Maldives ecosystems and communities threatened by airport expansion drive

A proliferation of new airport projects in the Maldives is destroying unique coastal ecosystems and threatens devastating impacts on communities and livelihoods. As many as 20 new airports, several accompanied by hotel developments, are planned and under construction, and many projects are government funded.

In October 2017 a dredger, newly acquired by Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) and at 92 metres in length the largest in its dredging fleet, began land reclamation for a new airport on Kulhudhuffushi, an island in the north of the Maldives. By early January 2018 land reclamation for the new airport was complete. Sediment dredged up from the ocean bed had been dumped on the largest white clay wetland and mangrove in the Maldives and destroyed a unique ecosystem. The Kulhudhuffushi mangrove system was the most biodiverse in the Maldives, hosting eight IUCN Red List species. Kulhudhuffushi mangroves had also provided a livelihood for over 400 people, predominantly women, and their families, who soaked coconut husks in the mangrove mud as part of a coir rope making industry sustained over many generations. Maldives report

The impacts of construction of Kulhudhufushi and two other new airports in the Maldives – on Funadhoo and Maafaru islands – are documented in an excellent booklet, Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives published by SaveMaldives a civic movement that has emerged in response to a government drive for new airports and tourism resorts. After destroying mangroves to make way for Kulhudhuffushi Airport MTCC was then awarded the contract to build facility’s  1.2 kilometre runway. Then MTCC’s new dredger moved southwards to Funadhoo island where it was deployed to reclaim land from the north west lagoon for another new airport. Upon completion of this operation MTCC was contracted to build Funadhoo Airport runway, apron and taxiway. Funadhoo is an environmentally sensitive area, sharing a reef with its twin island, Farukolhu, that includes extensive mangroves. Dredging and reclamation proceeded near to Farukolhu’s nesting grounds supporting several bird species and a bay that serves as a marine breeding site for sharks and rays.

Construction of Maafaru Airport is nearing completion and test flights are imminent. Lush vegetation has already been decimated. Ecosytems highlighted as at risk in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and now irreversibly removed, include 20,000 trees, mangroves, marshland, coral colonies and seagrass beds. The EIA flagged up the necessity of relocating mangroves but there is no evidence that any such mitigative measure has been implemented. Maafaru Airport is larger than Kulhudhufushi and Funadhoo airports. Its  2.2 kilometre runway is long enough to accommodate Boeing 737 planes with a regular terminal along with facilities for parking private jets and a hotel. Maafaru Airport is part of a US$60 million agreement with the Abu Dhabi Fund to develop ultra-luxurious tourism in Noonu atoll.

The Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives report draws attention to various aspects of regulatory failure which have allaowed airport projects without the obligatory safeguards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to act as an independent authority but has been stripped of its powers to regulate tourism-related projects, effectively becoming a ‘rubber stamp’ legitimizing destructive infrastructure projects. A key EPA task is to assess, approve and monitor compliance with EIAs, but new airports and tourism projects resulting in irreversible damage to fragile ecosystems have been approved. New airports already under construction in Kulhudhuffushi, Funadhoo, Maafuru are just the beginning of an ecocidal aviation expansion frenzy. The Maldives government is planning a total of 20 new airports across the archipelago. Land reclamation also looms for a proliferation of new tourism resorts. The aviation and tourism drive expansion drive is obliterating white sand beaches and pristine coastal ecosystems, the very assets that are key to the the popularity of the Maldives as a tourist destination.

New airport threatens to swallow up Fainu island

The concept drawing for a new airport on Fainu island shows the airport taking up about two-thirds of the island land area with the runway extending along the entire southern coastline. The Maldives Independent calculated that 31 hectares of vegetation would be lost, including a dense jungle area and agricultural land. The airport plan also includes about 4 hectares of land reclamation. Land earmarked for a gated hotel is shown on the map below as an area adjacent to the airport and shaded in purple.

Fainu airport + hotel

A woman speaking anonymously to the Maldives Independent said that rumours of an airport on Fainu island had circulated since she was a child, but all of a sudden the airport agreement was signed, funding allocated and work about to commence, yet even the island council did not have information. Another woman said “If they take our land for all of that, we will be boxed into the paopulated ares of the island like an open jail”. Residents also stand to lose access to 2.18 kilometers of beautiful beach to the airport security zone and hotel. Additional developments, namely a medical facility, hangar, lounges and restaurants have been mentioned. Islanders opposing the airport are concerned that even more land might be taken for a second hotel.
#SaveFainu
Residents acted quickly to form a campaign opposing the airport, SaveFainu and a petition submitted to the Tourism Ministry, Universal Enterprises and Island Aviation was signed by 140 people, about half of the population of Fainu island. Universal Enterprises, one of the largest hospitality companies in the Maldives, is financing Fainu Airport through bulk purchase of advance sales of air tickets. Island Aviation, owner and operator of Maldivian, the largest carrier in the Maldives, has been awarded the US$8 million contract to develop the airport. The SaveFainu petition called for more transparency from the Tourism Ministry, proper consultation with islanders and an independent EIA.

Mohamed Waheed, a leading activist in the SaveFainu campaign said some residents did not sign the petition for fear of losing their jobs, but are worried that such a large amount of the island would be lost to the airport and the secrecy and lack of transparency regarding the project. People are worried that loss of farmland to the airport would mean the loss of farming livelihoods. Waheed said job opportunities at the airport would not match the incomes made by people working on farms and pointed out that a comparable airport on Kudahuvadhoo island only employs 29 people.

More land reclamation, more new airports

Land reclamation has already created space for a new airport on Muli island. On 11th July 2018 President Yameen pledged to develop an airport on Muli island and attended a ceremony marking completion of the land reclamation project. MTCC has been paving the way for an airport on Muli island for some time. A land reclamation agreement was signed in 2014 and reclamation of 40 hectares of land was reported as completed in May 2017. An aerial photo shows an ideal site for an airport runway already in place, a strip of reclaimed land running along almost the entire eastern shoreline of Muli island, encompassing the southern tip and extending along about a third of the western coast.

MTCC has also been contracted to reclaim land for a new airport in Hoarafushi in Haa Alif Atoll, the northernmost atoll in the Maldives. The project, anticipated to cost over US$4 million, will be funded by the state budget. MTCC has already started development of an airport on Maavarulu island, a project costing US$ 3.7 million funded by the state budget, with tarring of the 1,200 metre runway scheduled to commence by the end of July. Maarvarulu is an island on Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, where a second new airport is to be built, on Faresmaathoda, an uninhabited island situated on the south of the atoll. Tourism developer ‘Champa’ Mohamed Moosa, gave a US$4 million loan to the government to develop the airport and a press conference at the beginning of June marked the signing of a US$2.5 million contract with Gulf Cobla, a UAE based dredging company, to begin land reclamation for the project.

Mohamed Moosa is chair of Kuredu Holdings, a major resort operator which has been awarded a contract to develop another new airport, on Madivaru island, in the tourism hotspot of Lhaviyani atoll, which will entail reclaiming three hectares of land from Madivaru lagoon. Kuredu Holdings is expected to develop a hotel to support Madivaru airport operations. More land reclamation, and yet another new airport, looms in Bileyfahi, where President Abdulla Yameen pledged to reclaim land and build a domestic airport, explaining that this additional facility, together with the new Funadhoo Airport, which is located just 40 kilometres away, will make Shaviyani atoll a tourism hub.

The necessity of the new airports, many of which are generously funded by the government, is highly questionable. The Maldives already has 12 airports and all three new airports in the #SaveMaldives report are being constructed even though an existing airport is easily accessible by speedboat, a journey of 45 minutes in the case of Funadhoo Airport, 40 minutes on the case of Maafuru and just 25 minutes away from Kulhudhuffushi Airport. In a similar vein, SaveFainu campaigners regard an airport on Fainu island to be unnecessary as an existing airport in Raa atoll, 26 kilometers away on Ifuru island, can be reached by speedboat in just 25 minutes.

Climate impacts from aviation expansion, land reclamation and loss of mangroves

The Maldives government continues its drive to build new airport projects even though the country is on the front line of the battle against climate change. Rising seas are lapping at the shores of many low-lying islands. The Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives report points out the inconsistency of the Maldives government on the international stage when in November 2017, Environment Minister, Thoriq Ibrahim, traveled to advocate for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) at the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). A key issue for small islands is their vulnerability to rising seas caused by climate change. Yet the government driven and funded aviation expansion drive is a climate double whammy; with aviation expansion increasing greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft and land reclamation increasing vulnerability to climate change induced flooding from rising sea levels, severe storm surges and more intense rainfall due to removal of vegetation which serve as a buffer absorbing excess water.

Destruction of mangroves for new airports compounds the climate impacts, because these unique ecosystems play a unique role in carbon sequestration, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing in their biomass for long periods and laying down soil that acts as a carbon sink. The Maldives government pursues environmentally devastating airport projects in the face of widespread opposition from civil society, even though it is a recipient of large amounts of donor funds for climate change mitigation and resilience. International organizations and development partners such as UNDP Maldives have remained silent.

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Bulacan Aerotropolis threatens fishing livelihoods

Approval of plans for Bulacan Aerotropolis in Manila Bay, one of the biggest megaprojects in the Philippines, threatens 700 families with displacement and loss of their fishing livelihoods. Thousands more fisherfolk would be affected by land reclamation for the 2,500 hectare airport and ‘airport city’ complex.

On 25th April the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) of the Philippines approved plans for a new airport and metropolis, i.e. an aerotropolis, in Bulacan province, Manila Bay. Residents of the village of Taliptip and seven other areas will be affected by the project and at least 700 families face displacement. They make their living from selling their fishing catch in a nearby town and from making fishing nets. Their income is low but life is good and they do not want to leave. A woman who has lived in Taliptip for 43 years is worried for the future of her children and grandchildren. They were not informed about the airport plans and have been told they will be relocated, but not where, or how they might make an alternative livelihood.

Local communities resisting loss of their homes and incomes for the airport project are being supported by environmental and church groups and people can follow the local people’s struggle on the Save Taliptip Facebook page. Leon Dulce, national coordinator of the Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment, writes that the Bulacan aerotropolis plan is being pursued aggressively and was kept hidden from Taliptip residents until news broke of President Duterte’s approval of the project. The seas surrounding Taliptip support the livelihoods of about 5,000 fisherfolk and salt-makers, who face being displaced for the project.

Living in hardship has made Taliptip’s people resourceful, they live off the grid using solar power and batteries for their modest electricity needs. The fishing catch has dwindled but they are determined to remain in their homes maintain their established communities. A fisherman from Sitio Kinse, an island community in the midst of the mangroves along the shoreline said: “So long as the sea is here, there is hope … What will we fish if all this were turned into cement?” Fisherfolk take care of mangroves, a vital habitat for many bird species including egrets, terns, kingfishers and swallows, along with shellfish living among its roots. At the beginning of May there was a ‘massive mangrove cutting spree’ in Taliptap, reportedly undertaken by SMC, possibly without the required environmental clearance and thought to be connected with Bulacan aerotropolis. On 12th May Pinoy Weekly posted a photo of Taliptip mangroves that had been cut.

National fisherfolk alliance Pamalakaya also opposes the new airport. Chairperson Fernanado Hicap said the project will cause environmental disaster in Manila Bay; destruction of marine ecosystems would threaten the livelihoods of more than 20,000 fisherfolk in Bulacan and neighbouring towns. Hicap also lambasted the broader Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure development programme that the new airport is part of, for selling coastal waters and public lands to large developers and foreign investors. Constructing an airport in Manila Bay would require extensive land reclamation works, creating new land from the sea and wreaking destruction on fishing grounds.

Developers and governments often opt for land reclamation, as an alternative to building on farmland and obviating the loss of productive agricultural land and displacement of rural communities. But dredging up vast volumes of sediment from the ocean bed exacts a terrible ecological toll; ecosystems including mangroves, coral reefs and coastal flats are eradicated when sediment is dumped on top them. The new airport is just one of five land reclamation projects Duterte’s administration has approved in Manila Bay, described by Hicap as disregarding the “socio-economic rights of hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk and coastal settlers”. Land reclamation for the Bulacan airport project is likely to impact not just on the town of Balakan but on the neighbouring towns of Hagonoy and Paombong and the city of Malolos.

A mega-airport and a new metropolis

A mega-airport is planned, with six parallel runways and initial capacity for 100 million passengers annually, more than double the passenger throughput at the existing main Manila airport, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the busiest in the Philippines. With a budget of P735.63 billion (US$14.2 billion) the new airport in Bulacan is the country’s most expensive transport project to date, by far the most costly of eight infrastructure projects approved as part of the Build, Build, Build (BBB) programme on 25th April by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board, chaired by President Rodrigo Duterte.

San Miguel Corp (SMC), the Philippines’ biggest company by revenue – a conglomerate with interests spanning infrastructure, real estate, mining, petroleum, power and food & beverages – is set to build, operate and maintain Bulacan airport and aerotropolis. The plan spans 2,500 hectares, comprising 1,168 hectares allocated for the airport and 1,332 hectares for an adjoining ‘airport city’. The video below includes a graphic showing the basic layout.

SMC’s unsolicited proposal to build Bulacan Airport, revealed after scrutiny by the Department of Transportation in November 2017, featured additional SMC projects, in the form of the obligatory surface transportation network that is inherent to the aerotropolis development model. An SMC-built expressway linking the airport to the North Luzon Expressway is planned, which would in turn link to SMC-backed Metro Rail Transit Line-7. By the time NEDA approved the Bulacan airport proposal in April 2018 the expressway project specified a revenue stream for SMC, an 8.4 kilometre airport toll road. NEDA gave SMC’s proposal for Bulacan airport the green light in spite of Department of Finance concerns that the project is to be implemented by SMC subsidiary San Miguel Holdings Corp, whose capitalization is smaller than the airport project.

Clark Airport – another aerotropolis, another new metropolis

Some potential Bulacan Airport investors were cautious about the project because expansion of Clark Airport could serve similar markets. NEDA has approved US$241 million expansion of Clark Airport as another priority under Build, Build, Build. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez highlighted Clark Airport growth at an Asian Development Bank briefing saying “Clark will will soon be the showcase of the Duterte administration’s economic strategy”. In December  2017 the government awarded the GMR-Megawide consortium the construction contract for trebling Clark Airport’s capacity from current 4 million passengers annually to 12 million by 2020. President and CEO of Clark Airport, Alexander Cauguiran, has stated larger-scale expansion plans, for increasing capacity to 80 million passengers annually upon completion of a fourth phase of development.

A former US military base which is already an economic hub, Clark Airport is also being developed as an aerotropolis, encompassed within a wider area already primed with surface transportation infrastructure and lavish incentives for investors. Clark Airport is part of Clark Freeport, a 4,400 hectare tax and duty incentivized area. Further development of Clark Freeport is prioritized in NEDA supported infrastructure projects; the US$957 million Subic-Clark railway, connecting to the Philippines other freeport zone, has been approved. Clark Freeport adjoins a larger area, the 27,600 hectare Clark Special Economic Zone, where firms can avail themselves of a generous suite of tax breaks including income tax and corporate income tax holidays of up to eight years and exemptions from local government taxes.

In April 2015, as the government infused P1.2 billion (US$27 million) for a low cost passenger terminal, it was reported that the government was ‘pouring investments into Clark aerotropolis’ development’. Nearly three years later, in March 2018, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) pitched Clark Airport to global investors as an ‘airport city’ and ‘growth center’. BCDA senior vice president John Bingcang said “Clark is on its way to becoming Asia’s next aerotropolis with the development not only of the airport, but the Clark Freeport as well” and invited investment in construction of a US$67 million access road to another airport city component, the “smart, green, and resilient” New Clark City. At completion covering an area of 93 square kilometres, planners envisage that New Clark City will be larger than Manhattan, housing 2 million people. Claims that the new metropolis will be sustainable, reduce carbon emissions and ‘pollution-free’, are undermined by aviation dependence. New Clark City is regarded by BCDA as complementing expansion of the airport.

Land disputes and displacement

Development of Clark Airport within Clark Freeport, in the 2,367 hectare Clark Civil Aviation Complex (CCAC), has triggered land disputes. In July 2016 117 farmers cultivating about 200 hectares of CCAC land appealed to President Duterte, drawing attention to their request to Clark International Airport Corporation (CIAC) to grant them ‘Disturbance Compensation‘. The president of a farmers’ cooperative said construction of factories and an industrial complex had begun without prior consultation. Farmers protested at the construction site, stating that they were willing to surrender farmlands but demanding just compensation plus reimbursement for loss of farm buildings and crops. Almost a year later, in June 2017, cultivation of grains, vegetables and spices in the CCAC appeared to be attracting birds. A Commission on Audit (COA) report blamed farming activities of people it referred to as ‘illegal settlers’ on 647 hectares of land for an increase in bird strikes, collisions with aircraft that can pose a safety risk.

GMR-Megawide is keen on bidding for the operation and management contract of Clark Airport, and already operates Mactan-Cebu Airport, the second busiest in the Philippines. A second terminal is scheduled to open within a few weeks and GMR-Megawide Cebu Airport Corp (GMCAC) plans for further expansion, a third terminal and second runway that would increase airport capacity from the current level of approximately 10 million passengers per year to 28 million passengers by 2039. The project entails reclaiming 300 hectares of Magellan Bay. This option, chosen in a proposal supported by some Cebu congressmen, was seen as preferable to expanding over land as that would have impacts upon between 10,000 and 12,000 households.

SMC, through its subsidiary Trans Aire Development Holdings Corp (TADHC) holds the concession to operate Boracay Airport, the main gateway to the Philippines’ most well-known tourist island. On 16th September 2015 residents facing land expropriation for expansion of the airport protested against plans to purchase their land at a fraction of its market value. The president of Caticlan Land Owners Association said the market rate for real estate in the area was between five and ten times higher per square metre than residents were being offered. Yet some residents had already received court orders instructing them to vacate their homes. Demonstrators gathered outside the airport terminal with placards reading: ‘No To Expansion Caticlan/Boracay Airport’, ‘Stop Harrassment’, ‘Airport Expansion is Killing us’, ‘Expropriation is Oppression’, ‘No to Expropriation, Yes to Fair Negotiation’, ‘CAAP / San Miguel Have Mercy ON US’ and ‘Government for the People, Not Government for San Miguel Corp’. About 200 families were affected by expansion of the airport and in November 2015 the Commission in Human Rights (CHR) in Western Visayas took cognizance of the complaints raised by landowners.

Some residents had no choice but to accept the low compensation offer. By April 2016 a number of families had been evicted to make way for airport expansion and become squatters. Local residents asked TADHC and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) for clarification of the scope of Boracay Airport expansion plans, estimated to affect about 8,000 people. By October 2017 SMC was building a new terminal at Boracay Airport and, separate from airport development, expanding the footprint of its tourism related development on 130 hectares of land. Groundbreaking for a 400 room Marriott Hotel was imminent and plans included more hotels, an entertainment complex and an ocean park.

 

Navi Mumbai Airport – displacement and destruction

3,500 families struggle for fair rehabilitation for displacement to make way for Navi Mumbai International Airport. Mangroves and other bird habitats will be lost and pre-construction blasting work has damaged houses and caused injuries.

Approximately 3,500 families residing in 10 villages face displacement from their homes and land for a new airport in Navi Mumbai, in the Kovar-Panvel area 40 kilometres to the east of Mumbai on India’s west coast. First proposed in 1997 and approved by the government in 2007, the response of affected people, resisting land acquisition and demanding improved rehabilitation assistance, is just one of many factors that stalled the Navi Mumbai International Airport project. The inevitability of environmental damage led to delays in being granted government clearances. Biodiverse wildlife habitats encompassed within the site will be destroyed: 121 hectares of forest, 162 hectares of mangroves and 404 hectares of mudflats. Environmental groups have long criticized the airport site selection, saying that the government refused to consider possible alternatives. Waterlogged and low-lying, the site will need to be raised from 2 metres to 5 metres above sea level, posing construction challenges.

GAAM map of Navi Mumbai International Airport siteA mega-airport is planned, handling 10 million passengers annually upon completion of the first phase, rising to 60 million passengers per year upon commencement of full commercial operations with two parallel runways, which is scheduled for 2030. If this traffic projection proves accurate Navi Mumbai will be India’s busiest airport. The airport core area, allocated for aeronautical activities, is 1,160 hectares of land. In addition to the core airport site, three areas have been earmarked for non-aeronautical activities (airport-linked commercial development such as hotels and retail), taking the total airport area to 2,268 hectares. Three plots of land have been allocated for rehabilitation and resettlement for the affected villagers.

Levelling the site and diverting rivers

Villagers have not yet relocated to the resettlement areas. Yet, in October 2017, as they remain in their homes, massive earthworks preparing the site for construction of the airport began, a work programme that is expected to take between 18 and 24 months.  The course of Ulwe river which runs north-south through the site is to be re-routed by 90° and the Ghadi river running alongside the northern boundary is also being re-channelled. Hills are being blasted away with explosives to make way for the airport runway, the soil and stones being utilized for filling in and levelling the site. The height of Ulwe hill, the largest hill on the site, is being reduced from 90 metres to 10 metres. Vast volumes of loose earth and stones will then have to be compacted down to make it stable enough to withstand airport operations.

Difficult terrain brings serious construction difficulties. The land is swampy and flood-prone, large areas are frequently waterlogged, especially during the monsoon season. “Even from a simple engineering point of view, building an airstrip on reclaimed land, mudflats and mangroves – it is going to be very unstable,” predicted Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust. As of December 2017 most of the site was underwater. Critics of the airport project also point out the high level of state expenditure on pre-construction earthworks that are necessary to make the fragile coastal zone sufficiently resilient to withstand the new airport, an estimated 2,345 crore (US$370 million).

CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation), a city planning agency formed by the Maharashtra state government, is responsible for implementing the airport project. GVK, an Indian conglomerate with interests in energy, resources, transport and other sectors, has been awarded the contract to build and operate the airport. By May 2018, CIDCO expects to hand the project over to GVK for completion of pre-construction groundwork on the airport site before the building phase begins. Predictions of project cost escalation have proved well founded. By 2017 CIDCO’s cost estimate for the project had more than tripled, escalating from US$753 million to US$2.5 billion.

As earthworks In November 2017 two thousand residents of the villages of Targhar, Pargaon, Ulwe, Kolhi, Kopar, Ganesh Puri, Chinchpada, Dungi and Manghar gathered to step up their demands for fair compensation and rehabilitation from CIDCO for vacating their land and homes to make way for the airport project. The villagers discussed many concerns including unnecessary land acquisition and united their struggles to form a new organization: Navi Mumbai International Airport Affected Peoples, which will take up their demands with CIDCO.

The villagers’ meeting followed a major protest by residents of six villages on 12th October, which brought pre-construction work on the airport site to a halt. An article on the mid-day.com news website stated that 5,000 people attended the protest. Only 10 per cent of the affected families had vacated their homes, over 3,200 families were still living on the site and they resolved to remain in their homes until the plots of land allocated for resettlement were developed. On 27th October it was announced that, following a meeting between CIDCO officials and affected residents, attended by 500 people and with a heavy police presence, work on the Navi Mumbai Airport site would resume under heavy police protection. CIDCO reported that four platoons of state reserve police had been made available.

Blasting damages houses, injures workers and villagers

The state is protecting the airport from people with legitimate grievances, but failing to protect people from construction of the airport. Blasting work caused residents to complain about tremors affecting their houses and has caused injuries. At the time of the October 2017 protest explosives were being set off three times per day, loosening the ground in order to cut and level Ulwe hill to make way for the airport runway. Taking place at a distance as little as 100 metres from people’s homes blasting sent stones flying distances of up to 200 metres, including into a nearby school. Vibrations from the blasting had caused cracks in the walls of houses in the village of Ulwe, making some people afraid that their houses might collapse.

On 6th January 2018 five engineers working in the site were injured, two of them severely, by supposedly ‘controlled’ blasting work that was underway 300 metres away from them. Explosions had triggered a landslide and the workers were hit by falling rocks. Villagers in Siddhart Nagar which is situated at the foot of Ulwe hill suffered injuries too; five women were bruised by stones coming through their roofs and a seven-year old boy who had been playing outside his house needed two stitches to his head. Affected residents, who had argued that blasting should not commence until they are rehabilitated, organized a protest march opposing blasting on the airport site and called for an atrocity case to be registered against CIDCO and GVK. Two days after the landslide, as GVK signed the concession agreement with CIDCO, the men of the village stalled work at the blasting site while the women made an unsuccessful attempt to meet with CIDCO officials at their offices. The father of the boy injured in the landslide, said “My wife and a few other women went to meet CIDCO officials, but they were not entertained. Why is it difficult to rehabilitate us when crores are being spent on the project?”

After the blasting injuries CIDCO officials ordered Siddhart Nagar residents to vacate their homes to get them out of the way while blasting work takes place, for two hours every day 1-2pm and 5-6pm. Villagers voiced strong objections to this disruption of their daily lives and being forced to stand in scorching sun. CIDCO’s lame excuse for undertaking the dangerous blasting work with people still in the vicinity is a claim that Siddhart Nagar villagers have not been rehabilitated because more than half of of the households were established after the 2013 cut-off date for eligibility. A representative of the villagers insists this is not the case and that they have documents proving their residency in the area for the past seven to eight years.

Residents’ long struggle for fair rehabilitation

Residents being displaced for Navi Mumbai Airport, facing loss of their homes, communities, land and livelihoods, have sustained a long-term struggle for fair rehabilitation. Back in 2010 a public hearing was boycotted by residents of all 18 affected villages standing to lose their land. Approval of the airport project appeared to be a foregone conclusion; journalist Nidhi Jamwal wrote that the hearing was ‘wrapped up in hour’, with the few journalists that attended having been told by their employers that negative stories would not be published. There was not much to report anyway as a recently completed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a study on the diversion and channeling of rivers were not made public. People from the affected villages stood outside the meeting waving black flags in protest, demanding due compensation.

Villagers being displaced for the airport, referred to as project affected persons (PAPs),  are dissatisfied with the rehabilitation and resettlement areas and say that the offers of land and cash sums to build new houses in these designated areas are in sufficient to compensate for what they will lose. PAPS are being offered construction aid to build their new houses, but say that the amount, calculated in 2011, is low. Their request that construction aid be increased to reflect current costs seems particularly reasonable in the light of CIDCO’s repeated upward revision of airport construction costs.

At the time of the 12th October 2017 protest, which was precipitated by apprehensions over CIDCO’s looming 17th October deadline for villagers to vacate their homes, Nata Pratil, president of the committee of MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) which is demanding justice for the 3,500 families facing displacement, said that the deal offered to villagers to give up their land was altered after they had agreed to it, the allocation of space for a new house being reduced. CIDCO claimed that the plots for displaced families were ready, but PAP representatives disputed this, saying that schools, utilities, streetlights, roads and a crematorium had yet to be developed. And PAPs said nothing had been done to make provision for replacing temples that will be lost to the airport. CIDCO had committed to allocation of plots of land suitable for relocation of ten old temples, along with compensation for rebuilding. In November 2017 some PAPs alleged that records proving their land ownership had been destroyed by CIDCO.

Loss of mangroves and the risk of bird-strikes

A significant regulatory hurdle to building Navi Mumbai airport, pertaining to the mangrove forest in the airport site, was removed in 2009. Coastal Regulation Zone notification, ensuring tight controls over construction, was amended in order to allow conversion of mangrove forest to an airport. Replacing mangroves with the impermeable concrete and tarmac of an airport will disrupt the water balance in the wider region. Mangroves are a natural buffer between land and sea, the interwoven roots preventing coastal erosion, absorbing rainfall and tidal surges. Excess water has to go somewhere and removal of mangroves for the airport could make the surrounding area more susceptible to flooding.

CIDCO’s suggestion of compensatory plantation to make up for loss of mangroves, about 200 kilometres distance from the airport site in Dahuna, met with criticism that these complex, locale-specific ecosystems, richly biodiverse and taking time to evolve, cannot be created instantly. CIDCO then suggested a mangrove sanctuary close to the airport site, commissioning a study of wetland bird habitats that was conducted by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The study highlighted the conflict between airport operatiosn and birds. Dr. Deepak Apte, director of BNHS cautioned that “A mangrove park within the perimeter of aircraft takeoff and landing zones can be an extremely serious aviation hazard”. Mangroves are an attractive habitat for many bird species, so a mangrove sanctuary poses a risk of bird strikes, collisions with aircraft that can cause fatal accidents.

In 2015 the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change National Board for Wildlife withdrew the requirement for a mangrove sanctuary as part of the project. The developer will be required to make the area designated for the mangrove sanctuary unattractive to birds to reduce the risk of bird strikes. An environmentalist from Vanashakti, an NGO focused on forest, mangrove and wetland protection, questioned the sincerity of CIDCO’s promise of a mangrove sanctuary, wondering if it was known to be unfeasible due to the bird strike risk, and merely a ruse to help get clearance for the project.

Airport operations are likely to impinge upon birds habitats beyond the site – coastline, creeks, mangroves and inland wetlands. A survey conducted BNHS showed an estimated 266 bird species living within a 10 kilometre radius of the airport site, including the Karnala Bird Sanctuary. Aviation experts advised that a plan for a bird sanctuary to protect migratory flamingos, in the Panju-Funde wetlands, 20 kilometres from the airport site, would be under the take-off and landing flight paths and a bird strike disaster waiting to happen. Large birds such as flamingos pose the most significant bird strike risk. Debi Goenka criticized the airport authorities’ opposition to the Panju-Funde bird sanctuary: “In the name of development, we cannot simply kill all the beautiful birds and destroy their wetlands’ habitat. They could have easily shifted the proposed airport to some other place 10 years ago”

Interlinked megaprojects and car dependency

Construction of another megaproject, the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL), the longest bridge in India – is to be speeded up, for completion in time for it to be linked with Navi Mumbai Airport. Stretching across Mumbai Bay, six lanes wide and 22 kilometres in length, the new bridge will link the mainland with Sewri on the eastern edge of South Mumbai. Like the airport, the bridge is set to destroy birdlife habitats. First mooted in the 1970s it met with opposition because of the impact on Sewri mudflats, an area containing mangroves and providing an important feeding ground for the thousands of flamingos flocking there every winter. MTHL’s starting point in Sewri, extending along 5 kilometres of coastline, poses a threat to an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 flamingos and 38 hectares of formerly protected mangroves will be lost, along with 8.8 hectares of protected forest at the Navi-Mumbai end.

The shoreline sections of MTHL will impact on people as well as the environment. A 2016 assessment survey revealed that the homes of 229 families, 53 business premises and 10 commercial structures in Sewri will be demolished to make way for MTHL and an official outlined a plan to resettle then in Bhakti Park, Wadala, in southern Mumbai. Artisanal fisherfolk from nine villages whose livelihoods are impacted by MTHL will receive a one-time compensation fee. As of July 2017 over 3,000 compensation claims had been submitted and the Mumbai Metropolitan Development Authority (MMRDA) was about to begin sifting through the applications to identify ‘genuine claimants’. The cost of the MTHL bridge is comparable to Navi Mumbai International Airport at US$2.6 billion. Since 2005 when bids for the MTHL were first invited the cost has escalated significantly, by 350 per cent, due to delays, rising input costs, mandatory environmental and rehabilitation and design changes. Citizens will foot the bill directly through tolls and indirectly through various taxes.

A 5.8 kilometre coastal road connecting the MTHL bridge with Navi Mumbai International Airport is a megaproject in its own right; large stretches of the road will be elevated with a 1.76 kilometre section over mangroves to be built on stilts. The coastal road is just one of a proliferation of road infrastructure projects enabling traffic growth to support the new airport: new roads, widening of existing roads up to 8 and 10 lanes, loop roads and interchanges. Journalist Sanjay Banerjee envisages these ‘speed corridors’, described by CIDCO as enabling “smooth and seamless vehicular movements”, having an ‘octopus-like grip‘ across Mumbai. The airport-centric road building programme is designing in a high level of dependence on cars, it is based on a projection that 85% of air travellers will use private vehicles.