Even as the Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL) picked up the United Nations Champions of the Earth award in the ‘entrepreneurial vision’ category, for being the world’s first fully solar-powered airport, back home in Kochi, Kerala, people have been protesting the diversion of the Chengal creek to build the airport, which resulted in large-scale destruction of houses and crops during the recent floods. At CIAL’s 24th annual general body meeting, many shareholders stood in queue to lambast the board of directors for not having a solution in place to prevent flooding of the airport and its surrounding areas when the river Periyar overflows. As the state government holds 32 per cent of the shares, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan was also present as chairman of the board and took much flak.
CIAL sits on the natural waterway of the Chengal creek, a tributary of the Periyar. Sammad P.I., vice-chairman of the Chengalthodu Samrakshana Samithi, says the creek, a 4.5-km stretch of which once flowed through the place where the airport came up, has been diverted and its natural course blocked by 12-ft-high walls. On the dry bed of the creek stand the solar panels, which brought the airport international acclaim and the UN award.
From the time the airport was commissioned in 2000 up to 2013, the shutters of the dams were not opened and there was no flooding. In the first week of August 2013, the shutters of Idamalyar dam were opened, flooding the airport and adjacent areas in four panchayats and the Angamali municipality. The airport was closed for two days. The repeat in 2018 was much worse, when the shutters of eight big dams on the Periyar and several smaller dams were opened at once.
The Chengal creek, which had all but disappeared under the solar panels, reclaimed its natural way. Initially blocked by the airport walls, the creek started flooding the surrounding areas, and then broke down the wall on one side of the airport. The waters rushed to the other side, destroying crops and houses in its path. The airport had to be closed for nearly two weeks and incurred a loss estimated at Rs 336 crore.
Local residents had to be evacuated to relief camps for several weeks. The damage to houses and crops is yet to be assessed in detail, but locals complain the CIAL has not bothered about the problems it caused them, neither in 2013 nor this time. In protest, they even refused to accept some bundles of bedsheets the CIAL sent to the camps.
“The conflict between the people and the airport goes back two decades,” says Sammad. “The people have been betrayed time and again. At the time of construction, the government held 51 per cent of the shares and acquired 1,800 acres of our fertile paddy land at dirt cheap prices. The airport is spread over 1,300 acres. We also had to cut down trees in the direct line of the runway. They have not bothered to address our grievances or compensate us after the floods.”
George Menachery, a shareholder who criticised the company at the general body meeting, says, “In 2013, NIT-Kozhikode was appointed to do a study, but nothing came of it. Now a Dutch team is believed to be here to find a solution. With climate change and quirky weather patterns, flooding will be more common, so what is the airport planning to do?”
CIAL managing director V.J. Kurian said at the meeting that the Dutch team’s report would be out by October 15, and that they are considering diversion of the water to the Manjali creek nearby. But Manjali creek too had overflowed copiously during the floods, destroying everything in its path. “When they block one side, the water level is bound to rise in another area,” says Sebastian V.V., ward member of a local panchayat. CIAL, hailed as an environmental change-maker, remaINS clueless what to do when the flood comes next.
- The Cochin International Airport sits on the natural waterway of the Chengal creek, a tributary of the Periyar.
- In August 2013, when the shutters of the Idamalyar dam were opened, the airport and surrounding areas were flooded.
- Chengal creek, which had all but disappeared under the solar panels, violently reclaimed its natural way during the floods this year.
By Minu Ittyipe in Kochi