TODAY -

Imphal Airport Expansion Land Grab

By Ramananda Wangkheirakpam *


Months ago I wrote an article "Imphal Airport Expansion: Justified?" dated 13 February 2009 which was published in IFP and Sangai Express arguing that there are no justifications available whatsoever to expand the Imphal airport now, and for the near future too. I also wrongly diagnosed in the same article that, "the state politicians and policy makers should not just go by what the center wants or decide. Delhi's priorities need not necessarily fit us; and our politicians, policy makers and planners (if there are any!) must apply its mind to decide on it own". While the justification argument still stands, but contrary to the case that our politicians, policy makers and planners can think on their own and for the state, it has come to light that it is 'they' who are pressing the Airport Authority of India (AAI) to expand the airport with no evident capacity to justify portraying for itself a clinically dead government with little or no capacity to take policy position on state question.

Response of the AAI to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) [no 7 of 2009] arguing that the land acquisition for the Imphal airport expansion is illegal, as there has been no mandatory environmental clearance for the project, clearly mentions that 'the expansion of plan of Imphal Airport is still at conceptual stage. The Scope of work is not yet frozen'. Corroborating this, in response to an RTI, AAI reiterate that 'The Airport will be expanded as per the traffic demands'. These responses will mean that AAI has not prepared the detail project report (DPR) and has nothing definite about what the expansion will involve, what structures and facilities will be built, when it will be built etc. In other words, neither the AAI nor the Chief Minister of Manipur actually can tell you what Imphal airport expansion involves. The response of AAI further says that unless the scope of work, which is still not frozen, is approved by the relevant authorities, AAI will not be able to prepare a detailed estimate of the expansion. And that environmental clearance can only be obtained after the DPR is prepared. It is self explanatory here that neither the necessary ground for the expansion nor the mandatory approvals are in place.

What does this all indicate for the much acclaimed Imphal Airport Expansion? First, the expansion project is based on mere speculation and the much talked about sheer greed for projects than actual requirements on the ground. This is proven by the fact that there are no studies to justify expansion, and as AAI responded, that the expansion move is done due to the pressure of the state government. Why there is a pressure from the state to AAI is not explained nor has it been disclosed to the public. This could be an indication of 'un-necessary' projects which must have been brought to the state just because there are possibilities at the center and that such projects [must] have destroyed large forest, agricultural and rivers and have caused undue displacement and distress to people in the state.

Second, it is difficult to understand, given the confession of AAI, how the state acquired land measuring 644.31 Acres, most of which are fertile agricultural land, for a vague project. While this points to a possible secretive role of AAI in ascertaining the land size, it does not however answer a critical question of whether land can be acquired for an undefined project, and before the mandatory clearances even if Land Acquisition Act has been used for this land grab.

While, the contested Land Acquisition Act of 1894 itself is draconian and colonial in nature, land acquisition for an undefined project is not an acceptable practice worldwide. A well defined option assessed project with reasons why the land is being required and the public purpose defined, with details of what will be the components and the necessary environmental clearances, proper agreement (consent) with those who will be affected must precede any land acquisition. In the case of Imphal airport this is just proven to be opposite, reminding us of AFSPA where a person is killed before proven guilty. By now, most agricultural land has been 'forcibly' acquired but the affected people have still refused to take compensation for the homesteads as they would want the state to prepare proper rehabilitation and resettlement plans before they hand over their homes. It is also reported that the state has already handed over the land to AAI. The current situation is that there lay a vast agricultural land being wasted. Some land speculators have turned this fertile land into un-usable fish ponds. The ousted farmers are left with no work and we have lost a sizeable production.

In India, existing environmental law requires that land cannot be acquired unless mandatory clearance and public hearing processes are conducted. According to the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 Notification of November 2006 project category A (which expansion of Airport comes under it) 'shall require prior environmental clearance from MEF, before any construction work, or preparation of land by the project management except for securing the land, is started on the project or activity'. The law is clear that no project or any preparation of the land is possible without prior clearance. However, there is a lacunae in this that it is possible for the project authorities to 'secure the land'. What securing has not been defined by the Notification, it is generally accepted as keeping an eye on the land say against encroachment by other interest groups such as land speculators. Securing land does not and cannot be translated as formal land acquisition for it will go against the very process and heart of environmental clearance and the accompanied public hearing.

In the case of Imphal Airport Expansion, this provision of the law has been twisted where land has been formally acquired even before project details are worked out. Land and project are not two separate elements. Allowing the project authorities to run scot free in such violation will set a bad precedent and will allow project authorities and states to acquire land even prior to conceptualization of the project itself. While the state authorities are definitely at wrong, the AAI as the project proponent and authority should be taken to task for this violation.

Now that we have an already destroyed fields, even if we have an unjustified expanded Imphal airport, it must be ensured that the affected people are properly rehabilitated and resettled and that the negative implications of having an 'expanded' airport taken care. They must not be left in the lurch. Lastly, one must state here a moral question more than a planning one. In India, not more than 2 percent, and could be less for Manipur, use air transport. This means that more than 98 % of the people in Manipur are dependent on bus and other means of transport to go outside the state. While considering better utilization of the current airport, the government must concentrate on improving the dilapidated highways and appalling transport system.



* Ramananda Wangkheirakpam, writes regularly to e-pao.net. He is the Coordinator of Forum for Indigenous Perspectives and Action (FIPA) and can be reached at wramd(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was webcasted at e-pao.net on 09th September 2009.


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