New Delhi: Did the Modi government bypass issues concerning the local population while granting Environmental Clearance to a new airport in Andhra Pradesh? Earlier this month the Supreme Court reopened a case alleging violations in granting Environmental Clearance to the upcoming Bhogapuram International Airport near Visakhapatnam.
The greenfield airport is being developed through public-private partnership (PPP) basis by the Andhra Pradesh state government and a subsidiary of the Delhi-based GMR Group. A petition had alleged that objections were raised during public hearings of the project and that issues pertaining to land acquisition were not addressed. However, it had been dismissed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in July 2017 on the grounds of being time-barred. However, on March 2, a Supreme Court division bench comprising Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice L. Nageswara Rao set aside the NGT order, paving the way for a reopening of the case.
“More than 2,000 acres of fertile agricultural land was forcibly taken from the local farmers for a private airport at Bhogapuram, though the Airport Authority of India’s international airport at Visakhapatnam already caters to the city’s air traffic. What the residents of Bhogapuram wanted was a well-equipped bus terminal, not an airport that would serve the urban elite of Visakhapatnam,” said retired bureaucrat E.A.S Sarma.
The greenfield airport is being developed around 56 kilometers to the north of the existing Vishakhapatnam International Airport, in contravention of the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation’s policy that no greenfield airport is to be developed within a radius of 150 kilometers of an existing civilian airport. At least six villages in Vizianagaram district’s Bhogapuram tehsil – Amatam Ravivalasa, Savaravilli, Gudepuvalasa, Kancheru, Kavulavada and Ravada – are affected by the project. The petition had also alleged that neither was any social impact assessment study ever conducted for the project, nor a rehabilitation and resettlement plan devised.
The Expert Appraisal Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had, in a meeting on April 13, 2017, noted that issues raised during public hearing for the airport project had not been responded to satisfactorily. However, surprisingly, a day later, the committee “noted that issues have satisfactorily been responded” after the project authority submitted a revised point-wise response of the public hearings.
Subsequently, one of the landowners affected by the project, Sridevi Datla, filed a petition with the green tribunal alleging that the project proponent had applied for environmental clearance even as land acquisition proceedings had not been completed. She alleged that several cases challenging land acquisition for the airport project were pending at the time with the High Court of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
“In fact, vide common order dated 25.1.2016, in the matter of Kakarlapudi Satyanarayana Raju & Ors. v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors and several connected writ petitions, the Hon’ble High Court had ordered a stay on the dispossession of the petitioners from the land under the notification issued under Section 11 of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (“LAAR, 2013”). This fact was clearly concealed by the Project Proponent while submitting the form 1 dated 27.2.2016 as is evident from the above extract,” Datla said in her petition.
During the public hearing held on January 11, 2017, while Sarma raised issues pertaining to pending land acquisitions, these were never included in the report of the proceedings subsequently prepared and submitted by the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board.
“The Act required a social impact appraisal to be placed before the people to have a say in decision making by enabling them to consider whether the site selected is the most appropriate, and also whether the project will yield net positive benefits for the community. Contrary to this, the government went ahead to displace the people without a meaningful social impact appraisal study. To ensure that any proposed land acquisition will not disturb food security of the region, the LARR Act (Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013) requires a minimum threshold for the agricultural land in the region to be stipulated beforehand. However, the government never cared to comply with this,” Sarma told Newsclick.
The Andhra Pradesh government claimed to have identified 376 project-displaced families of four habitations who were paid suitable compensation. Contrary to allegations about the lack of a rehabilitation and resettlement plan for the project, the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board has noted in its minutes of the meeting of the public hearing that “suitable R&R (rehabilitation and resettlement) locations have been identified for rehabilitation of those habitations, that Government will provide R&R package to these families as per the provisions laid down in the new L.A. Act, 2013”. Nevertheless, it has been argued that this package was decided even before land acquisition proceedings were complete.
“Nearly 80% of the land owners in the project-affected villages are unqualified women. Many of them live below the poverty line. How will they generate any alternative source of livelihood? I have requested the government to provide training to these landowners and absorb them as employees in the airport project,” said Bhesetty A. Babji, state president of Andhra Pradesh Lok Satta party, also a resident of the district who attended the hearing.
The approximately 2004.52 acres of land that have been acquired is reportedly for Phase I. In January 2018 the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu announced that in later stages the area around the airport would be used to develop aviation-linked manufacturing units, aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility, research and development centre and test laboratories, multi-modal logistics, exhibition and conference centers, leisure and entertainment facilities, aviation education and training facilities.
However, as per subsequent reports, the private partner developing the airport pulled out from the development of all other surrounding infrastructure. Consequently, the state government did not hand over the entire parcel of land to the private partner but retained nearly 500 acres, resulting in demands from erstwhile landowners that they be handed back the possession of their property.
Locals allege that the fertile land which was acquired is well-irrigated and used for large-scale cultivation of commercial crops, including bananas and coconuts. “When the airport plan was first announced, locals started a protest movement against handing over their land. The public hearing was conducted keeping many of the locals away by using the threat of police action. Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, who was in Opposition at that point in time, promised all help to the agitating locals. Now, the Jagan Reddy government, in power, has begun activities for construction of the airport,” said local CPI (M) leader T. Suryanarayana.
A subsidiary of GMR Airports Limited – GMR Visakhapatnam International Airport Limited – has entered into an agreement with Andhra Pradesh Airports Development Corporation Limited for the project. The latter is a special purpose vehicle formed by the state government for the purpose of developing four greenfield airports in the state, including the one at Bhogapuram. A questionnaire seeking responses to the alleged violations has been emailed to GMR Visakhapatnam International Airport Limited and Andhra Pradesh Airports Development Corporation Limited. No responses had been received till the time of publication. This article will be updated as and when responses are received.
Experts pointed out several lapses in the manner in which the Environment Impact Assessment study was conducted for the project.
“Baseline studies for compiling the Environment Impact Assessment report had already been conducted before Terms of Reference for the airport project were granted. Further, no satisfactory noise monitoring study nor water requirement analysis was conducted before the clearance was granted. Data from the field was also collected by a non-accredited agency,” said Delhi-based environmental lawyer Rahul Chaudhary.