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Tamilnadu News

Agricultural land acquisition plans for partially-operational Salem airport expansion leave farmers ruffled

Vidyashree Dharmaraj


Farmers and activists are seeing red over acquisition of agricultural lands for expansion of Salem airport. Civil Aviation ministry and AAI may go ahead with acquiring 565 acres of agricultural lands to expand existing the partially operating Salem facility to handle bigger aircraft , to improve connectivity of this western TN row.

Development and development for whom? This question is once again gaining centre stage with government trying to acquire over 500 acres of agricultural land for Salem airport for its expansion to facilitate more connectivity of this western Tamil Nadu town with other cities in South India.

While activists and farmers, who are bound to lose their land to acquisition and their livelihood as well, flay the acquisition of agricultural land, industry and business chamber officials said that this land was vital for development of airport and improve connectivity.

Activist Piyush Manush, in a recent social media post, pointed out that the previous land acquisition for airport in 1987 proved to be a failure as the airport was unviable. Though the airport began functioning in the first phase in 1993, it is only partially operational now for use by some private companies. Nearly for 16 long years the airport remained operational only for private steel and mining companies.

The civil aviation ministry and Airports Authority of India (AAI) should consider acquiring land from the Salem Steel Plant, which has 3300 acres close to the airport or from the Tamil Nadu Magnesite Corporation, which has its own vast expanse of land (12000 acres), said activist Piyush Manush.

This argument is proffered by many farmers too.

“How can the civil aviation ministry’s decision to acquire agricultural land, for airport that too after failing be justified,” he questioned. And this with tax payers’ money, he said.

With the first phase failing, the Ministry should refrain from acquiring agricultural land for yet another experiment with the tax payers money. He also alleged that the existing airport is only being used by the private quarry giants and steel companies including Kemplast, Jindal Steel Works , Triveni Minings and occasionally by the Steel Ministry.

M Shivakumar, farmer who owns seven acres of land at VS Thottam near Mariamman Koil in Salem stands to lose all his land to airport. He told Covai Post that his land has already been identified for acquisition. “My family has been cultivating sugarcane, paddy, turmeric for generations. If I am kicked out from here, it will take me and my family 40 years to get to where I am today,” he told Covai Post pleading with us to tell the government not to take his land away.

But the chambers have a different story to tell.

According to the President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Salem, K Mariappan, earlier 135 acres was acquired in 1987 but all this land was donated to the Government of India by the public and industrialists at a cost of Rs 90 lakh. He said owners of these lands had been compensated.

Now the government proposes to acquire 565 acres as a special team of civil aviation ministry identified lands suitable for airport. The existing airport was categorised to the “serving category” by the Ministry of Civil Aviation only last month, he said and added the land was required to expand runway from 6,000 ft to 8,000 ft so as to accommodate a Boeing aircraft; to use 100 acres for Warehouse and to provide hanger service which will enable maintenance of aircraft.

Mr Mariappan also added that the Revenue authorities have agreed to compensate four times of the guideline value to those from whom the land is acquired, “so the farmers should not have a problem.”

Salem steel plant land has high tension power lines that make it unfit for flying operations, Mariappan said and added the land belonging to TN Magnesite Corporation is under long lease for mining with Dalmia Magnesite Corporation and hence cannot be touched.

The Salem airport has had a chequered past.

After it became operational in 1993, NEPC operated the first small flight Salem- Chennai for Rs 900 one way but later hiked tariff to Rs 1,300 one way. And even this was found to be unviable and were forced to run it to maintain their license. Soon, the service was discontinued and until 2009 the airport was used only by aircraft belonging to private companies.

Other than this, the airport had an Aviation Academy running for about four years in late 1990s. It was then that civil aviation minister Praful Patel organised a meeting with Kingfisher Chairman Vijay Mallya to start a ATR 72 seater was introduced on a Salem Chennai route for Rs 2100 one way. It was shut down due to poor response, as passengers found it of no use due to its timings. It took off from Salem at 3.20 pm and landed in Chennai at 4.10 p.m.

Air Odissia has proposed to commence from February 2018 in Salem with the flight schedule- Chennai- Puducherry- Salem- Bengaluru- Salem- Pududherry- Chennai. But civil aviation experts feel that this was also bound to fail as it takes over four hours for someone to reach Chennai from Salem by air. And it took nearly the same time if one went by road and a little more if they took a roadways bus.

Salem, though, is happy about the operation of flights by Turbo Mega Airlines Private Ltd (assured operation by December 31, 2017) with a flight schedule – Vijayawada, Kadappah, Chennai- Salem- Chennai- Mysore- Kadappah- Vijayawada – which takes about 50 minutes one way for the passengers to reach Chennai and back.

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