10:59 pm - Thursday March 22, 2018

Kerala: Aranmula Emerges a Symbol of Hope  


A place famous for the boat races is now more in news for the agitation against a private airport project. From tourism brochures it has come to carry the image of a radical people’s movement. The years long agitation is gathering steam and the recently launched Satyagraha is now reaching the hundredth day. To protect sylvan nature, a rich heritage, the change of guard in Delhi has given the protestors enormous hope. For it was a pet project of the Sonia regime, state Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy declaring that the project shall be implemented at any cost. This agitation in Aranmula, an ancient temple town, threatened the rich river bank ecosystem, the famous temple itself. It was to become a centre of commercial tourism, when the people said no. The International Airport plan was part of a master plan with malls, star hotel complexes and other facilities. What could kill the delicate ecosystem, erase the small temple town and its rich heritages, what is an integral part of India’s tourism map. Nationally and internationally recognized Aranmula boat pageantry and other unique attributes like a metal mirror, traditional mural painting, and folk dance Kathakali are in the United Nations global heritages list.


As fate would have it the survival threat brought together radically opposing political formations from the state under one umbrella, from Communists to the Bharateeya Janata Party, surprising people. In fact almost all political parties have come together, so also cultural organizations, artists, writers, women’s organizations. Started by the villagers, together with some less known Dalit groups, who opposed the powerful Pentecost Christian lobby behind the project, later the state leadership of Rashtreeya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) took note and joined in full strength. The scale of agitation spread across the state and people started moving in to Aranmula. The region in focus has a huge Christian population and the post-independence days saw the Hindu population marginalized. With large numbers displaced this was allegedly seen as a new device to take over a temple town and its Hindu pocket. And the Pentecost church has a grey track record, with its fabulous sources of funds, they make similar attacks to demoralize native culture and faith. There are also wild allegations, including security threats, why Kummanam Rajasekharan, Coordinating the struggle, called for a thorough investigation, who paid the money, what are their interests and what threat it pauses to India’s western coast. Defense strategists point to bigger conspiracies in the volatile Indian Ocean sector.


A Project of Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of Kerala, it had all the necessary backing of Sonia family and the airport got all mandatory sanctions without any scrutiny. Worse the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, in his address to the Parliament high-lighted this obscure project in remote Kerala. Started by a neo-rich Christian Pentecost man, Abraham Kalamannil, leader of a Christian community political party called Kerala Congress (Joseph ), the initial land acquisitions were in the name of a college. But he illegally filled the paddy field wetlands, razed  down the hills considered sacred by Hindus, also filled a river. Wells dried up, water logging  ensued, alarmed people protested and went with complaints, but the state officials who took action were punished instead. Matters became violent, then the airport lobby with their clout made  the government to declare the temple town an industrial area, also got a new outfit formed, Aranmula International Airport Limited, pulling in some dubious investors. And then, when the state law enforcing agencies failed, people took to enforcement. P. Padmakumar, Mullakkara Ratakaran, Communist leaders did not mince words when they said that we are willing to pay any price to stop the unholy project and stop the nexus behind, what P E B Menon, chief of the RSS in Kerala, endorsed. With big population displacement Kerala could go the Kashmir way as many of them point out.


Kerala is now run by a Congress lead coalition with the Christian and Muslim populations in control. It has come to have a notorious track record and with their international links and capital support, together with the vote bank based political power, the balance of power is tilted, how the Aranmula agitation became a focus of attention. The way they managed to gather all necessary sanctions from various ministries, all illegally, showed an unusual arrogance of power. What threw to the winds the norms of a civil society. With a lion’s share of media in Kerala under minority control the airport plan could initially get public approval. The state with a big NRI population wanted to justify its viability, despite two airports within hundred kilometres on either side, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. It was also a threat to the naval base at Kochi, whose objections were tossed over by A K Antony, then Union Defense Minister. These being prime wet lands that recharge the ailing river Pampa, considered holy in Kerala, also with threat to the ancient temple structure, the predominantly Hindu population did not take things lightly, skirmishes ensued.  Said Sugathakumari, poet activist, Aranmula is a test doze, you cannot fail in this.


The Bharateeya Janata Party has taken a stand that the airport plan shall be summarily dropped and the wetlands and river restored if it comes to power. Why there is jubilation at Aranmula. The Aranmula Airport Project has some bizarre history, lessons of how the state machinery can be perverted at will. When the state agencies found the filling of a river by the Church agency and took action the state government got the entire area declared as Industrial Area. The officers were all punished. When the majority MLAs of the state, seventy two in all, submitted a memorandum against the project, when the Legislative Committee on Environment opposed the project the Oommen Chandy government with its strong church bias took ten percent share in the Company. This was to make the project a public sector initiative. The games were endless, all systems of democracy, first to fourth estate, were manipulated with impunity. At a point some Courts even asked the agitating Karma Samithy to pay compensation for wasting their time.  But the people’s resolve got strengthened day by day and now it is a formidable statewide movement. And all eyes are on the new government in Delhi.

P R J Pradeep 


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