The picturesque road to Parandur village is absolutely quiet but for the chirping and buzzing of winged creatures and the sound of some moving vehicles. While the long winding road offers spectacular views of greenery and paddy fields, the presence of policemen, beginning midway, brings in the element of curiosity. Barricades, some looking like iron walls with barbed wires could really turn heads.
Right on the roadside, farmers are busy dumping paddy, which has some moisture, to dry. Glittering like sand dunes under a bright sun, cleaned and dried paddy is ready one side for loading onto waiting trucks while cows and buffaloes march towards the grassland. Traders could be seen negotiating with farmers the price factor near a local seed bank. On a side of the road, police checkposts dot the landscape.
Unknown to the outside world till recent times, Parandur grabbed headlines first in August after the government said that the place is its choice for a greenfield airport. Fearing displacement and loss of sustainable livelihood options, farmers are resentful over the proposed land acquisition to make way for the airport. Giving vent to their emotions, farmers started protesting against the move and have been holding demonstrations.
The government, which has proposed a Rs 20,000 crore airport has held talks twice with them and has said that experts would study the area's geological features. Nestled between Kancheepuram and Arakkonam and tucked away from the busy Chennai-Bengaluru highway, the quaint small Parandur and its environs are striking for its eye-catching water bodies.
Ponds, lakes and canals criss-cross the region and an inspiring lineup of towering trees, forming the middle portion of a sprawling lake, offers a breathtaking view in Nelvoy village. Farmers say that they are not inclined to part with their land for the airport project. "Even if I die, I will not part with even a handful of sand from my land," says elderly Venu, a resident of Eakanapuram village, the epicentre of protests.
Assisting in the work of separation of chaff from grain, he invites people to 'our everyday' protest in the village. It was the 150th day of protest on December 23 at Ekanapuram.
In Nelvoy, Guna, a farmer wonders why the government has not chosen barren land elsewhere for the airport project. "We have lived here for generations. We survived without any outside support even during the pandemic times. Farming and cattle rearing are pretty close to our hearts. Choose some other place for the project please," he appeals to the government.
In 13 villages, an extent of 4,563.56 acre is proposed to be acquired for the project which includes 3,246.38 acres of private patta land and 1,317.18 acre government owned 'poromboke' land (a chunk of it, about 955 acre are water bodies according to people). At least 1,005 families, most of whom are Most Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, are likely to be displaced.
Parandur resident Rajesh says,"you can get water here within 10 feet and there are 7 lakes and 7 ponds in and around our village alone. This is a suitable place only for agriculture and allied work. We have so far not been officially informed about the extent of land the authorities propose to acquire here."
He says people of his village have put protests temporarily on hold in view of pressing farming work.
People like Kumaran, a septuagenarian, say that it would be prudent to 'move on,' so that the future generations do not have to toil on the fields. "From my boyhood, nothing has changed here. Let there be an airport. It will bring prosperity to the entire Kanchipuram district," says a smiling Manickam, who is in his 40s.
K Balaraman, Parandur Panchayat President and ruling DMK office-bearer, though toed the official line on the project, a family member advised him against talking to journalists and sleuths were informed, one of whom promptly arrived in plain clothes.
"I am getting threats. They (family members) are worried," the panchayat chief, sitting on the verandah of his house in Nagapattu village, a part of Parandur panchayat, told PTI.
A family member underscored that journalists should get prior 'permission' from authorities. Policemen in plain clothes could be spotted at several places in the region. A police official, explaining the police presence in the area, said that farmers are welcome to convey their opinion or grievances to anyone. "At the same time, we do not want anti-social elements to infiltrate and hijack the protest demonstrations. The government has repeatedly assured that farmers' interests will be protected. Their grievances are heard and being addressed."
The government has offered 3.5 times over and above the market value of land as compensation, assured job opportunities, alternative land, assistance and proper resettlement. "Oru kodi appu" which may be roughly translated as 'one crore son,'a popular comical one-liner from a Tamil flick is doing the rounds in villages.
According to people's back-of-the-envelope calculation, the government has offered 'one crore compensation per acre,' which is thrice the market value. The compensation, however, does not attract everyone and even committed supporters and workers of the ruling party could be found opposing land acquisition.
"These are stressful times. We built this house recently. We pledged jewellery and bought this tractor and other farm equipment. Our family worked hard for the DMK's victory. Now, the government is keen on taking away our land and uproot us from our home," says an elderly woman on condition of anonymity.
Her family members are office-bearers in the ruling party. "There is no question of even discussing anything about compensation. We don't want money. Allow us to peacefully live in our soil," she says.
While Balaraman says people are positive about the project, his view does not appear to have resonance among a cross-section of people. Protests, led by women, have surfaced in Nagapattu as well, the native village of the panchayat chief. Nagapattu and Kattupattur are among the constituent villages of Parandur panchayat. "Did the chief say that we are willing to go away? a young man demanded to know angrily.
In Kanchipuram taluk, Valathur, Parandur, Nelvoy, Thandalam, Podavur and Madappuram are the villages where land acquisition is proposed.
Strangely enough, villagers say they have not even heard about Madappuram village. "People seem to have lived there long ago. Now only the land is available and not people," they say.
In Sriperumbudur taluk, Edayarpakam, Gunakarambakkam, Mahadevi Mangalam, Ekanapuram, Akkamapuram, Singilipadi are the villages that face land acquisition, according to local people.
A 'map' showing wet and dry lands, complete with proposed land acquisition in specific areas could be found with people. However, it could not be immediately ascertained if it is official or not. The opposition to the project is intense in Ekanapuram where residential colonies along with farm lands are proposed to be acquired.
People say that the government is proposing '100 acre' for resettlement purposes and 120 acre for approach roads. This is exclusive of 4,563.56 acre for the main project component.
At Ekanapuram, a painting of the ruling DMK's flag on the compound wall of party loyalist Ravichandran's house has not faded. "Please mention my name. People like me feel completely let down. I have endured untold suffering to construct this house. It is not made of bricks, but of my sweat and blood," he says as he walks away to take part in the brief, daily 'night' protest.People, after finishing their work, promptly converge at 8 PM everyday to hold a protest. Huddling in front of a temple in the village, children hold candles while men, women and young people wave black flags and raise slogans. Venu and 82-year old Krishnamoorthy, say that the 'sense of belonging' is their driving force that helps them overcome age-related challenges to take part in the protest.
Subramanian, a key leader of the Struggle Committee addresses the people, asking them to not lose hope. "Don't be disheartened. We will continue our peaceful protest till such time the government announces that they will not touch our land or homes," he says.
Elsewhere in Nelvoy, in pitch-dark, vehicles honk while slowly crossing a little bridge overflowing with water. A tired shepherd girl with a small torchlight on her hand asks whether or not the endless movement of trucks to her village, Nelvoy would end. "Goats are scared," she says.