On 10th April 7,000 farmers protested against land acquisition for a ‘greenfield airport’ (on an undeveloped site) in the Vizianagaram district, near the town of Bhogapuram, on the northern coast of Andhra Pradesh. Farmers are concerned that the airport will deprive them of their lands and livelihood. The video below shows news footage of the protest. It is in the Andhra Pradesh language, Telugu, but the visuals are revealing. After 45 seconds of captions there are crowd scenes along with speakers, and is it is worth watching to get an impression of the scale and spirit of the demonstration.
The land that the government intends to acquire, a full 60 square kilometres, constitutes more than half of the 105 square kilometres of farmland in Bhogapuram. In early April it was reported that opposition to land acquisition was mounting. People from 16 villages were gearing up for a major protest and planning to blockade a major road, the NH-16 arterial highway between Chennai and Kolkata, even though they were informed by police that anyone participating in the roadblock would be arrested. An all-party meeting of villagers also decided to prevent officials from entering their villages. Senior officials had already tried to enter the village of Chakivalasa but the residents forced them to retreat. They chanted slogans like ‘don’t want airport’ and ‘go back’ and demanded improvements to vital amenities including water, housing and roads.
On 10th April farmers protested outside government offices demanding cancellation of the airport project. The number of demonstrators – 7,000 – far exceeded the 3-4,000 that had been anticipated. Several political parties supported the protesters, who were adamant that they will not give up their fertile farmland. The protest was peaceful. Demonstrators defied the police arrest threat over the roadblock plans, bringing traffic on the NH-16 highway to a halt for over an hour.
Villagers, dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, from their land which would be lost if the airport project goes ahead, accused the district administration of failing to inform them of the detail of the airport plans, including how much land would be taken from each of the villages. They are concerned that they may be forced to give up their land, and that the prices offered to farmers would be low, as has already been witnessed in nearby districts in the region where the government is attempting to acquire farmland for a new capital city for Andhra Pradesh. Karottu Satyam, president of the Bhogapuram mandal (administrative district) told reporters that ‘The government is literally pushing us onto the roads’.
The area of land the Andhra Pradesh state government intends to acquire for the airport project is vast: 60 square kilometres. The Times of India reported that the plan is actually for an aerotropolis, an airport surrounded by commercial development. Government sources stated that the 60 square kilometre site would be divided into three sections: 20 square kilometres to be set aside for the airport, 20 square kilometres for servicing aircraft i.e. an MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facility and an aviation academy and 20 square kilometres would be given back to the farmers as ‘developed plots’. An area of 20 square kilometres for the airport itself is even larger than the world’s busiest passenger airport, Atlanta Airport in Georgia, US, which handed more than 96 million passengers in 2014 and covers just over 15 square kilometres of land. 20 square kilometres is far more than would be required for an MRO and aviation academy, so no doubt considerable commercial development such as retail, tourism, residential and industrial facilities are planned.
The 20 square kilometres that would be given back to the farmers would be under a system called ‘land pooling’. This entails acquiring land for development by pooling parcels of land from a number of landowners. Developers then receive a large portion of the land for further real estate development. The remainder is divided into plots which are allocated to landowners, possibly with the addition of compensation for loss of agricultural income. Ajay Jain, State Energy and Infrastructure Secretary attempted to assure farmers that they would benefit from the airport project, recognizing that farmers who gave up their land for Hyderabad Airport were ‘short-changed’ because the price of the land ‘skyrocketed’ shortly after it was acquired.
But it is understandable that attempts at assuring farmers facing loss of their land for the aerotropolis are being met with scepticism. The land pooling system has already been used for acquisition of enormous tracts of fertile agricultural land, 120 square kilometres, for a planned new Andhra Pradesh capital city. The Deccan Herald described land pooling for the new city as a ‘reign of terror over the villagers/landowners’ belying government insistence that completion of the land acquisition process has been smooth and voluntary. Once farmers have signed legal documents the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) can take possession of the land, develop it, sell it and raise loans by mortgaging it. Evidence that the new city plans are a pretext for a land grab, primarily aimed at benefiting real estate developers, is compounded by the fact that none of the necessary clearances for the new city, such as social and environmental impact assessments, have been complied with, casting serious doubts over the feasibility of the enormously ambitious scheme.
There have been major protests against the land pooling process. On a recent visit to Rayapudi village in the Guntur district Medha Patkar, co-founder of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), described land pooling as ‘land fooling‘, a ‘corporate conspiracy meant to grab the farmers’ land and deprive them of their livelihood’. People face removal from land they had lived on for many generations, and it will have a ‘genocidal’ effect on the rural economy. Farmers she had met with in several villages told her that they had been forced to sign consent forms for handing over land, which they were offered a mere ‘pittance’ for. Some farmers were left deprived of their only source of income. Patkar said that the CRDA land acquisition procedure is an illegal infringement of people’s rights and retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer MG Devasahayam dubbed the CRDA the ‘Capital Real Estate Development Agency’.
Already, the real estate boom predicted by critics of the airport project is reported in Bhogapuram. Real estate developers are flocking to the area as the price of land has escalated at least fourfold.