The villagers of Balh tehsil in Himachal Pradeshs Mandi district wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 3, opposing the construction of an international airport.
They listed the enormous loss of fertile land which is bound to occur if construction activity begins on the land proposed for the airport. The government is set to acquire 3,500 bighas of land (nearly 700 acres across eight villages) for the airport; over 3,000 bighas is private land. Of this, 25 acres is forested, and is home to several species of birds.
The area has historically been fertile, initially cultivated by local peasants with absentee landlords; in 1966-67, the struggle of farmers culminated in land reforms that allowed tillers ownership rights. The farmers recall that in collaboration with the German government, agriculture implements were also manufactured in the area, starting from the 1970s. Scientific farming got an impetus, and farmers now cultivate vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and tomatoes – this region is the second-largest tomato producer in the state after Solan district.
The proposed airport is intended to come up in these fields, and will displace about 2,000 families, the farmers wrote. Aside from local farmers, there is a steady stream of migrant workers from Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who seek work on the farms. Many families own livestock, and dairy farmers will be left with no space for their cattle, the farmers wrote. “Some farmers are involved in rearing silk worms, sheep and goats and poultry farming. Some people have set up industries; many have bought machines from the construction industry to earn their livelihood. Water is available here at a depth of ten to 12 feet, and ultra-modern irrigation facilities have made the land highly fertile,” they wrote, explaining to the PM that the land yields three to four crops each year.
When the Beas-Sutlej Link Project was planned, it also proposed for a lake in the area, which would have submerged these fields. Opposition from farmers had then forced the engineers to plan the lake elsewhere, in order to save this fertile area from submergence. Less than 15% of land in Himachal Pradesh is arable, the farmers wrote, and with more intense road construction and fresh rail tracks, even that is being threatened.
The site of the airport is also prone to flooding, the villagers warned. In 1962, people and cattle were washed away from this area; a nearby road was lowered after those floods. Even in August 2018, the area had been witness to floods. A large area of what has now been proposed as airport land was under water then. Frequent flooding has meant that the government has not taken up industrial activity in this area. The ravines nearby will mean that the airport may have to acquire even more land than what has been proposed in order to make landing and take-offs safe, the farmers wrote.
The villagers also mentioned that the money already spent in irrigation schemes and drinking water schemes in the area will come to nothing if the area is used for construction. A proposed national highway which connects Dador-Kummi via Kansa-Tanwa Road, Sayan-Dhaban-Dadoh-Hatgarh Road and Dadoh-Dynak-Dungrai-Kanad Road falls under the proposed airport area of Balh and Nachan assembly constituencies which “would be divided vertically, severely affecting social, cultural and economic relations of people and splitting the social fabric,” the farmers wrote.
The first time that the Modi government had to backtrack on a decision after assuming power – in 2014 – was on the matter of the ordinance amending the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. The farmers of Balh remind the PM that acquisition of land for the airport would be a violation of the Act. Also, the Balh airport would be just 50 kms from Shimla airport; the Gaggal airport too is about the same distance away while the airport at Bhuntar is just 30 kms away.
“So many airports so close to each other is not advisable, especially in the hills,” Joginder Walia, a farmer leader from the area, said. The proposed airport will have a short runway and will be suitable for smaller planes; if bigger planes are to fly here, Sundar Nagar Hill will have to be cut, he said. More than 75% of the population that will be displaced from six of the eight villages which will be affected are members of the Dalit community, Walia said.
In Dungrai village, 80% of the land loss will be borne by Muslim families. “These are farmers with small holdings, many of whom already lost land in 2012 after the road was widened,” he added. There has been no policy for resettlement and rehabilitation in place, and the compensation offered is less than what families make each year from the land, the farmers wrote.
Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha said: “This is fertile land with access to water. Farmers cultivate vegetables, rice and maize. Any new project must be based on prior consent, and with proper social and environmental impact assessment. The Land Acquisition Act of 2013 must not be violated. Many of those facing displacement are able to make both ends meet because of the fertility of the soil. A good number of them are Dalits who have faced displacement earlier too. Given that the Shimla airport is so close, the government should just shelve this project.”
While on one hand the country’s larger and more profitable airports are being handed over to the Adani Group, the government is also acquiring land to build more airports. In February this year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman announced that the country would have 100 more airports by 2024. The aim, the minister said, was to make air travel more accessible and affordable. However, is there really a demand for more airports and flights?
The writer is a freelance journalist.