Twenty-one people were killed after the Dubai-Kozhikode Air India Express flight 1344 overshot the Karipur tabletop runway and plunged into a gorge on August 7, 2020.

Two security personnel stand before the wreckage of the Dubai-Kozhikode Air India Express flight that crashed at Karipur airport on August 7, 2020
Delve Governance & policy Saturday, August 07, 2021 - 12:00

A year after the Air India Express flight 1344 crashed at the Karipur airport, it appears the main issues concerning the tabletop runway are yet to be addressed. It was on August 7, 2020 that the Dubai-Kozhikode Air India Express flight carrying 190 people onboard overshot the Karipur tabletop runway and then plunged 35 feet into a gorge. The crash killed 21 people including the two pilots and left 84 people injured. The tragedy brought back into the spotlight the issue of the long-pending runway expansion. 

The airport began operations on 13 April 1988, while international services began on 2 February 2006. Karipur airport serves as a major base for Hajj pilgrims in Kerala, and is also a vital airport for non-resident Keralites from the Malabar region. Safety concerns, however, came to the fore following the 2010 crash of the Air India Express Boeing 737 in Mangaluru, which left 158 dead. The Mangaluru airport also has a tabletop runway. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) designated Karipur and 10 other airports critical and released a set of guidelines that needed to be implemented. 

Karipur is one of three tabletop runways in India and are considered especially tricky for landings. This is because unlike runways which are on the plains, a tabletop runway is constructed by chopping off a hill or is located on a plateau or a raised platform. Aviation experts have noted that on tabletop runways, aircraft landings require both precision and skill as it creates an optical illusion for the pilot - making it seem that the runway extends into the distance, presenting a real risk of overshooting.  

In 2017, the Airports Authority of India (AAI), proposed to extend the runway length to 3500 meters. Presently, the length of the Karipur airport is 2700 meters - the shortest in the state, while the runway end safety area (RESA) [buffer zone at the ends of the runway to reduce risk if the aircraft overruns] is 240 meters. Following the 2020 crash, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) reinstated a 2015 ban on operation of wide-body aircrafts as they require a longer runway to take off and land. 

However, land acquisition for the development of the runway has been a major challenge. 

Dismantling of the special revenue office 

Following the 2010 Mangaluru air crash, the Kerala government on 27 January 2011 set up a special revenue office for the purpose of acquiring land for the development of the Karipur airport. The special revenue office comprises a Deputy Collector and 12 other staff including a Tehsildar and surveyors.Till date, around Rs 4 crore were spent on salary and other expenses in the office. However, not a single inch of land has been acquired till date, confirmed multiple sources. 

On May 14, the Revenue Department, however, decided to scrap the special revenue office with effect from 31 May 2021. But it was reinstated after protests. The Revenue Department is of the opinion that the number of staff in the special office should be reduced, said a former Deputy Collector. However, the file to reinstate the office is now with the Finance Department and it has not approved the Revenue Department’s order. 

On June 29, the Land Revenue Commissionerate appointed a Deputy Collector and two clerks in the office without the permission of the Finance Department. “There is no need for the special revenue office and the land acquisition office. The Malappuram collectorate can handle the acquisition of land for the airport,” said a tehsildar, who sought anonymity.

Scaled down land acquisition requirement

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) had initially planned to acquire 485 acres for the runway expansion. However, this has been scaled down to 152 acres. 

In response to Kozhikode MP MK Raghavan’s question in the Lok Sabha on the current status of the Master Plan for the development of the Calicut International Airport, the Union Minister for Civil Aviation Gen VK Singh had on July 29 stated, “Airport Authority of India (AAI) has projected a revised land requirement of about 152 acres for development/construction of terminal building, apron, car parking and associated infrastructure at the Calicut airport. As per National Civil Aviation Policy- 2016 the land for development of the airport is to be provided by the respective state government free of cost and free from all encumbrances. The state government of Kerala is yet to hand over the requisite land to AAI for the development of the airport.” 

Explaining why the land acquisition was scaled down, KM Basheer of Malabar Development Forum, who has been campaigning for the land acquisition, said,  “That much land was unnecessary. Tonnes of earth are needed to fill the slopes near the existing runway, with crores required for the land filling,” he said.  

Protests delay land acquisition 

A former Deputy Collector said the government proposed to acquire 137 acres for the runway and 16 acres for parking. “However, even the social impact study is not yet done, which is mandatory for acquisition. When the study team visited the proposed land due to the protest the team went back without completing the study,” said the officer.

According to a former tehsildar, two different teams attempted to conduct a social impact study. 

The contracts to do social impact analysis were given to two colleges from Kannur and Kottayam districts. The study finds out how many people will be affected by the proposed project, the number of affected properties etc.  

The villages likely to be affected by the land acquisition are Kondotty, Pallikkal and Nediyiruppu, with over 100 families expected to be impacted. In February 2019, a three-member team from the Don Bosco College, Kannur visited Karipur to conduct the study. However, when protesters stopped them from conducting the survey, the team was forced to go back.

“The land acquisition process has been delayed due to the protests against the acquisition,” the officers said. But, they claimed that people who will be affected by the land acquisition process are not protesting and it is ‘outsiders’ who are behind the protests. 

The state government and AAI’s decision to change the amount of required land several times over the years, caused panic among residents. CE Chakkunni, member of the Airport Consultative Advisory Committee, said the state government had announced compensation for the land, promising to pay six times more than the market price. “But they (families) didn’t accept it and later the government withdrew this proposal,” he said, adding that protesters have since demanded that the Airports Authority of India use the excess land of the airport for the runway expansion.

The anti-acquisition committee, which is made up of residents, has conducted several protests against the acquisition. Their main demand is that the international terminal should be kept at the existing location and in future the development should be done without acquiring land. They have been conducting protests like sit-in demonstrations regularly. The committee alleges that the facilities facing eviction now had given up their land in the past for the construction of the Karipur airport. This is the second time they are facing the threat of eviction for the development of the airport. 

Chakkuni, however, said, “The state government had conducted several meetings to resolve the issue. The representatives of the protestors as well as members of the local bodies agreed to give up the land in the meeting. But they later did a U-turn,” 

“It is politically motivated and they are playing vote bank politics. They are not ready to give the land. One political party took double standards on the issue,” he said. Though Chakunni did not mention the name of the political party, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) has come under criticism for insisting on the runway expansion and opposing the land acquisition at the same time.

KM Basheer, however, claimed, “The affected people are ready to give up their land and now they are fed up with the unending dilemma. They can’t sell the land. Nobody is ready to buy the land. The banks are denying loans and not accepting the land documents as pledge.”

KM Basheer of Malabar Development Forum said AAI should judiciously use the land owned by them in Karipur. “The airport school, staff quarters and fuel depots should be relocated from the premises of the airport to some other place. By doing this, 19 acres of land will be available for the development of the runway and other important needs of the airport. Additional 35 acre land is needed to increase the length of runway,” he said.

He alleged that the state government has no interest in the development of Karipur airport. Basheer added that the private lobby is also against its development because the government and the investors are interested in the Cochin and Kannur international airports.

Several leaders from the opposition UDF have also been alleging the same. During the first Pinarayi Vijayan government’s tenure, opposition leaders MK Muneer, KC Joseph, Mons Joseph and Anoop Jacob raised the Karipur Airport development issue in the Niyamasabha in 2019. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, however, had denied the allegation and reiterated the importance of Karipur airport. 

Recently, AAI Chairman Sanjeev Kumar had assured Kozhikode MP MK Raghavan that the airports authority will hold a discussion with the state government to address the land acquisition issue. The MP had in January submitted an alternative master plan for the land acquisition and development of the airport. As per MK Raghavan’s alternative master plan, around 100 acre land is proposed to be acquired. 

Even as the land acquisition woes continue, for the survivors and families of those who died in the plane crash, there has been no closure.  On August 5, the Union government informed Parliament that the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau's probe into the Air India Express plane crash is likely to be completed this month. As far as compensation goes, the MoS for Civil Aviation VK Singh said in his written reply that only 73 out of 165 injured passengers accepted the final compensation offer. The airline is still waiting for 92 injured passengers and the kin of 19 deceased passengers to accept the compensation officers. A total amount of Rs 60.35 crore has been paid, said the minister. 

 

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