In March 2015 the Times of India reported that plans for an aerotropolis (airport city) in Bhogapuram in the Vizianagaram district, Andhra Pradesh, had been put on the fast track by the government. Energy, investment and infrastructure secretary Ajay Jain spoke of plans to undertake land acquisition, via the land pooling system, of around 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) for the project, which would be divided into three sections: 2,000 hectares for the airport, 2,000 hectares for servicing aircraft i.e. an MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facility and an aviation academy and 2,000 hectares to be given back to the farmers as ‘developed plots’. Engineering consultancy firm RITES had already been appointed to prepare a detailed techno-economic feasibility report. In April 2015 India’s Minister for Civil Aviation, Pusapati Gajapti Raju, said that the Andhra Pradesh government would acquire 6,000 hectares of land for the Bhogapuram Airport project, which would include airfreight facilities.
By early April 2015 opposition to land acquisition for the project in Bhogapuram mandal (administrative district), a predominantly agricultural area, was mounting. Residents from 16 panchayats were gearing up for a major protest and planning to block the National Highway-16 arterial road between Chennai and Kolkata, even though they were informed by police that anyone participating in the roadblock would be arrested. An all-party meeting of villagers also decided to prevent officials from entering their villages. The government planned to acquire land from A Ravivalasa, Gudepuvalasa, Chepalakancheru, Kouluwada, Tudem, Basavapalli, Mujeru, Kongavanipalem, Chakivalasa and part of Bhogapuram village. Senior officials had already tried to enter the village of Chakivalasa but residents had forced them to retreat, chanting ‘don’t want airport’ and ‘go back’ and demanding improvements to vital amenities including water, housing and roads. Villagers, dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, accused the district administration of keeping them in the dark about the detail of the airport plans, including how much land would be taken from each of the villages. They were concerned that they may be forced to give up their land. Karottu Satyam, president of the Bhogapuram mandal (administrative district) told reporters that “The government is literally pushing us onto the roads”.
Road block protest
Villagers defied the arrest threat and a major demonstration took place. The Times of India reported that nearly 3,000 farmers, fishermen, daily wage labourers and activists attended the road-block protest on 10th April 2015, blocking traffic on the National Highway-16 for nearly half-an hour to voice their opposition to the airport plans. Displaying banners urging the government to stop land acquisition immediately and demanding a bus stand for the district, they were met with a deployment of about 700 police who ordered them to vacate the area. Protestors also staged a two-hour demonstration in front of the tehsildar’s office, urging the government not to snatch away farmers’ livelihoods by taking away their land for the airport project.
Attada Acchennaidu, a farmer from Narupeta village said: “If the government acquires my one-acre plot, my family will have nothing to survive on. We need basic facilities, not airports. This is not land pooling, it is land grabbing. The government should rethink its decision as there are many marginal farmers in the mandal. Instead of planning an airport, the government must think of building a fishing harbour for fishermen”.
A number of politicians and other commentators alleged that the airport plan was a ‘real estate racket’ aiming to push people off their land to serve the interests of a few businessmen. YSRCP (Congress Party) leader Sridevi said the state government plan would only benefit realtors while TDP (Telugu Desam Party) representative Karottu Bangarraju said that land acquisition of 6,000 hectares would mean the entire mandal would vanish, arguing that if an airport was inevitable the land area should be reduced to between 800 and 1,200 hectares.
Land area for ‘aerocity’ reduced
By May 2015 the government appeared to have decided to reduce the extent of land acquisition for the greenfield airport (on an undeveloped site) MRO facility and ‘aerocity’ from 6,000 hectares to 2,428 hectares. The district collector said the required land was an area spread over six villages and necessitating rehabilitation of residents of 19 settlements who would be displaced. The state government warned farmers that if they did not accept the land-pooling process their land would be taken over by invoking the Land Acquisition Act. The Business Standard reported that Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababau Naidu, was willing to reduce the land area to avoid conflict with local people. The state government had already issued a draft aviation policy to develop the airport under the public private partnership (PPP) model and offered to provide various financial incentives including viability gap funding in an attempt to attract private investment.
In June 2015 the government announced that 2,039 hectares of land would be acquired for the airport, 1,567 hectares of this area being privately owned by farmers in eight villages. The government stated it would acquire land in Kancheru and Kavulavada villages for displaced families and consider providing alternative housing sites in Bhogapuram and Pusapatirega. A total of 10,241 people from 2,593 households in 20 settlements would be displaced. On 23rd June it the Airports Authority of India (AAI) approved the airport plan on the basis of the technical feasibility report. About 150 small and marginal farmers from Munjera and Chakivalasa staged a protest against the decisions at the Collector’s Office. Two farmers’ representatives said that the government had included their land in the plans in order to save influential people from losing their land which was originally identified in the plan. They said “We are ready to sacrifice our lives but will not allow officials to acquire lands for the airport”.
On 5th July 2015 it was reported that a farmer had attempted suicide to voice his protest against the airport plans. V Ramu from Appannapeta village had allegedly poured kerosene on his head and attempting to immolate himself, his death being narrowly averted by other protestors who snatched a match away from his hand. The attempted suicide occurred at a gathering of more than 300 farmers owning small parcels of land in front of the tehsildar’s office, who protested against the airport project, slamming the state government for taking their land and handing it over to foreign companies for development of the project. They said the government was working for the benefit of corporate interests instead of local people and demanded withdrawal of the proposals which would cause irrevocable damage to their lives and livelihoods. Farmers also expressed disgruntlement at the ‘paltry amount of compensation’ on offer for their lands as well as livestock. A group of protesters prevented a survey team from entering their village.
Andhra Pradesh Minister of Human Resources Development, Ganta Srinivasa Rao, asserted that the government had decided to go ahead with the decision to construct the airport in spite of local resistance. He made assurances that the government would offer the best possible compensation package for farmers whose lands would be acquired and that no land would be forcibly acquired. He said the government aimed to complete the project in record time. Protesters opposing the airport blocked the convoy of two officials returning from a review meeting about the airport project, saying that the government was neglecting farmers’ woes who had been agitating for several days and warning that they would not give up their land. Members of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPI-M) supported protesters gathered outside the Circuit House who said the airport would be of no use to locals in terms of employment or earnings. YSRC party leader Suryanarayana Reddy said that the government, having reduced the site from 6,000 hectares to 1,214 hectares following severe protest from farmers, was now set at 2,044 hectares, meaning that "the villages of Manjeru, Kancheru, Kemuduvada, Ravada, Ravivalasa, Kongavanipalem and Gudepuvalasa would completely disappear”.
High tensions and hunger strikes
7th September 2015 saw another major protest against the airport. Farmers from 12 villages gathered outside the Bhogapuram tehsildar’s office to demand the government scrap land acquisition. An organisation opposing the airport: Bhogapuram Vyathirekha Porata Committee had been formed and leaders from the YSRCP, CPI and CPI-M joined the protest. A total of 862 petitions opposing the airport and seeking withdrawal of the government order for land acquisition were submitted. Two weeks later it was reported that anti-airport protests were being led by groups of villagers particularly women, who were undertaking relay hunger strikes. A banner erected in Gudepuvalasa declared: ‘Build the airport on our tombs’. A woman owning half-an-acre of land in Gudepuvalasa said: “we have lost our peace of mind since the notification was published…The government is reducing farmers to paupers. Though we have been agitating for the past fortnight, no official has come to enquire about our problems.” There was another allegation that land owned by powerful individuals was being excluded from the airport; a farmer said: “A resort belonging to the ruling party was excluded from the [airport] plan purview but 50 cents of my land abutting it was included in the plan.”
A survey of the lands assigned for the project began on 1st October 2015, under heavy police security. A team headed by RITES and accompanied by tehsildar D Lakshma Reddy was protected by 300 police. The high level of security was arranged in the wake of villagers stating that they would not allow officials to enter their villages and the suicide of a Gudepuvalasa farmer, 31-year old Peda Krishna Murty. Heavy police security for the survey continued on 2nd October, when survey stones were placed to demarcate land and high tensions prevailed in Tudem and neighbouring villages. Police conducted vehicle checks and arrested a dozen residents of Ravada village when they tried to obstruct RITES representatives returning from placing survey stones in Tudem village. On learning of the arrests about 300 villagers went to Bhogpaurm police station to demand their release.
At the beginning of November 2015 another attempt to resume the land survey for the airport was thwarted. A group of farmers, including women, who blocked the path of a revenue official’s vehicle on his way to assist the RITES team. A farmers squatted on the road refusing to allow the vehicle through in site of the presence of a posse of police officers. On 9th December it was reported that the land survey, protected by a police escort, was proceeding despite stiff opposition, with tensions between police and farmers and a ‘confrontational mood’ in Gudepuvalasa which was described as the ‘nucleus village’ for the airport project. Four farmers were taken into custody for hindering the land survey, after they confronted the RITES team and argued that they would not allow survey of their lands until the courts disposed of their writ plea. In response to the arrests a large number of women staged a protest for over an hour.
Court victory for farmers
25th January 2016 marked a court victory for farmers resisting acquisition of their land for Bhogapuram Airport. Hyderabad High Court directed the Andhra Pradesh state not to take land away from the farmers. Justice Vilas V Afzalpurkar, hearing scores of petitions filed by aggrieved farmers challenging the state’s land acquisition agenda, said: “Do not dispossess them until further orders”. The ruling was made amid allegations that several ministers in the state government had committed fraud in the land acquisition process. A senior counsel for the farmers told the court that authorities made several undue modifications to remove land parcels belonging from ministers and real estate firms from the process. Another senior counsel, C V Mohan Reddy, said that the state had flouted mandatory processes under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, whereby notice must be published in either the state or central gazette. He said that notification was published in the district gazette, which is unlawful. Reddy also charged the state with failing to furnish affected farmers with the required documents. Another counsel for the farmers, Allu Jogi Naidu, said that the original land acquisition plan, in the form of a square, had morphed into an octopus-like shape that would adversely affect poor farmers. At the beginning of February reports emerged that land surveys for the airport were still taking place in defiance of the High Court stay order. District secretaries of CPI and CPI-M pledged their support and said they would tour villages in the proposed airport area.
In July 2016 The Hindu reported that the government had agreed to reduce the land area to 809 hectares. Half of this area had been acquired but getting the other half had ‘turned into a nightmare for local officials’. Revenue officials and survey teams were making repeated visits to villages and meeting with farmers but the responses were predominantly negative with people ‘bluntly rejecting’ the land acquisition packages offered. With land rates skyrocketing the amount offered per acre was insufficient for farmers to purchase land elsewhere. One villager, K Appala Naidu, said: “Who wants money and so called packages when entire life gets disturbed with displacement? The resistance will continue even if the Government enhances the price to take lands from us.”
Heavy-handed policing at public hearing
Tensions prevailed during a public hearing on construction of the airport held in Bhogapuram on 11th January 2017, in the presence of pollution control board and AAI staff. The Hans India reported repression in Bhogapuram and surrounding villages, with police allegedly ‘arresting every opposing voice’ and imposing a ‘Curfew like situation’. The government had acquired most of the 826 hectares of land required for the project but acquisition of the remaining 121 hectares was stalled due to opposition from villagers demanding higher compensation. Leaders of opposition parties, whom authorities thought would provoke public protest against the project, were arrested taken into preventive custody. People attending the hearing complained of high-handed behaviour by the police and said that only selected people who were known to support the project were given permission to speak.
In January 2018 the State Cabinet announced that the new airport would be developed under the PPP mode. An official press release about the Bhogapuram Aerotropolis project stated: “Across 2,073 acres, the scope of Bhogapuram airport will be expanded from a mere airport to an integrated airport with Aerocity, maintenance, report and overhaul (MRO), Aviation Academy etc.” Principal Secretary (Energy, Infrastructure and Investment) Ajay Jain said that this expansion of the scope of the project was the only reason that the Andhra Pradesh government had cancelled the tender process in which AAI had emerged as the winner. Besides AAI, GMR Group was only other contender for the airport project. Ajay Jain spoke of the expanded scope of the Bhogapuram airport project in March 2018 when a new RFP (request for proposal) was being prepared, referring to the project as an “aerotropolis” and saying: “The State government is keen to develop an integrated airport so that a larger ecosystem gets created for the growth of the aviation sector in the State.” At this juncture 1,012 hectares of land were earmarked for the project with an additional 81 hectares added to meet the requirements of the RFP.
Kancheru villagers awarded higher compensation
In November 2018 a group of Kancheru villagers whose land had been acquired for Bhogapuram Airport achieved a court victory in their campaign for higher compensation. After hearing a petition filed by 91 villagers the Hyderabad High Court directed the state government to pay each of the petitioners Rs28 lakh per acre (USD15,700 per hectare) compensation within six weeks, making it clear that the acquired land should not be used for the airport project until the compensation was paid. Justice MS Ramachandra Rao said that the action of the authorities in paying the villagers less than half this amount for acquiring their lands was illegal and arbitrary as it violated Act 30 of the 2013 Land Acquisition Act. Furthermore, he noted, authorities had defrauded the petitioners by obtaining consent forms by misrepresentation and denying them their legal entitlement to compensation. The increased compensation rate meant that the group of small farmers were paid the same rate as regular farmers.
Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababau Naidu, laid the foundation stone for Bhogapuram Airport in Dibbalapalem village on 14th February 2019, vowing to complete the project within three years. About 1,122 hectares of land had been acquired in Dibbalapalem and adjacent villages. The airport had received clearance from the Civil Aviation, Environment and Forests and Defence departments and the tender process had begun. GMR Airports Limited (GAL), a subsidiary of GMR Infrastructure Ltd, emerged as the highest bidder for Bhogapuram Airport and was awarded the tender for design, financing, construction, development, upgrade, operation and maintenance of the airport for 40 years. A sign erected at the Bhogapuram Airport site lists ‘salient features of the project’: Runway, Commercial Aircraft Apron, ATC & Technical Building, Cargo Building, Sewage Treatment Plant, Main Approach Road from NH-16, Commercial Approach Road, Commercial Development Area, Solar Panels Area, Aviation Academy and MRO Facility.