Ten years ago, when officials arrived at his doorstep during the initial phase of land acquisition for the building of the Kannur International Airport, Prasad didn’t have an open mind. He was opposed to his large joint family giving up their one-acre land, filled with cashew trees, at Moorkhanparambu, a hilly plateau infested with snakes. Somehow, in the back of his mind, he knew the place would be worth lakhs one day.
Along with some villagers, Prasad says he put up protests against land acquisition, but they failed to create any momentum. In the end, as he saw his neighbours give up their land in return for a compensation that was considered handsome at that point of time, Prasad’s family acceded too for the price of Rs 50,000 a cent.
“When everyone was giving up their land, how can we stand alone? Also, my family has lots of members, so there were many voices. Our ancestral house also went along with it. With the share my mother got, we bought a small house at Mattanur,” says Prasad, who drives a pick-up Jeep in the town.
Prasad, who’s in his 30s, is among those in Mattanur who are pleased their hometown has become synonymous with one of Kerala’s biggest airport projects. But that’s about it. He doesn’t see the airport dramatically changing his fortunes, or for that matter, even the lives of the rest of the town’s residents.
“Airport perinu mathram, namukku onnum illa, (we won’t get much from this),” he grumbles.
The Kannur International Airport, the fourth in Kerala, is set for a formal inauguration on December 9 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Union Minister for Civil Aviation Suresh Prabhu. The airport is located 30 km from the main town of Kannur and 3 km from Mattanur town, which also happens to be the closest urban settlement to the airport.
Ahead of the grand inauguration on Sunday, the town wore a festive look, with a long line of Chinese lights on both ends of the road leading to the airport. A green protocol is also in place for the inauguration ceremony, with zero plastic usage.
The airport, which has come up on 2000 acres of mostly hilly terrain, is the culmination of government and bureaucratic efforts stretching back to the mid-90s. With the nearest airport two hours away at Karippur in Kozhikode district, there was a lot of clamour for another airport in the Malabar region of the state that could better serve the large emigrant Malayali population that works in the Gulf countries.
The northernmost Kasaragod and Kannur districts account for thousands of Malayalis working in countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. For these people, a trip back home would be an easier deal after December 9. By conservative estimates, the airport would serve a million passengers annually, with the number expected to increase five-fold by 2025.
‘It was like winning a lottery’
There’s no doubt that a large number of families living in Mattanur and Kara Peravoor areas close to the airport project have benefited financially by giving up their land. It’s a different matter altogether whether they relinquished their property willingly.
“It was like winning a lottery. Suddenly they were flooded with so much money they had never seen before. They didn’t know what to do with it,” says Babu, who drives a truck, popularly known as ‘tipper’ in these parts of the state.
“Around us, we have seen people doing well, as well as those who got ruined with such money,” he says.
In fact, Prasad says his brother-in-law is a classic case of someone who couldn’t handle the ‘rush’ of the money.
“After he got the money, he would call an Autorickshaw to go to Mattanur every day. A rickshaw ride costs Rs 30 whereas a bus ride costs Rs 7. Every day, he would hire a rickshaw to go to the liquor shop. He would make the rickshaw wait outside as he drank inside. And then he would go to the restaurants, buy food everyday and then go home in the same rickshaw. This became his lifestyle. It was insane,” he said.
“But thankfully, his children did well. His daughter got a job at the airport, while his son is in the Navy,” added Prasad.
‘We need wider, traffic-free roads’
A common grouse heard across the town of Mattanur was about the state of the Thalassery-Valavupara road that cuts through Mattanur town before it passes in front of the airport. Residents say the 15-m wide road is simply too narrow and cannot handle the huge traffic that the airport will generate once it becomes operational. In the peak hours of morning and evening, the road becomes clogged with buses and cars, turning into a nightmare for the locals here.
“We’re all very happy that the airport is here. We’re proud of it as well. But shouldn’t the road infrastructure be improved along with the airport? This is such a narrow road. We’re already seeing huge number of vehicles when the airport hasn’t even opened. Think of what will happen when it opens,” said Abdul Khader, who runs a shop selling plastic cups in the town.
The plan to expand the road has been in the offing for many years with land even procured on both sides of the present road, but bureaucratic delays have hindered the project. Now, G Sudhakaran, the state PWD minister, has promised the 44-km stretch of the road will be expanded with the help of World Bank funds in four months.
Shukkoor, who runs a shop selling mops and plastic buckets in Mattannur town, says he’s heard of such promises before. He was among those who donated a part of the land where his shop stood for the expansion of the road.
“People here have always stood for progress of the land. We want our town to progress but these government officials are the ones who have blocked these projects. They earn a lot of money by delaying work. When they came to acquire land for the airport, I gave up 2.5 acres. When they came to expand the road, again I gave land. It’s been years, and the work has not even begun,” he says.