Chennai’s new airport: On-ground realities differ from what’s on paper

There are many inconsistencies in the various documents and reports prepared to facilitate the greenfield airport project in Parandur.

It’s close to 700 days since residents of Parandur and surrounding villages started their protest against the government’s decision to establish a new greenfield airport at a site in that area in the outskirts of Chennai. People living there allege that authorities did not consult them or listen to their grievances before proceeding with the project. 

Just after the Lok Sabha elections, the government sent a notification announcing land acquisition for the proposed airport. Recent news reports indicate that some villagers have decided to relocate to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, as their livelihoods are threatened.

The impact on the lives and livelihoods of residents, who mostly own farmland in and around Parandur is not the only issue of concern. There is much ambiguity about permissions and clearances required for building an airport at Parandur, which falls in an eco-sensitive zone.

In part two of a three-part series on the upcoming greenfield airport, we examine the problems associated with choosing Parandur as the location for the proposed airport and how there is a mismatch between government documents on clearances and the reality on the ground.  

Deciding on the airport’s location

parandur airport
Potential project locations based on PFR. Source: Justification Report submitted for the EC.

But first, how was the site chosen? After Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO), the nodal agency for execution of the project conducted the initial pre-feasibility studies, it zeroed in on four potential project locations — Parandur in Kancheepuram district; Pannur in Tiruvallur district; and Thiruporur and Padalam in Chengalpattu district. 

Read more: Taking flight: Does Chennai need a second airport and at what cost?

Later, Parandur was selected as the project site. There are 20 villages within the proposed site — these include 11 villages (Parandur-A, Parandur-B, Thandalam, Podavur, Thodur, Nelvoy, Valathur, Madapuram, Sekkangulam, Athuputhur and Kuthirambakkam) in Kancheepuram taluk and nine villages (Siruvallur, Karai, Akkamapuram, Edayarpakkam, Ekanapuram, Gungarambakkam, Mahadevimangalam, Singlibadi and Maduramangalam) in Sriperumbudur taluk of Kancheepuram district.

land use map
The land use map as shown in the revenue records.

If the project goes ahead as planned, 1005 families will be evicted and resettled in another location. As many as 36,635 trees will be felled. Moreover, the airport development will affect the water bodies spread over 1425.15 acres (576.74 hectares), which make up about 26% of the proposed project site.

How the agitation began

As news of the proposed greenfield airport reached residents of Parandur and surrounding villages, those who would be affected began their agitation. When this reporter visited the location on May 13, 2024, a board displayed that it was the 658th day of protest, accompanied by a slogan, “We need farming, not an airport.”

“We will protest to the fullest extent possible. We, as inhabitants of this place, have dedicated immense effort across generations to transform this area into highly fertile land, nurturing nature and sustaining livelihoods,” says Subramaniyan, a resident of Ekanapuram, and one of the villagers who has taken a lead in the protests.  

Here in Ekanapuram and its surrounding areas, vast agricultural lands are abundant, suitable for farming for at least two seasons annually, and potentially three seasons depending on rainfall. The lakes in this region help in irrigation, as they consistently retain water. The main crops grown here include paddy and sesame. Additionally, migratory birds frequent the area during specific seasons. The proposed project site encompasses nearly ten lakes and two water canals, all of which will be impacted by this project.

“The government should notify these areas as ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ),” adds Subramaniyan.

New airport: Lack of transparency

As per the policies governing the setting up of a greenfield airport, a new airport cannot be built within a 150-km radius of an existing airport, other than in exceptional cases. But, the proposed Chennai Greenfield Airport is 70 km away from the existing airport in the city. Moreover, Tamil Nadu, already has international airports in Chennai, Coimbatore, Trichy and Madurai. Do we need another one?  

“First of all, there is no transparency in this project from the government side. Initial reports mentioned that the government plans to acquire 4,700 acres for the project, but the latest Environment Clearance (EC) application puts this figure at 5,369 acres. Also, there was lot of misinformation regarding the selection of Parandur as the project site,” says Vetriselvan, environmental activist at Poovulagin Nanbargal, who has been working closely with the aggrieved villagers.

The Environment (Protection) Act makes Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) statutory for all such projects. In addition, the authorities have to conduct a public hearing and only then apply for environmental clearance.

Read more: When seconds matter: All about medical emergency services at Chennai Airport

“Any government is supposed to do a study of the location and feasibility of a project, much before announcing it to the public. But in this case, the TN government has gone ahead even before getting clearance from the Airport Authority of India (AAI). Steps were taken such as appointing special officers for the land acquisition. Although a high-level committee comprising Indian Institute of Technology Madras and Anna University professors was working on a report on the environmental impact of the project, as of now the report has not been made public, nor the recommendations implemented,” Vetriselvan adds.

Discrepancies in documents vis-a-vis what’s on the ground

parandur airport
Land use map based on drone survey of the site. Source: PFR.
  • The initial government order (GO) mentioned that there are 1005 families in the Parandur site and 1,546 families in Pannur. This is one of the reasons for selecting Parandur for the new airport project. However, the Pre-Feasibility Report for the EC application in February 2024 says there are only 250 families in Pannur. Interestingly, for the second EC, two Pre-Feasibility studies dated March 14, 2024 and April 26, 2024 put the number of families in Pannur at 250 and 1,546 respectively.
  • The nodal agency has not clarified the source of this information. Are the numbers taken from the 2011 Census data or based on ration card holders data? Or was a survey carried out on the ground?
  • There are inconsistencies in the proposed land acquisition. The GO published on October 31 last year stated 5,746.18 acres, while previously it was 4,700 acres. In the EC application, it is listed as 5,369 acres. Villagers couldn’t ascertain whether their property was included in the project or not.
  • A map included in the latest Pre-Feasibility Report relies on a drone survey. Here, areas which are identified as water bodies in revenue maps are marked as dry land. There is no information on when the survey was done. If it occurred between February and April this year, it is likely the water bodies were dry as these are the hottest months of the year. Also, the percentage of land use based on revenue records was not the same as on this map.

What the officials are saying

While officials we contacted were tight-lipped about the project, this is what one TIDCO official said on condition of anonymity:

“Currently, three processes are underway, namely for environment clearance, AAI clearance and land acquisition. Mostly, AAI might give the go-ahead by July 2024. Louis Berger, the consultant for the DTER has not yet completed the process. Because of minor changes, we re-applied for EC. We are yet to start land acquisition for the project.”

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