Friday, July 28, 2017

Why Are Kerala’s Politicians So Obsessed With Building New Airports?

A year ago, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan ruled out permission for what would have been a fully private airport in the central district of Pathanamthitta. He then symbolically planted paddy in part of the land, perhaps hoping it would be a stirring moment in Marxist iconography – the noble act of giving back land to the poor farmer from whom it had been acquired.

Now, barely nine months later, Vijayan has announced the construction of a new, government-funded airport in neighbouring Kanjirapally district, which will be closer to the famous Sabarimala temple. The announcement of the government plan to acquire land for the Sabarimala airport overflows with ironies, paradoxes and idiosyncrasies.

Why does Kerala love airports so? The state already has four airports, three of them international. With the proposed airport, it will become the only state with four international airports. Two of them are within barely 150 kilometres of each other.

Kochi, right in the middle of the state, is its busiest airport, getting between 85 and 90 flights a day – sources say it is capable of handling at least 25 more each day. A 500-acre extension to this airport would have been enough to add sufficient capacity instead of a 3,000 acres greenfield airport in the forested interior of Kerala.

Also, Sabarimala is only about 125 kms by road from Kochi, a distance that can be covered in three hours on a good day. Why would a pilgrim coming for an encounter with divinity mind this distance? In addition, Sabarimala is also roughly about 200 kms away from Trivandrum airport, which is thoroughly underfed in terms of traffic, with about 30-40 flights a day.

The acquisition of the 3,000 acres or so for the Sabarimala airport, however, is not going to be easy since it belongs to a Christian fundamental group called Believers Church founded by a faith-healer and freelance preacher called K.P. Yohannan, against whom the IT and ED are already conducting investigations. According to reports, the church had bought it from the Harrisons plantations, which like most other industries in Kerala, shut down and sold out. A church official has been quoted as saying they would not mind selling the land. Obviously, 3,000 acres is good money.

In any case, the larger irony of land being bought from a church – by a Marxist government – to build an airport for Hindu pilgrims when there is no such tearing hurry nor demand, is very obvious. Pilgrims are mostly poor or middle class and buses and trains are more than enough. Only the Ambanis (Anil is said to be a regular) or a few other super rich would want to land near the temple doorsteps and rush back to Mumbai like they do in Tirupathi. If an airport was a necessity in the interior parts of Kerala, why was the private airport – for which land was ready – scrapped?
28/07/17 Binoo John/The Wire