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Islanders worried over opaque proceedings for Agatti airport expansion

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Agatti airport expansion

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Agatti/Kavaratti: The sides of a sleepy road, leading to a non-descript airport, the only one in the Lakshadweep islands, are filled with coconut trees, with white and red painted upto a quarter of their heights.

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A comparatively active ocean on the Eastern side and a calm, bluish ocean on the Western side gives the road an out of the world charm.

The people on this tranquil stretch are either sitting idle or carrying on with their chores, but in a very relaxed manner that is so typical of an islander.

If the proposed airport expansion, not the limited expansion that has been on the cards for nearly a decade, but the massive one that popped up only after the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier last month, materialises, then this tranquil corner of Agatti Island will become a hub of hectic activity.

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The islanders, with their usual friendly demeanour, welcome the airport expansion plan and are jubilant at the prospects of development attached to it.

But behind their friendly, welcoming faces, there lies a concern of them losing their lands without proper compensation.

"We wholeheartedly welcome the airport expansion and bringing in new tourism projects. But till date nobody has given us a clear picture. A team that had come here to study about it told us we will have to part with our lands, without saying how and when and what would be given as compensation," Husnl Jamhar, who owns a private resort near Agatti airport, told PTI.

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He said all those who have property on both sides of the airport are more than willing to part with their property for the expansion but they should get good compensation.

"They do not communicate anything. There was no public hearing. They have cut a lot of our coconut trees, without any notice and just pay us peanuts as compensation. Such an attitude does not work when it comes to taking our land," Jamhar said.

Sheemabi, a woman who has been living in the area, the closest to the present airport, for the last 32 years, echoes the same sentiments as Jamhar.

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"This is the only land I have and it was given to me by my father. Me and my family live from the revenue I get from the coconuts from my land and if I lose that land for nothing, then we will have to starve," she said.

Abdul Rasheed, who runs a petty shop by the sides of the airport road, too welcomes the tourism projects and airport expansion.

"Airport expansion is very crucial for the development of our islands. If connectivity is better, more people will come, bringing more jobs and more revenue. But they will have to rehabilitate us to some other area. If we are not given a proper compensation and are not rehabilitated then the project will be a doom for us," he said Agatti is one of the islands in Lakshadweep which has a sizeable area of 'Bhandara Bhoomi' (lands given on lease to islanders on lease prior to independence).

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There was a controversy earlier under the present administration alleging that the administration tried to take the land from the possession of the islanders and tried to give it on lease to some companies for tourism operations.

The islanders approached the Kerala High Court against this and the case is still under the consideration of the Court.

"The administration wants to take our land for free and to give it for development works. These lands belong to us for over a century and those lands belong to us only," Jamhar said.

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He said if that is the kind of development envisaged by the administration, then there will be a legal battle against such projects.

Though the senior officials in the Lakshadweep administration confirmed, off the record, that the proposal for the airport expansion is almost agreed upon, the Airport administration refused to say anything concrete.

A senior Airport Authority of India official at Agatti airport, who refused to comment on camera, however, said the AAI has no information regarding the proposed expansion plans.

He said that even the commissioning of new flights has not been finalised.

"It is true that some airlines have expressed their interests and talks are on. But we don't have a date of commencement of these services. We also do not have any information regarding the proposed mega expansion," he added.

According to the Lakshadweep administration officials, the Rs 4,500 crore airport expansion plan has been finalised and L&T will be carrying out the works.

They said a good area of the sea bed on both sides, with more area on the Eastern side, will be reclaimed and the adjacent private lands will be acquired for this expansion.

The runway will be extended to 2,800 meters to facilitate operation of Boeing A320 aircraft.

Another greenfield airport is also proposed in Minicoy.

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