Camerapersons: Smitha TK, Soundarya Athimuthu
Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
Producer: Smitha TK
As we neared Eganapuram in Kancheepuram, we noticed barricades and police personnel stationed every few kilometres. This stood out against the beautiful expanse of green fertile land and villagers going about their slow-paced lives. Soon the villagers received calls from police asking who the reporters were and why they hadn’t taken prior permission to enter their villages.
“Why do they question us about where we are going ? We have to inform even if we are going to the hospital or for work. Why is the police interfering in our fight for our land? We are fighting for our survival,” said 89-year-old Desamma from Eganapuram village.
For the past 97 days, the people of 12 villages in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district have been protesting the proposal to set up a second airport for Chennai that will result in all of them being relocated. On 2 October, the gram sabhas present in Eganapuram, Gunagarambakkam, Thandalam, and Parandur villages passed a resolution against the state government’s proposal.
The Quint visited these villages to understand why the people are adamant to not let go off their lands and the repercussions of such a proposal.
Everything You Need to Know About the New Chennai Airport
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin said that Chennai needed to have a new airport to complement the existing one at Meenambakkam as the inflow of tourists, investors, and others into the city has been on the rise.
Earlier, the state had shortlisted Pannur, Parandur, Tiruporur, and Padalam as four possible sites. While Padalam and Tiruporur were dropped as they were situated close to the Kalpakkam nuclear plant and the defence airbase at Tambaram, Pannur had many residential complexes.
Parandur was finalised and the proposed greenfield airport is estimated to cost around Rs 20,000 crore and will have the capacity to handle around 10 crore passengers per year.
The proposed site is approximately 68.5 km from the heart of the city – MGR Chennai Central Railway station – and may take 2 hours and 20 minutes by road.
The new airport would be set up with all requisite facilities including two runways, aprons, terminal buildings, and taxiways.
The government has submitted the proposal to the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) for site clearance as per the provisions of the Greenfield Airport Policy (2008). Following this, the land acquisition process as well as the DPR preparation work will be carried out.
People are Protesting as Their Villages Will No Longer Exist
Parandur was chosen as the site for Chennai’s second airport, more than two decades after the plan was mooted. A total of 4,563.56 acres spread across the 12 villages are to be acquired, of which 3,246.38 acres are private patta lands. As many as 1,005 households would be affected.
For people who have been living here for generations, the only source of income is agriculture. These 12 villages are known for being rich in water and fertile soil. Most of these villages will completely cease to exist.
Every day at 7 pm, for nearly 100 days now, the slogan ‘Vendaam vimaanam, Vendum vyavasayam!’ (We don’t want airport...We want our agricultural fields) echoes in these villages as people gather at a commonplace and hold a sit-in protest.
"Are we or our children ever going to travel by these airplanes? We are daily wage labourers and this airport doesn't mean anything to us. So, for your convenience, you are disrupting our lives."Saroja, Resident of Eganapauram
Black flags have been hoisted on many houses in Parandur, Eganapuram, and Nagapattu.
The government has stated the villagers will be paid 3.5 times the value of the land, that one government job will be provided, and adequate compensation for housing will also be given. But the villagers said that this will not compensate the loss of their homes, fields, and trees.
"All my life I’ve never had to buy rice or pulses. We grow them right here. I lost my husband 20 years ago and have no one to support me. But even at the age of 89, I can work on my land, reap the harvest, feed myself, and my community. What happens when we are relocated to a place with just a roof over our heads? Even if they shower us with money, we don’t want it. All we want is our soil."Desamma, Resident of Eganapuram
Balraman (50) moved into his newly constructed house just three months ago. In 2020, when he had started construction, he heard about the proposal and halted work. Later, when he found out that the airport will be coming up in Pannur and not Parandur, he went ahead and built his dream home. Today, he is shocked to find out that his home will be demolished for the project.
“We worked very hard, tilled our land, sowed seeds, reaped the harvest, saved every penny we made, to build this house. This house isn't made of sweat but of blood. The minister is saying they will pay us compensation for the land. Will he be willing to give up his own home?” he asked.
New Proposal Will Cut off Water Supply to Chennai?
The Airports Authority of India had conducted a pre-feasibility study of the area and they identified 4,791 acres of land for the airport. But, 2,605 acres of this is wetland.
Poovulagin Nanbargal, a Chennai-based environmental organisation, released a seven-page report on 7 October stating around 1,317 acres of land of 4,563.56 acres to be acquired for the airport are classified as porambokku (wasteland). Out of this, nearly 955 acres are covered by lakes, ponds, and small water bodies. The remaining 390 acres are grazing land. If the proposed airport is built, it will obstruct the flow of the 43-kilometre-long Kamban Canal which fills nearly 85 lakes before emptying into the Sriperumbudur lake, the report explained.
It is also worth noting that obstructing the canal will have a wider impact as nearly 22,235 acres of agricultural lands are watered by the Kamban Canal.
"How can wetlands be categorised as wastelands? They are a farmer’s property. We use these waterbodies to take care of our fields, wash our clothes and for everything. We have everything we need right here in our villages."Saroja, Resident of Eganapuram
It is to be noted that the wetlands and water bodies in Kancheepuram supply water to Chennai and its neighbouring districts of Chengalpattu and Tiruvallur. Research suggests that by 2030, over 60 percent of Chennai will not have ground water.
Environmentalists too believe that Parandur is a hydrologically significant area and that the airport coming up there is not ecologically and environmentally good for the city.
Thangam Thennarasu, Minister for Department of Industries, said that even though the Nelvai lake, spread over 360 acres, falls in the project area it would be deepened and protected.
A senior officer working with the department of Environment and Climate Change of the state government told The Quint, "A detailed study of environmental issues, flooding, hydrology, and stability of the buildings needs to be carried out. We need to assess how this will impact the groundwater and flooding during the monsoons. We can definitely work around it and not cause an ecological disaster but a fair assessment needs to be made."
Several villagers also told The Quint that they feel intimidated because of the increased police presence near their homes.
"When the proposal has not even taken shape, why have they deployed so many police personnel? This is to scare us and make us believe that we have to surrender our homes and leave. But we won't fear this autocracy. We will fight till our deaths because this is our home."Rama, Resident of Nagapattu
So will this proposal take flight? The DMK government is yet to do a complete feasibility study on the impact of this proposal. Locals and activists have demanded that this report be made public. The people here definitely don't want this airport.