously opposed the airport project.
Here are the various photos taken by the Salim Ali Foundation team when they did their due diligence:
Instead of stating no building plan was sanctioned, the deemed PIO said information was not available. The CIC, then issued a show-cause notice to the deemed PIO for providing the false and misleading information. This is the 139th in a series of important judgements given by former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi that can be used or quoted in an RTI application
The Central Information Commission (CIC), while allowing an appeal, directed the Public Information Officer (PIO) at the office of Superintending Engineer (B)-II at Rohini Zone of Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to provide specific information sought by the appellant. The CIC also issued a show-cause notice to the deemed PIO who was found guilty of furnishing false and misleading information.
While giving this judgement on 21 March 2011, Shailesh Gandhi, the then Central Information Commissioner said, “It appears that this is a collusion with people who construct illegal buildings and misleading information has been given to prolong the matter so that illegal building could be completed before the matter comes to the Commission.”
New Delhi resident RH Bansal, on 1 July 2010, sought information about an illegal building from the PIO of MCD. Here is the information he sought and reply provided by the PIO under the Right to Information (RTI) Act...
1. Whether the map of above said building was approved.
PIO's reply: The information is not available in the office of the Executive Engineer.
2. Whether the above said building was made as per map.
PIO's reply: As above
3. Certified copy of the approved map.
PIO's reply: As above
4. What was the duty of engineers of concerned area?
PIO's reply: Information sought is not under the preview of RTI Act, 2005.
Not satisfied with the PIO's reply, Bansal filed his first appeal. In his order the First Appellate Authority (FAA) stated that he had gone through the appeal memo and reply furnished by the PIO. “The grievance of the appellant is that he has not received the reply. However the PIO stated that the reply has already been furnished to the applicant. A copy of the same was handed over to the appellant during the proceedings. The appellant is now satisfied,” the FAA said in his order.
Bansal then approached the CIC with his second appeal stating unsatisfactory reply provided by the PIO.
During the hearing before Mr Gandhi, the then CIC, the PIO admitted that the plan of the said building would have to be sanctioned by his office and it appeared that an illegal building had been constructed.
Bansal, however pointed out that the illegal building was completed and he was informed that a sanctioned building plan was not available in the office of the Superintending Engineer (B)-II, Rohini Zone, in Delhi. He also told the Bench that a building was being constructed when he filed the RTI application.
Mr Gandhi noted that since the PIO agreed that the building plan would have to be sanctioned by his office only, the information, which should have been provided was that no building plan had been sanctioned. “It is apparent that clear information was not given. If the plan could have been sanctioned by some other office, then the RTI application should have been transferred under Section-6(3) or assistance could have been sought under Section-5(4) of the RTI Act,” the CIC noted.
The PIO MP Gupta pointed out that the person responsible for giving this irrelevant information was KR Meena, assistant engineer (B). Meena, the deemed PIO, was also present during the hearing, but did not give any explanation for providing the false and misleading information.
Mr Gandhi, the CIC, asked the deemed PIO Meena to explain the reasons for giving such misleading and false information. Meena stated that in future he would correct this mistake.
While allowing the appeal, the Bench said, “The information that should have been provided was that no building plan had been sanctioned. Instead, information was provided stating that the information was not available in this office. It appears that this is collusion with people who construct illegal buildings and misleading information has been given to prolong the matter so that illegal building could be completed before the matter comes to the Commission.”
Mr Gandhi then directed the PIO to give specific information to Bansal before 30 March 2011.
From the facts, the Bench said, it found the deemed PIO guilty of furnishing false and misleading information. Mr Gandhi then issued a show-cause notice to Meena, the deemed PIO, directing him to give his reasons to the CIC as to why penalty should not be imposed upon him for furnishing false and misleading information.
CENTRAL INFORMATION COMMISSION
Decision No. CIC/SG/A/2011/000123/11564
Appeal No. CIC/SG/A/2011/000123
Appellant : RH Bansal
Phase-II, New Delhi
Respondent : MP Gupta
Public Information Officer & SE-II
Municipal Corporation of Delhi
O/o Superintending Engineer (B)-II, Rohini Zone,
GSPC still needs to obtain various clearances relating to environmental and coastal regulatory zone clearances for laying some 10 km underground pipeline and commissioning of the onshore terminal
Although Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) struck gas in the KG (Krishna-Godavari) block, close to Reliance Industries’ own reservoir, way back in 2005, it is still struggling to get green clearances.
This $1.8 billion project, where GSPC holds 80%, Jubilant 10% and Geoglobal 10%, was originally scheduled to go on stream this month. Initially, it expects to operate two wells, estimated to pump out 100,000 standard cubic metre (scm) and at the peak reach anything between 5.7 mmscmd and 8.6 mmscmd (million metric standard cubic metres of gas per day). This will bring a great relief to the gas-starved country.
Meantime, GSPC is striving to get the clearances to commence its operations!
GSPC has a long history and has made several discoveries in hydrocarbon resources in the KG basin, Cambay basin, Tarapur block, Ahmedabad, Sanad-Miroli block and Ankaleshwar block. Besides these, GSPC has other exploratory licences in other areas and work and investments are progressing in these areas.
In discovering gas in 2005, GSPC has made rapid progress, despite various obstacles it faced, including the location of gas wells deep in the seabed. According to information available, most of which are on its website, the operation to extract gas involves the imperative need to overcome high temperature and pressure at the reservoir. Well, not to speak of the hurdles in getting clearances.
The required off gas extraction facilities have been set up. But GSPC still needs to obtain various clearances relating to environmental and coastal regulatory zone clearances for laying some 10 km underground pipeline and commissioning of the onshore terminal.
So far, it has received several assurances to speed up the process of environmental clearances, but these are obviously sitting pretty on someone’s table. As we have stated in the past, on such issues, there are NO pending papers on Jayanthi Natarajan’s table, who is currently the minister of environment and forests!
This writer has also taken up the issue with Sandeep Dave, company secretary, GSPC, to know the current status and to find the true obstacles that are in the way of getting clearances. No reply has been received so far.
A look at the procedures involved and the various departments concerned for getting clearances, is mind boggling. These again, are available on GSPC’s website but the pity is that nearly a decade after gas is found, we are still stuck with paperwork that does not move, for whatever reasons!
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US.)