‘No one told us we will lose our land’: Parandur residents protest Chennai airport plan

More than two weeks since Chief Minister MK Stalin announced that Chennai’s second airport will be constructed at Parandur, residents are anxious to know where their future is headed.
Parandur residents against proposed Chennai's second airport
Parandur residents against proposed Chennai's second airport
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It was through television news that the people of Parandur village, located at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, first came to know that they might soon end up losing their homes. More than two weeks since Chief Minister MK Stalin announced that Chennai’s second airport will be constructed at Parandur, the residents are anxious to know where their future is headed. The lack of clarity regarding the area of land being acquired, the compensation they may or may not receive and, most of all, the bureaucratic apathy, have all added to their woes.

Overwhelmed and panicked, many people from Eganapuram, Nagapattu and Parandur villages hired five buses, and took to the Kanchipuram District Collector’s office on August 8 in a bid to get some answers, but only to be stopped halfway. “We tried to meet the District Collector after we saw the news [about the second airport] on TV channels. But we were stopped at Ponnerikarai, and we had to reroute to Kanchipuram via another entrance to reach the Collector’s office. It took us two hours to reach there,” says Balaji, a businessman based in Nagapattu.

After they arrived at the Collector’s office, only five people were allowed inside, Balaji tells TNM. “Their response was very unpleasant. They told us that if we got to know about the airport via news, we should ask media houses for details. They had no information to give us. They also made no effort to understand our situation or soothe our confusion. We did not expect such a response from them,” he says.

In the meantime, real estate agents have jumped in to capitalise on the opportunity, says Balaji. “After the airport announcement, many real estate companies started to call people in the area. I, too, received a few calls. They told us that individuals will not be able to approach the government to get the compensation, and so asked us to sell our lands to them if we wanted ‘proper’ compensation. With no proper communication from the government, many people might believe what these agencies say. They may even end up selling their lands to these firms due to the fear of losing their lands with poor compensation,” he points out.

A ‘public hearing’ in name

Eventually, it was after the villagers in Parandur came together to pass a resolution against the proposed airport on August 15, Monday, that the district administration finally seemed to relent, and allow the residents into the loop. As directed by the administration, the respective Village Administrative Officers (VAO) informed the people in the neighbourhood that a public hearing had been scheduled at 9 am on Tuesday to resolve their grievances. That was how numerous concerned residents of Parandur and adjacent areas ended up waiting for up to three hours at the District Collector’s office on the morning of August 16, only for a majority of them to be turned away.

The hearing was instead held in the presence of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party members, a few select residents from 13 villages in the region, and three ministers — Thangam Thennarasu (Industries), EV Velu (Public Works) and TM Anbarasan (Rural Industries), a mere half an hour after the humiliated villagers left the Collectorate. They were not even informed that the Ministers will be attending the meeting, they say.

Residents at the Kanchipuram Collector's office  (Photo: Special Arrangement) 

Pattabiraman, a Madras High Court lawyer and a resident of Thandalam village, however, asserts that they are not ready to give up their land or leave their place. “But if the government is going to ignore our opinion, we should at least get a compensation of Rs 5 lakh per cent of land and Rs 15 lakh per house,” he tells TNM. Pattabiraman was one among the few residents who were able to interact with the ministers during the public hearing on Tuesday. “From what we learnt, the (administration) initially wanted to meet people from all villages. But later they announced that they would meet people from different villages separately, so that they can dilute the protest and our spirit. It is to make sure that we do not fall into their trap that we decided to walk away from the public hearing. Later, our village head asked me to participate in a meeting with ministers,” he adds.

Why Parandur?

According to Stalin's statement on August 2, Chennai’s Meenambakkam airport handles 2.2 crore passengers every year. After its expansion plans are realised over the next seven years, the airport will be able to handle up to 3.5 crore passengers. “The proposed airport in Parandur, meanwhile, will be able to handle 10 crore passengers annually. It will have two runways, terminal buildings, taxiways, aprons, cargo terminals, and other infrastructure, all at an estimated budget of Rs 20,000 crore,” the statement reads. It adds that they have also considered the rising number of passengers and demand for cargo services in the Meenambakkam airport, besides fulfilling the state's need for domestic and international flight services, based on which the TIDCO (Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation) was assigned the task to zero in on a quality spot. That was how Parandur was chosen.

But Mythili, a resident of Nagapattu, asserts that the residents do not want a second airport. “Where is the government planning to give new accommodation to the people of Parandur? Do they have any idea what they are trying to do? We cannot give up our farming lands and the government should stop pressuring us to do so,” says Mythili. “What would you do if we stopped doing agriculture here? Where would you go for food?” If the government is so stubborn about building the airport here, they can do it over our burials, she says. “They can raze our houses with JCBs and bulldozers and kill us to get to the second airport.”

Like Mythili, many people in the area harbour a resentment towards the way in which government officials have been approaching the matter of a second airport. “Some young men in the village have voiced their protest against this project. But local politicians have threatened to slap them with the POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) and Goondas Act if they stage their protest,” another resident tells TNM on the condition of anonymity.

Dilli Babu, a businessman settled in Chennai, is aggrieved that an airport being constructed at Parandur would mean he would lose all connection with his homeland. “This is my native land. My father and forefathers lived here and we have a connection to this soil. Even though we settled in Chennai, we still call this place home. This is not a matter of money. We do not want to lose our land,” he says.

Parandur Panchayat President Balaraman has decided to stand by his people in this regard. “All of us heard about the airport coming to our village through news channels. No one from the administration visited us to convey such an important matter,” he says, adding that agriculture is an important livelihood option for the people living in the Parandur area. “The people here are asking me what they would do if their land was acquired for the airport construction. I’m standing with my people here. Their decision is my decision,” he says.

Environmental impact

Besides, it is not just the local residents who have raised their concerns regarding the proposed second airport. Several environmentalists too have made clear their objections, pointing out that the project would significantly impact the area’s water resources, since the proposed site has many lakes and wetlands.

Chennai-based naturalist and activist Yuvan Aves highlights several concerns in this regard. “The first question is how much more fossil fuel will be consumed if this second airport is materialised, because these flight services and the climate crisis are deeply interconnected. Secondly, do we even need a second airport? It is only occasionally that there is an increase in the passenger numbers beyond the current capacity. The third matter is the ecological importance of wetlands, which comprises up to 90% of the proposed site. Revenue classifications mention these places as Meikkal Poramboke (grazing lands), lakes and agriculture land, but all of these are wetlands only,” he says.

Farmers ploughing the field in Parandur Panchayat (TNM Photo by Nithya Pandian)

Yuvan adds that the livelihoods of farmers and cattle rearers, as well as the lives of migratory birds should also be taken into consideration while launching development projects. These birds can cause flight collisions, which raises concerns about flight safety as well, he says. “On one hand, we are listing our wetlands under Ramsar sites for conservation, and on the other, we are destroying wetlands for big projects like this. This would impact the entire ecological scenario of the village,” he says.

Captain A (Mohan) Ranganathan, former airline instructor pilot and aviation safety adviser, points out that the choice of site for airport construction could also eventually lead to a rise in flooding. “Currently, the lakes and wetlands here help prevent floods during the northeast monsoon. But if the entire area gets cemented with concrete, what do you think will happen? If there is no way for the streams and lakes to reach the rivers and drain the excess water, all of the surrounding areas will be flooded,” he says.

“Besides, since the proposed site has many lakes and wetlands, the soil could be clayish. To make the foundation of the airport strong enough, extra amounts of money will have to be spent,” he adds.

In addition, it is also important for the government to get defence clearance before going ahead with the airport plan, says Ranganathan. “The proposed airport is located just 10 miles away from the Arakkonam naval air station, which is the biggest maritime patrolling base in south India. To get permission, it should be located 25 miles from the naval base. So, I think getting a defence clearance for this region is impossible,” he explains.

Need for a new airport?

It is hardly an everyday scenario for an airport to be filled with people to the brim, says Capt Ranganathan. In fact, in the coming days, due to various reasons including the hike in jet fuel prices, the air travel is likely to reduce, he says. “There is no one to account for the difference between the projection and actual passengers. What if the projection rate is one crore passengers, and in reality it is just 35 lakhs,” he asks.

According to Ranganathan, there is no point in expanding airports and constructing new ones — definitely not by taking into account people’s impulsive travel plans after the COVID-19 pandemic. “The price hike should also be considered. Previously, it cost Rs 3000 to fly to Delhi from Chennai. Look at the prices now. How many people can afford it? The estimation of 10 crore passengers is impossible to achieve,” he says.

Besides, not many people are going to prefer Parandur even if it becomes fully functional, he says. “If it takes a person 2.5 hours to reach Parandur, then wouldn’t they rather travel another 2.5 hours to reach the Bengaluru airport, which has more flights to different destinations,” he asks. “The government is saying that one can go from Chennai to Parandur in just 1.5 hours. But in reality, we have to travel 1.5 hours to just reach Guindy from Enjampakkam. Even if they are planning to construct more highways and launch high speed trains to reduce the time of the journey, all that would take another seven to 10 years.”

Watch: Chennai’s second airport leaves Parandur residents anxious over their fate

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