On June 3, 2013, Kerala High Court banned construction of the Aranmula airport for two weeks through an interim order on a petition by the Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council seeking the ban by reclaiming paddy land because this contravenes the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land & Wetland Act. Even the parliamentary standing committee said that the airport be shelved because permission (including the centre's) was given ignoring the rule that two airports within 150 km cannot be built.

In the same first week of March 2013, Gigi George, MD, KGS International Airport said his company had issues with regard to 55 acres of land in the land parcel which was part of the project site. That, he confirmed, now had also been given to them and they were 'nearly ready' to begin construction. Incredibly, it was touted that the airport's operations could begin by 2014. KGS is a Chennai-based company with major interests in real estate especially, infrastructure, paper and engineering. The company had purchased 240 acres of land from a private company, Aranmula Aviation Ltd, to set up the airport with a runway length of 3,100 X 45 m and a terminal to handle 1,000 passengers at a time.

Now (March 2013) he claimed his company had achieved financial closure with a first phase investment of Rs 550,00,00,000. The promoters would invest Rs 275,00,00,000 in the first phase as equity while the rest would be debt-funded through a consortium of banks with State Bank of India as the lead member. If and when KGS Aranmula becomes operational, it will be Kerala's fourth airport after Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. However with claims like the airport complex will have a special economic zone (SEZ), a multi-specialty hospital, shopping mall (either Lulu or Phoenix), a luxury hotel and an international school; it is difficult to believe anything the promoters say to the media, especially and considering the dismal first phase equity investment. For instance in October 2012 George claimed the Malaysian government-owned Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad was looking at taking a stake in the projects. Also, at various times the names of different banks have been mentioned as co-financiers.

Grounded

On June 3, 2013 the Kerala High Court banned all construction of the Aranmula airport project for two weeks issuing an interim order on a petition filed by the Aranmula Heritage Village Action Council patron Kummanam Rajasekharan seeking a ban on the construction of the proposed airport and other constructions, by reclaiming paddy land. According to the petitioner, this contravenes the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act. So, for now it's back to wait and watch.

Construction of the 700 acre (an earlier figure said 500 acres) Rs 2,000 crore airport, near Sabarimala, had also been stayed by the National Green Tribunal southern bench, early in April 2013 but the stay was vacated in quick time. Aranmula has been identified as a heritage village by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for the implementation of the Endogenous Tourism Project. The parliamentary standing committee led by CPM leader Sitaram Yechury has also last month opined that the airport project be shelved pointing out that permission (including the central government's) was granted ignoring the rule that two airports within 150 km cannot be built.

The company (KGS International) had reportedly purchased 240 acres of land from a private company, Aranmula Aviation Ltd, to set up the airport. The proposed airport was expected to cater to the travel needs of Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki and Alappuzha districts, which collectively (perhaps more conveniently) has been identified as the 'influential zone'. It even managed to convince the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group to pick up a 15 per cent stake worth Rs 225 crore in the project in the second half of 2010. At the time of the investment the project's operational date was put as December 2012.

Aranmula Aviation, is a company promoted by a consortium of Keralite organisations in North America and Mount Zion Trust promoted by local businessman Abraham Kalamannil, who holds a 30 per cent stake.

Hare and tortoise

In 2008, the Mount Zion Trust which owned about 300 acres at Aranmula wanted to set up a flying school, but its main ambition was always to build an airport. According to the shareholding pattern, the Chennai-based KGS Developers Limited, Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and the Kadammanitta-based Mount Zion Group would have a 30 per cent stake each in the company. It was repeated often enough then and continued until 2013 that the airport would be of 'great help to Sabarimala (though admittedly popular, it is a time-bound Hindu festival only) pilgrims besides a large number of non-resident Keralites working in different parts of the world'. In fact an airport proposal for Aranmula was first mooted by the Mount Zion Educational and Charitable Trust chaired in 2003, exactly a decade ago. The trust even started preparing a runway by converting the land in its possession at the Aranmula puncha (paddy fields), but was stopped for the next two years when some eco-groups and political organisations protested the conversion of paddy fields. Later, after work began, a two-seater micro light aircraft symbolically landed on the slushy runway on September 2, 2005.

(Next: Kannur International Airport)