The death of livelihoods, a sense of community and fertile agricultural lands - all to expand an airport with a history of poor patronage.

The human cost of expanding the Salem airport
Delve Human Rights Monday, June 18, 2018 - 20:57

On a hot summer day in May, the dimly lit shed in Rajendran’s two-room house reverberates with the clattering of the powerloom that he is cautiously watching over. As his burly hands pick away delicately at the stray golden lint, the razor-sharp needles of the machine swallow up row after row of neatly lined threads. Gradually, the coil of yarn bunched atop the loom transforms into a soft, red silk saree.

Rajendran is one of 500 weavers in the Omalur taluk who stand to lose everything if the airport in Salem district, Tamil Nadu, is expanded any further. The airport, located in the Kamalapuram village, borders 570 acres of fertile agricultural land that the state government is now hoping to acquire.

The people of the four villages that are affected by the proposed takeover – Sikkanampatti, Thumbipadi, Pottiyapuram and Kamalapuram – are now engaged in a fight for survival with the government. Even as they have been slapped with one notice after another on the expansion, the villagers are bearing the daily legal, physical and emotional costs of an excruciating struggle for their right over their own land.

The conflict

The existing airport in the ‘Steel City’ was closed on account of poor patronage. Between its construction in 1993 to as late as 2018, the fully functional airport was lying in disuse for over two decades. Land for the existing airport was initially acquired in 1989 from the parents and grandparents of those protesting its expansion today.

Upon its construction in 1993, the airport operated for three months between April and June, before it was shut. The residents were dissatisfied with the private airliner that flew two-and-a-half hours to Chennai via Coimbatore, while a morning train from the city would promptly drop them off at Chennai in five hours, at well less than the Rs 1,350 being charged by the airline.

Subramani, who has served in the Indian army for over three decades, sits on a thinnai (veranda) inside his house that overlooks a fragrant lemon tree. While he was away in the army, his family sold their rights to the land where the Salem airport stands today.

The lease documents from 1989 show a grossly undervalued sale. Retiring from service to pursue his family’s traditional occupation of farming, Subramani now fears a repeat of what happened 30 years ago.

Wiping the sweat off his creased forehead, Subramani points towards the airport that lies a stone’s throw away from his house. “I have already lost six acres to the old airport. They bought it to build the housing quarters for those working at the airport. We didn’t know the land value then. We didn’t know we could say no to the government. We were not educated. We would quietly go away if there was any trouble. But now, all I have left is two acres. If that is gone, nothing is left,” he says.

A short walk away – in an almost shocking contrast – tilled, lush agricultural lands spread as far as the eye can see outside the industrial 136-acre Salem airport. The road leading to the airport makes it amply clear that a dispute is underway. In addition to the periodic mooing of cattle, every person entering and exiting the airport now bears witness to large neon signposts that scream, “Is it necessary to destroy farming to expand the airport?”

Protest signs outside the Salem airport 

In 2006, Air Deccan demanded that the local industry deposit Rs 90 lakh or commit to 50 percent of the bookings as a prerequisite to start operations. By 2007, the airline was bought by Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines. After a two-year run, the only and hour-long service from Salem to Chennai was terminated with the last flight taking off in August 2011. With poor patronage for commercial flights among residents, the airport became practice ground for flying schools, chartering the occasional private aircraft.

In March this year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami inaugurated the revamped airport. The airport now operates one commercial flight to and from Chennai.

As District Collector Rohini Bhajibhakare was preparing for a grand re-opening of the Salem airport, she assured villagers of a satisfactory solatium. Speaking to media persons outside the airport, she said, “We have been directed by the Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu to give the highest compensation to the farmers. Accordingly, we have instructed all authorities to give the maximum compensation. Farmers don't have to worry about this at all, we will give them the highest compensation possible.”

But why exactly does an airport with a history of poor patronage need to be expanded? Even more intriguing, why at the cost of agricultural lands?

The newly proposed expansion falls under the Udan scheme, an initiative jointly funded by the Central and state governments across India that aims to 'let the common citizen fly'. The government has pumped in Rs 4,500 crore for the scheme. While the Centre will offer a lowered VAT, service tax and flexible code sharing, the state will subsidise jet fuel, provide security, fire service, electricity, water and land.  The government hopes to increase regional connectivity and facilitate the growth of jobs and infrastructure.

While it is well known that a ‘Tamil Nadu Defence Corridor’ is all set to include Salem, Coimbatore, Hosur and Chennai, a draft plan accessed by TNM shows that Salem in particular has been earmarked for rubber products, helicopter manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul(MRO) services.

In addition to this, Salem will also serve as the destination for small aircraft manufacturing, unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) service and repair, parachutes and paramilitary equipment manufacturing. The development of hangar and cargo services would also likely make this an airport fit for night landing.

Speaking to TNM, industrialist Mariappan who has been at the forefront of initiating an airport service in Salem says, “For expansion, 567 acres of land was already identified and published on the government gazette. Government is prepared to pay three to four times of the market value. There are some agitations. Teething trouble is there but I’m confident that the government shall take possession of the required land to set up the defence hub.”

Rajendran at work

Back in his shed, Rajendran is overcome with emotion.

“It took me 25 years to build my business. There are 500 families like mine. I built this house with my own hands. I would work at the looms in the morning and come back and work on the house in the evening. I can send my children to school today because I have worked in the fields and at the looms for 25 years. If I'm asked to move, everything is over,” he says.

He continues, “I have borrowed a lot from moneylenders for my machine. I don't have anything else – only my house and my machine. I have mortgaged my house to moneylenders to buy the machine. I can't go anywhere else or do any other business. My family has been doing this for generations. My hands don’t know another job.”

Like the other protesting villagers, Rajendran too shuts down questions of putting a price on his losses. Pointing to the cluster of white threads mounted on the loom, Rajendran says, "The threads alone cost me Rs 10,000. If I am forced out, every single part has to be dismantled. When you do that, it increases the cost of labour. I work hard day and night so I can earn a livelihood for my children. I can’t put a price on that. If I have to move all this and go elsewhere and it doesn't work out, all our lives will come to a standstill: our land, our livelihood, their education, everything.”

‘Over our ashes’

On the other side of the village, Muniyamma, 65, has taken shelter from the sweltering heat under a mighty peepal tree. She and some other villagers discuss how they can represent their woes to the local authorities. As the men and women around her talk about the developments since the last meeting, Muniyamma is frustrated that despite narrating her ordeal to one reporter after another, she has received no concrete replies from those in charge.

“We will burn ourselves. Let them take the land over our ashes. Where will we go? Each of us has only 1 or 2 acres. Without that, what are we?” she asks.

Muniyamma has lived in Kamalapuram her whole life. Keeping abreast of the developments surrounding the protest, working in the fields and managing her home, her cracked heels and calloused hands are beginning to ache, she sighs.

“This land is our identity. If our forests are taken away, where would we go? There are 15 people in my family. This is our ancestral land. If they insist on taking away this land, the only thing we can do is kill ourselves. We will not move from here. The government who we put in power will not help us. We have only a little land left after this airport came up. We keep giving interviews like this but nothing happens. Where do we go and beg? We've been protesting for three years. Our legs hurt,” she says, her eyes filling with angry tears.

Muniyamma, like many standing beside her, works as a daily wage labourer on the farms of neighbours and relatives. With old age catching up with her, her fears of the government taking away her land keep her up at night.

“Only if I labour every day, I can make a living. If they take away the land we are standing on, where do we go? We are able to manage with Rs 100 a day. Are we birds, to fly from place to place? They (the government) don’t come and discuss anything with us. Why must the government only take poor peoples’ agricultural lands?” she asks.

Death of a community

Rajendran’s nephew Jagadeesan is at the forefront of organising the agitations. The young man has taken on the task of translating the jargon of bureaucracy to his fellow villagers. Walking around with a cache of documents and newspaper clippings, he is happy to oblige anyone who asks him about the next protest. As he watches his uncle break down in front of the powerloom, he reminds us that in addition to the individual loss of livelihoods, the takeover of the lands would also mean an end to the community of villagers who have become family over the many decades spent together.

Marital and financial bonds bring them together, building a strong sense of community.

Jagadeesan says, “All of us in this area have been together for generations. If I'm in financial trouble, I can count on my neighbour, who is my own uncle or brother-in-law. Unlike city folk, we can't rely on banks and their high interest rates. I will work with my uncle until I can stabilise myself. The government has not supported any of us; we have built our own relations and weaved together our own little community. Almost everyone in our village is able to stand on their feet.”

“In this 5-km circle, there are nearly one to two lakh looms. Almost all supplies to Chennai Silks goes from Omalur taluk. If we have to move everything, it costs a lot of money. From transporting the raw material to resale of the manufactured product, it will be difficult. Individually the loss is invaluably high. It cannot be compensated for. For the business we do, this climate is the most conducive. You won't get the same quality of handloom elsewhere,” he says.

Visibility, activism and legal challenges

Across the field from the runway of the old airport, Bhagyaraj is standing in front of an excavator that is swiftly scooping soil from the ground. He nervously looks at his fellow villagers who are standing at a distance and pointing towards him. The young father of two girls and the son to an ageing mother refuses to admit that he is preparing to sell his soil amidst fears that the government is going to take it away any minute.

Pointing to the bristling fields of maize, turmeric and carandas plum languishing in the fiery summer, he says, “I’m obviously scared. I need to safeguard myself. We don’t know what the government will do at any point in time. If I shift out, everything is gone. The market value of one cent of land is Rs 5 lakh. We can’t buy land like this anywhere. The amount of money they are giving according to the government evaluation will not be enough to buy even bad quality land. They are offering us Rs 3,000- Rs 4,000 per cent. If they destroy this land, it’s as good as killing me.”

Jagadeesan, a 58 year-old sugarcane farmer died of a heart attack in April. Faced with the prospect of a forced eviction, the villagers believe that he was struggling to cope with the stress.

“If they take away our land, we will also have the same fate as him. Last month, they cut down five of my coconut trees because they were a disturbance for the aeroplane. They said they would give me Rs 20,000 for it, but they never paid me. On one hand, they are saying agriculture is the backbone of our country. But they are stabbing us in the back," says Bhagyaraj.

As we approach the colourful Mariamman temple nearby, the loud beating of drums and clanging of bells draws us in. An exorcism is underway. Kuppusamy, the head priest, briefly steps aside to talk to us.

“This is the kula deiva koil (clan temple) for the seven surrounding villages. Thousands of people come to worship here. If it is a festival day, at least 5,000 people come. They are saying they will remove the temple along with the land. They have given us a notice. This is not something that can just be uprooted and thrown away,” he says.

Kaveri, who has come to pray at the temple with his wife, is scared because he has heard rumours of the government throwing the villagers out with the help of the army. He believes the land is going to being acquired for the army to use.

He says, “The Divisional Officer comes here every now and then and says we are giving you notice to vacate. When we ask him where we can go, we don't get answers. They are saying the army will threaten us to vacate these lands. Out of that fear, some people are trying to sell the soil. They are doing it as a precautionary measure but even then they are only getting low rates. We are trying to give them confidence. We only have to tell them calmly and explain. We should be united.”

The Mariamman temple in Omalur taluk

As Salem-based environmental activist Piyush Manush drives into the village, past the paddy fields to meet the villagers waiting for him, he asks, “These are prime agricultural lands. This is a living, breathing economy. Do these people deserve to have their lands taken away?”

The first task of the day for Piyush, however, is to stop the spread of fake news and rumours doing the rounds about compensation and a forced takeover.

As people gather around him, he explains, “They (the government) are deciding the value of the land. They are saying that because of the number of stones in the soil, the land deserves a lesser price. At the same time, they're saying the land has a lot of soil, so the value needs to be lowered. Because the man who has sold the land has made good crops, they're saying they will quote a lesser price. Like this, they have mentioned 25 points. Had you known this 30 years back, would you have allowed this to happen? You're repeating the same mistake. No one is going to deposit money in your account like that.”

He then adds, “Don't believe in rumours. Firstly, you need to believe that you can win. I thought this news has come everywhere and so many people are visiting. But this isn't working out. We should hold another meeting so that we can explain once more what is happening and how we are fighting this.”

“The first task at hand is to convince people to stop selling their soil out of fears of a government takeover,” he informs them.

Activists have been calling attention to the protests for over three years now. In order to highlight the woes of the villagers and lend visibility to the issue, they have brought politicians and actors to visit the area. And so, one leader after another has been visiting the town to express their solidarity with the people.

Today, Congress leader Mohan Kumaramangalam – whose ancestors not-so-ironically were once the zamindars in these parts – is in the area.

Speaking to a small posse of media persons, he says, “If they move the airport elsewhere, it will do well. They have brought it here with the help of the Udan subsidy scheme, but that scheme is not suitable for this area. To take 570 acres of agricultural land is wrong. Where is the project plan? Why can't they discuss the benefits of the plan at the gram sabha?”

When we ask if senior Congress leaders were apprised of the situation, he says, "To be honest with you, of the immediate situation here, I'm not sure they're that apprised in Chennai. But I will be taking this to my state president, so he's fully aware of what is happening here. To be fair, they've sent notices to different batches of people. People have just passed a resolution showing that the majority of them are not interested in having an airport here. This is the time to start taking action accordingly.”

Kumaramangalam goes on to talk about the Land Acquisition Act that was introduced by the UPA in 2013. “Once BJP's central ordinance failed, they had no other option but to come in with their own version of the diluted Land Acquisition Act and get it signed by the President. This is the result of that. Whatever happened before our government passed the Act is happening again. When Parliament is back in session, we will be making a representation to Mr Gandhi so he can raise this in Parliament himself.”

As the leaders come and go with promises of helping them, the villagers in Omalur taluk watch with hope that one of them may make a strong case for them. But for now, they have a meeting to plan and everything else can wait.

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