May 4, 2010
Andal, near Asansol and Durgapur, in Burdwan district is the site of another major land acquisition in West Bengal where 3500 acres of land is being acquired to set up the first airport city in India, named as the “Aeretropolis”. The anger of local agriculturalists at the proposed project erupted in the form of a major unrest on 24th March 2010 which was suppressed by brutal police action. We publish a fact-finding report on Andal prepared by the SEZ-Birodhi Prachar Mancha.
Translated by Siddhartha Mitra, Sanhati
What Exactly is an Aerotropolis?
Aerotropolis. What does it mean? It is a word that is created out of two words – airport, and metropolis. Like SEZ, PCPIR or Chemical Hub, it is another new term that we must familiarise ourselves with in order to understand the neoliberal onslaught on the masses.
What is it? In short, it is an airport township. At its heart there would be an airport, which would be surrounded by residential units, golf courses, hotels, multi-story residential high-rises, malls, etc. These are to be the new nerve centers of the modern civilisation. This concept is the brainchild of Professor John Kasarda of the Kenan-Flaglar Business School in North Carolina, USA. This view on the future centers of habitation is radically different from those of past expert urban planners like John Jacobs. Previously, such planners used to believe that habitability would be the most important parameter for determining the location of a township. Today, Mr. Kasarda believes that facilitating business should be the main parameter.
Now the question remains, how is this concept of the Western world relevant in the Indian context? Only 40% of the world’s cargo is transported by aircraft, and for India this number is 25%. Only 0.8% people of India have ever been on an airplane, and for the 65% of the population who live in villages, airplanes are in an entirely different world. How can they relate? The surprising fact is that this new idea has not been implemented in any Western country, but has been materialised only in developing countries and countries in Eastern Asia, like China, HongKong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand. Such centers are also coming up in Rio De Janiero and in Dubai. The only place in the Western world where such cities exist is in Amsterdam, where urban expansion was physically limited by canals. People there were forced to organise their residences and businesses around the airport. For the most part, it appears that such projects have been or are being implemented where land and labour are cheaply available.
With the advent of globalisation, both air traffic and the privatisation of the airport industry have greatly increased in India. Both the Bangalore and Hyderabad airports have been constructed under the build / operate / own model. This model fits with the neoliberal policies, which the so-called communist government of West Bengal is only eager to embrace. West Bengal was the first state in the country to implement the widely opposed SEZ act, and now the state wants to be the first one in India to put up an Aerotroplis. It is trying to do so in the district of Bardhaman located in the Asansol-Durgapur region of West Bengal.
The Asansol-Durgapur region is a large industrial belt in Bengal. Just outside this belt, the area is host to India’s major mining operations, as the lands are rich in iron ore, coal, and manganese. There are also several thermal and hydroelectric projects in the area. The proposed aerotropolis is scheduled to occupy 3500 acres of land in the area. The project is to be developed in two phases, with 2300 acres to be occupied in the first phase, and 1200 in the second phase. The project has been awarded to a group call the Aerotroplis Projects Limited.
In the first phase, the airport, some residential plots and a theme park would be constructed. The second phase would see the construction of hotels, shopping malls, business centers, bungalows for the wealthy people and muti-story residential buildings for the middle class. In the third phase, it has been proposed that a logistic hub, IT park, a golf course, park and children’s playground will be created. In 2008 Dec, the West Bengal government obtained 2306.31 acres of land in 12 mouza’s of the Andal and Faridpur blocks under the Land Acquisition Act of 1884. The first phase would include this ryot land and another 56.53 acres of land. The villages which will be affected are Andal, Dakhsin Khand, Tamla, Khadra, Khaira, Ukhra, Dhupchuriya, Amlaka, Banguri, Aarti and Patshaora.
Aerotroplis Projects Limited is a joint venture of two corporations, namely HUDCO, and a private company called Progressive Social Infrastructure Developments Limited. The main investors in the project are the City Start Infrastructure Land Lease Company and some private companies like Pragoti Development. These firms have signed a partnership agreement with the Changi International Airport of Singapore.
The state government used the “needs of the people” clause of the Land Acquisition Act of 1984 in order to obtain the land. However, it is widely expected that the area will be declared an SEZ. According to Mr. R.C.Sinha, who is the CEO of Maharashtra Airport Development Company which is developing an aerotropolis in Nagpur, the project would not be profitable or attract investment unless declared an SEZ. The other aerotropolis projects in Delhi and Nagpur have already applied for SEZ status. The SEZ creates zones in the country where labour laws are no longer valid, zones that are tax exempt for the beginning few years, and are areas which would not need to abide by the environmental and other laws of the land.
Report of the Fact-Finding Team
In this background, a joint fact-finding committee comprised of the groups SEZ Pratidrodh Mancha and “Adhikar” went to the Andal to guage the reactions of the villagers living in the area. After the land-grabs in Singur, Nandigram and Shalboni, it appeared necessary to understand the feelings of the affected people. In the past, groups like “Adhikar” and “Manthan”, along with some groups of Asansol and Durgapur had interviewed people in the area. Some 18000 people in 12 mouza’s are going to be affected by the project. Among them, there are several landowners, sharecroppers, bargadars and agricultural labourers. It seemed important to understand the reactions of these different groups of people.
Right next to the town of Andal, right by the border of GT road, the large demarcated area of the project begins. The area is mostly farmland, though there is an abandoned airstrip from the Second World War which will apparently be in the center of the proposed airport. Much of the land surrounding the airport is under military control. On the other side of GT road, the villages of Andal, Dhupchuria and Gopal are mostly farmland areas which will fall under the scope of the project.
The afternoon was unfolding as we reached the village. This village does not remind one of a typical village. The club houses are made of cemented buildings, and the place has an appearance of a Kolkata suburb. We met some young men as we entered the Dhupchuria village. These people said that their families did not have land that would be occupied by the project. However, they hoped to get some work in the new aerotroplis. Their eyes were shining with hope at such prospects. Little do they know that they do not fit the profile of the kind of people who will be welcome in core aerotropolis workforce. Do they know that they lack the look and feel of the suave, stylish person, who would be fluent in both Hindi and English, who would be sought after for the jobs there? The locals would have to remain content with less paying jobs like that of security guards, cleaners, etc. The DVC project is a case in point how few locals got any employment in a large project that displace them. 420 locals were provided vocational training, but no one was actually provided with a permanent job. The same is true for 120 who were provided security related training.
Thanks to the initiative taken by these young men, we were introduced to some landowners who had farm lands included in the project. The first person had 5-6 bigha’s of land in the project area. He had not received the acquisition notice yet. The landowners we were talking to were well-off, lived in single family homes, which were well-built concrete structures. Their cropland was of the double crop variety, and provided them enough grains to last through the year. They were able to grow rice, wheat, pulses and some vegetables in their farmlands. The person who had 5-6 bigha’s of land mentioned that he would be willing to give up land for the project. According to him, agricultural productivity was strongly dependent on the unpredictable rainfall, in the absence of any meaningful irrigation projects in the area. Also, he said that he would no longer have to deal with the excess demands of the agricultural labourers. But he was unwilling to part the land at 2½ lakh Rs per bigha. DVC had compensated acquired land at 7 lakhs a bigha, and unless he received at least 21 lakh an acre (7 lakhs a bigha), he would not give up his land. And there was no question of giving up his house. However, the government had not mentioned anything about acquiring his house.
A question came to my mind. Did the administration take the permission or opinions of the people who would be affected prior to making their plans? If not, why not? Did they inform these people about the adverse consequences of such projects, like air and sound pollution, and about other adverse environmental effects?
And why does development necessarily have to come in the form of thee monstrous SEZ’s? What cannot it come as irrigation projects. And why cannot the locals be involved in such processes? When it came to land acquisition, no Gram Sabha was held in the area to secure the permission of the locals, as should have been, under the laws of the country.
Another person joined our discussions at this point. He was a well-dressed man, sporting an expensive mobile device and a stylish watch. He was a manager in a sponge iron factory in Bankura, and had 3 bigha’s of land in the project. He was also willing to give up his land in the above mentioned prices of Rs 7 lakh per bigha. But he was a well-traveled person, and had more knowledge of the world outside. He had seen the effects of many a development project. He said,
”They do not know. They are planning to keep the money from the land-sale in M.I.S investment schemes. But would ordinary people afford to live near the aerotropolis once it is built? Brinjal will be selling for Rs 100/kg. How will the common people eat and live in the area?”
After Bauri Para, our destination was Hazra Para. Most of the residents there were landless bargadaars, who were either Hazra’s belonging to the Scheduled Castes or Majhi’s of the Scheduled Tribes. Several skeletal and obviously malnourished people, aged between 18 and 60, were sitting or standing around the club-house. Their ribs stuck out painfully, a clear testament to the abject poverty. Upon hearing about our mission, an elderly man stood up and agitatedly exclaimed – “Would there be jobs for our boys? I mean jobs? We are unable to feed ourselves even now!” The complaints about the demands of agricultural labourers from the landholder who I had just left still rang in my ears. Apparently it was because of having to deal with such people that he was having to give up agriculture. There are more than 1000 people working as agricultural labourers in the Kamar Para and Majhi Para areas. They get only 4 months of work per year in the fields. For the rest, they have to play a game of hide and seek with hunger and starvation. But even that land will go to the project. What would they do if that land is gone. The silent faces of these people all displayed the same unspoken resentment – we do not want this project!
As the betrayal of the Jellingham projects had provided background for Nandigram, the background of this was given by the DVC project. No reparations had been given to people who had been evicted in the Jellingham project, specially to the landless labourers and the bargadaars. Those people were left destitute. But after Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh, the powers that be realised that even ordinary people can resist and that they need to be taken into account. DVC had at least given Rs. 3 lakh per bigha for the non-arable land, and Rs 3.5 lakh per bigha for the arable land. Here it was a lot less, so that the price not be acceptable to the local landowners.
One old man from Hazrapara mentioned that for three generations they had carefully tended, watered and tilled the land. Today the owners want to sell it for money. And now people like him will be faced with starvation.
This is the tragedy of life. People who for generations have tended the land will not get any compensation. But the actual landlord, who rarely visits, will get all the money! Even surrogate mothers who tend other women’s babies in their stomach’s receive the correct compensation.
The DVC had taken a small area. But the aerotroplis will take a lot more. Besides, there is another fear that stalks the area. A young man, a goods distributor, who appeared to be some what educated, mentioned that no drinking water was available in the 4-5 km stretch between Hazra Para and Andal Bazaar. The aerotroplis would consume a lot of water, which would put a further strain the scant ground water resources. It appears that the DVC project had taught the local people many a lesson!
Previously, four or five yatra (traveling drama) groups would visit the area. The villagers would stay up all night to watch their plays. Now after the announcement of the projects, shops, malls, residential housing complexes have started to spring up, and there is no longer any place to pitch the yatra tents. Now for entertainment there are only TV’s, and blue film parlours. Young people were also falling prey to drugs in larger numbers. These problems would greatly increase when the aerotropolis would come to be. The place would become a peddler of dreams to the rich, but would be the ruination of the poor. The wealthy people would come to stay in the houses, and would need to amuse themselves. The low caste poor people will have to stand by and watch the extravagances of the rich. While the rich open bottles of champagne and dance to disco rhythms through the night, the poor will have to stand by bear witness. Would not this affect the young people among the poor? This was the question of the youth in the area. Far from improving the lives of the people in the villages, it appears that the people in power could not but care less about the social effects of such projects among them.
Another emaciated landless labourer provided a heart rending possibility. Many marginal people are dependent on the lands that are going to be occupied. They fend off starvation using the fish, snails or slugs, spinach that they pluck from the lands. What would they eat if the project comes about? Some even tended a few cows in the lands demarcated under the project, so that they could feed their babies and their elders some milk. What would they be going to do?They will have sell the cattle. The person who was talking to me did not have a toilet in his house. He said that women folk in his house and in other similar residences would go for a “morani ok” (read morning walk) before light every day, to relieve themselves behind trees, etc. What would happen to them?
These are but trivial aspects of the lives of the poor, but would they be included in the items to think about for the project. The masters are but serving capital, under the guise of flying a red flag. Now, despite the global financial meltdown, which has shown the problems with the capitalistic model in bringing prosperity to the poor, the masters are peddling loudly proclaiming their support for such corrupt financial systems.
We now headed to Patshaora village. The #9 notice for land acquisition has been distributed to this area from the government. Apparently most owners have accepted the notice. It only remains for them to accept the actual cheques. We were walking on a strip of land that had been demarcated for the project. This land is green with rice fields. We saw several geese take off in flight, gaggling with pleasure. The sights and sounds of such verdant countryside brings mental peace. Now this is all going to be sacrificed in the pursuit of capital.
The Suzhou chemical hub, located in Central China, where a chemical SEZ has come to be, used to be a green rice field till the 1980’s. Today the farmers there suffer from the pollution of the red, yellow and black poisonous smoke that is belched by the factories in the area. Even taxi drivers are hesitant to take riders into that area.
We arrived at the Bauri village in Patshaora. We met several people through a middle aged farmer. He was quite amusing. He said “Only I will get a job. I will fly the planes!” Everyone broke up in laughter. It seems some land would be given to the farmers to set up shops. But who would visit their smaller shops, when they can go to high end shops in nearby malls? Even the farmer said with sadness – “Who wants to give up land? It is not that fertile. But a poison is spreading through the community. A nameless fear is in everyone’s mind. If an owner refuses to sell and his neighbours do sell, he would no longer be able to access his land. Forget farming. Around 20% of he people who have given the notice have not accept it. But no one can trust another. What if the other’s sell? The landowner will lose all access to the land, and also will not be compensated. This is the rumour that has spread.
How did the mutual understanding among the people, that had been present for generations become corrupted. Again, we recall what had happened in Shalboni (click here for fact-finding report on Salboni SEZ-Birodhi Prachar Mancha). These are the same Babu’s of the party. The first hearings for land acquisition were held in the Khandra village. There, and in the offices from where the cheques are distributed, the leaders of the ruling party are present. And the insidious rumour had started from there. A farmer mournfully told me – “ The land that we love like out mother, who would want to give that to foreign merchants. The larger plots, whose owners do not reside in the area – they are absentee landlords who have established homes in Asansol or Kolkata. Those people earn their living from business from the service industry – it is they who are eager to sell their lands. The villagers of the Patshaora village had yet another tale to relate. By some secret dealings with the land officials, plots of the land have been left out in between when giving out notices. Once the development occurs, land sharks will force the farmers to sell the then surrounded plots at very low prices.
After Patshaora, we went to Tamla. In the first phase, it had been decided to uproot the entire village. Now the government has stepped back from that Draconian decision and had announced that the village land would not be taken over. We first got to know about the organised protests after arriving at Tamla. A committee had been formed by the agricultural labourers and bargadars. Some young men were heading this group. They have created a charter with some powerful demands. They have announced that they would not part with the land even if the authorities pay them Rs 20 lakh per bigha. They have announced that the government must first publish a white paper, which described their plans in detail.
The authorities must first state what is the price they are paying for acquiring the land and at what price why would be selling it. They demand that the state must give them 50% of the money that would be given to the landowners. The agricultural labourers should get an acceptable pension package, and 1000 days of guaranteed agricultural labour work. Thousands of the such workers live in Hazrapara and BauriPara, Adivasi para. The government is toying with their futures. The villagers claim that only 5% of the farmers in the area have accepted the land acquisition notices. The committee said that they were not pressurizing anyone not to accept the notice. The rejection so far had been spontaneous. But everyone is unclear about the status of the bargadars. The whole affair has become very unclear. Many of the the bargadars are not registered, and there are many who falsely claim to be one. In all, the situation is quite complex.
In all, the situation is gearing up for another bloody battle. Before returning, we sat down with a member of the opposition party. He and some others have formed a “Land and Livelihood Protection Committee”. Now both this committee and the above mentioned organisation have come out united in opposition to the project and have jointly declared their charter. But this person was not hopeful about the prospects. He had recently spent time in jail as he was involved in clashes with the locals and the police regarding an issue related to the DVC. A businessman by trade, he had suffered heavy losses because of this. He also mentioned that farmers and labourers were not whole heartedly responding to his call. On the other hand, the woman who is currently the leader of the opposition party in Bengal is also not supporting the movements against land acquisition.
From the results of this survey, and from the review of the socio-economic factors regarding the Asansol-Durgapur region, several questions arise. Firstly, is there a justification and need for such a project? The entire population of the Durgapur-Asansol planning region is around 30 lakhs. A large section of this population are either very poor or marginal people. On the other hand, one could look at the situation in Kolkata, which has a population of nearly 150 lakhs. Even then the Kolkata airport is barely limping along. Several airline companies have either shut down their operations or in the process of doing so, because of the lack of customers. Even otherwise, the airlines industry in general is dependent on the global economic situation, and the viability of individual airports depend on such factors. The worldwide economic collapse has brought the aerotropolis project in Dubai to its knees, like it has done with the economy of Dubai. So when airports near larger cities like Kolkata are facing problems, how can one expect high ridership in airports in places like Andal? It is necessary to understand the economic foundations of the 10,000 crore aerotropolis project. We need to know on what basis the lives of 18000 farmers are being imperiled.
Secondly, it is well known that there is a large amount of coal below the grounds on which the aerotroplis is proposed to be built. At first, when the project plans were made public, Coal India Limited (CIL) objected on the grounds that this project would allow for large sections of the coal rich region to go out of the reach of mining and into private ownership. Later on, the CIL bosses quietened down, and the planners of the aerotroplis project said that they would change the location of their golf course based on the objections raised by CIL. But in this time of energy scarcity, we would like full disclosure on what would happen to this national treasure. We need to know what cargo will be transported out in the airport. This is one of the most mineral resource rich regions in the country, replete with iron ore, copper, mica, bauxite, kayanite, manganese, chromite, etc. Besides, there is also thorium and uranium present in the region (like in Jadugoda). These are radioactive substances in high demand for use in nuclear reactors. There is a great demand in the international market for these things. A question remains on whether these minerals would be exported though the airport.
Besides, a large question remains regarding the pollution associated with such a project. Air transport is 10 times as polluting as road transport, 50 times as rail transport, and 110 times as polluting as water based transport. Much of the air pollution associated with air travel takes place in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. When the region is already suffering from extensive air pollution due to the industrial activities in the region, a question remains on why we should have more of the same.
Besides, there is also the concern of sound pollution near airports. The negative effects of such sound pollution are well documented. European Commission, which is the regulatory body of the EU, believe that people living close to airports suffer from several ailments like coronary disease, stroke, deafness, high blood pressure, etc. The most severely affected people are the children. A survey completed in 1990 showed that children living near the LA airport suffered from high blood pressure. In 1995, a German survey had shown that children living near the airport at Munich were suffering from several nervous and heart related ailments. In a landmark study published in 1995 in the British medical journal The Lancelet, it was found that children living near airports in Britain, Spain and Holland were falling behind in their grades compared to children to lived further away from the airport. With every 5 decibel of sound increase, the gap further increases. Besides, there is also diesel, carbon monoxide, and other chemical pollutants are emitted by airlines, which increase the incidence of cancer, respiratory and liver diseases. This is why the body United Stated Citizens Aviation Watch has protested against the expansion of airports in several places. In the Western world, cities are being removed as far as possible from the airports. The question is why are habitations created next to airports despite these factors. One can imagine that it would be the poor villagers who have nowhere to go who would be living right next to the airport, and they will be the biggest victims of the pollution.
The results of the survey can be summarised in the following points:
A section of the landlords are willing to give up their lands.
Among those who are willing to give up the lands, many do not think the price set by the government for their lands to be fair. They are being forced to do so by the pressure of the landowners who surround their plots.
The labourers and bargadars are very agitated as their livelihoods are at stake.
When food scarcity is rising in the world, why should a large arable area be destroyed?
The people living nearby will not be able to continue to live in the region.
The authorities are quiet about the polluting effects.
There is no guarantee about the jobs that will be offered to the locals.
There is a good chance that the minerals present in the project area will be looted.
The local village culture will be destroyed.
It is illogical to have this development without any sound economic backing or without sufficient supporting infrastructure.
There is a lack of transparency in the land acquisition process.
A new project is being imposed on the people of Andal, which will not improve their lives. On the other hand, it will have great negative effects on the,. The whole project will be happy hunting grounds for the corporates and the capitalists and big financial institutions who will reap huge profits. We need to protest this and stand by the people of Andal in this hour of need.
Previous reports on Aerotropolis on Sanhati:
900 landholders reject land acquisition at Andal Aerotropolis project – Jan 11 2009
Airport Cities, The New Paradigm – Dec 2008