Opening the gates for mass tourism: airport constructions in India and Laos

In a 2016 press release, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that it expected 7.2 billion passengers to travel in 2035, a near doubling of the 3.8 billion air travellers in 2016 (IATA, 2016). According to the IATA’s projection, the five fastest growing markets in terms of additional passengers per year over the forecast period would be China, the United States, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. It was expected that much of this growth would be driven by tourism. It remains to be seen to what extent these forecasts will still hold, given that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to international travel — and to air traffic in particular - and that it may take several years for the global airline industry to recover from this downturn.

In December 2018, the Chinese government announced that the country will build 216 new airports by 2035, bringing the total number of airports in the country to 450 {Tourism News Live, 2018). Earlier in 2018, India’s State Minister for Civil Aviation had stated in an interview that India plans to build 100 more airports for one billion flyers by 2035, with most of the US$60 billion financial capital needed to be provided by the private sector (Kuronuma, 2018). These massive infrastructure projects are expected to be associated with substantial environmental and social costs, including the forced relocation of thousands of people from the new airport construction sites.

Controversial greenfield airport development in Goa, India

In India, greenfield airports play a significant role in accelerating the urbanisation of the country and increasing domestic and international tourist numbers (Dalei and Singh, 2015). The Indian federal government established a national Greenfield Airport Policy in 2008, when it put in place a more liberalised approach to airport construction and promoted private participation and public—private partnerships (PPPs) in greenfield airport development (Nielsen, 2017). Yet searching for suitable sites for greenfield airports poses particular challenges in a country with a population density of 382 people per km", more than eight times the global average. On paper, land acquisition for the greenfield airport projects has become more difficult in the light of the new land acquisition act (Dalei and Singh, 2015; cf. Neef and Singer, 2015). Yet, in fact, infrastructure projects that are in the interest of national development (which includes growth within the tourism sector) are being fast-tracked under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (see Box 9.1).

Box 9.1 Greenfield development and land acquisition by the state in India

Greenfield development refers to infrastructural developments in areas previously used for agriculture, forestry or rural amenity conservation. It evokes images of emptiness and opportunity and fosters visions of starting large infrastructure projects on ‘virgin’ lands. Yet, in reality, very few such projects can be built entirely on empty lands or in political or historical vacuums. Rather, greenfield project developers have to deal with “social and natural environments that are already inscribed with human and non-human history, habitation and activity” (Nielsen, 2017, p. 844).

In colonial India, the category of ‘wasteland’ had emerged in the 18th century as a key discursive tool through which ‘idle’ or ‘unproductive’ land was refashioned as ‘untapped land’, i.e. land that has yet to be tapped for its commercial potential (Bennike, 2017). This category was later adopted by the post-colonial state and employed as a land classification technique (Baka, 2013). Classifying land as ‘wasteland’ makes it much easier for the Indian federal government, local administrations and private investors to justify their land acquisition for major infrastructure project. This logic of capturing the potential of ostensibly marginal, virgin and idle land ties in well with the global land grab discourse (Neef, 2014; Nielsen, 2017).

In most cases, greenfield developments and other large infrastructure projects in India involve land acquisitions by the state. Until 2013, land acquisition and takeovers of land by the state for “public purpose” invoked the principle of “eminent domain” and was governed by a legal instrument from colonial times, the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. It was replaced by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (LARR, 2013), which came into effect on 1 January 2014. The act introduced a number of safeguard mechanisms for farmers at risk of displacement and more generous compensation and resettlement packages for the displaced. However, amendments to the act under the Modi government have watered down some of its central clauses (Neef and Singer, 2015). The amendments include “a fast track process for defence and defence production, rural infrastructure including electrification, housing for poor including affordable housing, industrial corridors and infrastructure projects” (Government of India, 2014, n.p.).

In 2014, Modi launched the ‘Make in India’ programme which promoted India as the world’s prime greenfield foreign direct investment (FDI) destination for 2015 and allows 100 per cent FDI for greenfield airport projects (Nielsen, 2017). In the same year, it was announced that 10-15 greenfield airports were in the planning stage (Firstpost, 2014). Only one year later, 14 greenfield airports received in-principle approval from the Indian government, with the planned Mopa Airport in Goa requiring the second highest investment (Sen, 2015). The ‘Make in India’ programme encourages Indian airports to adopt the special economic zone (SEZ) ‘Aerotropolis model’, whereby an airport is at the centre of surrounding facilities, such as luxury hotels, shopping and entertainment facilities, convention, trade and exhibition complexes, golf courses, and sport stadiums (Nielsen, 2017). All greenfield airport developments in India include processes of enclosure, eviction and environmental transformation. The largest greenfield airport project, the Navi Mumbai Airport, expected to be fully operational in 2023, required the displacement of around 2,700 families from ten villages and the destruction of ecologically important mangrove areas.

Another major greenfield project has been planned since 1999 in Goa, the smallest and richest state of India. Goa’s primary industry is tourism, with the state accounting for 12 per cent of international tourist arrivals in India (Government of Goa, 2015). According to Goa’s Department of Tourism, the state welcomed nearly 5.3 million visitors in 2015, double the number of tourist arrivals in 2010. Yet tourism development in Goa has also been met with fierce local resistance since the 1980s when it turned from a Western hippie travel destination into a mass and luxury tourism hub (Scheyvens, 2002; Telfer and Sharpley, 2008). Local resistance movements have ranged from moderate research-based environmental advocacy groups, such as the Goa Foundation, to more activist groups, including the Vigilant Goan’s Army (Jagrut Goenkar-anchi Fouz — JGF) (Routledge, 2001; Scheyvens, 2002). Saldanha (2002) traced back the particular assemblages of resistance to tourism in Goa to local society’s specific identity shaped by four and a half centuries of Portuguese rule and the state’s relative recent integration into the Indian nation state.

Construction work on the new greenfield international Mopa Airport in Goa began in 2017, following a decade-long land conflict centred on the state government’s acquisition of around 800 hectares ofland on which the airport will be

Mega-events and tourism infrastructure 173 constructed and the social and environmental implications of the airport project (Nielsen, 2017). In the 15 months from April 2017 to June 2018, the Forest Department granted permission to fell more than 21,000 trees at the Mopa airport construction site (The Economic Times, 2018). This is remarkable because the Government of Goa’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) draft report of 2014 stated that “land in the project site is largely uncultivated with sparse vegetation” (Government of Goa, 2014, p. 37). Several photos in the EIA report depict the site as barren wasteland with only a few scattered shrubs.

Environmental groups and human rights advocates criticised that the EIA report — prepared by a public-sector consulting company — was an obvious attempt to downplay the environmental and social consequences of the project. In fact, the report claimed that “a very small percentage of the total working population in the North Goa district [the airport site] engaged in agriculture” (Government of Goa, 2014, p. 39). While the EIA report indirectly acknowledged that nearly 7,300 people in six villages had been affected by compulsory land acquisition, it emphasised that “these six villages form just around 1% of the total district’s population” (ibid). At the time when the EIA report was published, all land had already been acquired by the government from previous landowners (Nielsen, 2017). The EIA report implied that the resettlement would actually bring “more benefits for the local people” through “employment opportunities for local skilled and unskilled people, development of infrastructure, communications facility, drinking water supply, health” as well as unspecified “social and cultural development” (Government of Goa, 2014, p. xi).

The mandatory public hearing of the draft EIA report in February 2015 was attended by various groups opposing the airport construction and heated debates ensued which at some point required the intervention of the police force (Nielsen, 2017). Submissions critiqued the alleged manipulation of social and environmental data in the EIA draft report, questioned the plans of the authorities to use agricultural irrigation water as water supply for the airport and referred to painful experiences with earlier resettlements from mining sites (Bharat Mukti Morcha, 2015). Hundreds of signed statements detailed their historical connection to the place and highlighted its ecological diversity, its importance for food production and other essential livelihood activities, and the cultural significance of various religious sites that would be destroyed by this greenfield development project (Nielsen, 2017).

The revised EIA report (Government of Goa, 2015) acknowledged that “forests [are] the predominant land use [in] the area” (p. iv) and contained a table with “environmentally sensitive areas” (p. 8) including reserved forests, wetlands, water bodies and archaeologically important places, but reiterated that the Mopa Airport would have “significant positive impact on employment and occupation” (p. x) and “that the airport development will not only increase and support tourism, but also accommodate the projected growth in business travel and cargo movements in Goa” (p. 106). Based on the revised EIA, the project obtained environmental clearance in October 2015 (Rajagopal, 2020).

This example shows how the Mopa Airport has been promoted by authorities and consultants as both a necessity and an economic boon for the state by emphasising how it serves “both the tourism and business markets and keeping pace with the growing air travel segment in India” (Government of Goa, 2015, p. ii). Instead of scrutinising the socio-ecological viability of the project and making sure that environmental and social safeguards would be adhered to, the E1A process rubber-stamped the project that had already been approved in principle by the government. This was underpinned by a gleaming rhetoric of ‘greenfield development’ for a project that actually will have a massive impact on the local environment and on dislocated communities. While the environmental clearance was temporarily suspended in 2019 due to processual flaws, the Supreme Court lifted the suspension in early 2020 after the concessionaire, GMR Goa International Airport Limited, committed to a zero-carbon programme for the airport’s construction and operation by planting a total of 550,000 trees (Rajagopal, 2020). It is interesting to note that the ostensibly green credentials of the revised project design were given far more weight in the Supreme Court’s decision than human rights aspects and social impacts.

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