The much-fancied last-mile connectivity in Kerala has come for flak with noted environmentalists opposing the amphibian seaplane service launched amid fanfare in the state's backwaters to attract more domestic and overseas tourists.
"It is utter foolishness of the state government to allow such an anti-people and expensive service as its ministers and officials are ecologically illiterate," fumed conservation evangelist M.K. Prasad.
The state-run tourism department plans to offer the maiden service (Wings) from Aug 1 post-monsoon in the backwaters of the four coastal districts of the state. But Prasad and other ecologists have decided to back the fishing community in opposing the high-flying service, launched on Sunday and touted to be the first of its kind in the country.
"First of all, it is not a viable transport in our state for ecological and economic reasons. For instance, the average depth of Vembanad lake across the Kuttanad region of Alappauza district is shallow (three metres) and the water body is narrow in width to allow such a luxurious service," according to Prasad, in this port city on the Malabar coast.
Every time the fix-wing aircraft lands or cruises on the water surface for a take-off, it will generate waves that will affect marine life.
"The service will affect the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of fishermen as their main activity will be disturbed and there will be restrictions on their movement. I hope better sense will prevail in the government to reconsider the fancied project," Prasad asserted.
The Kerala State Tourism Development Corporation (KSTDC) plans to initially operate the six-seater Cessna 206H amphibian aircraft from Alappuzha to Kochi through its aviation firm and extend the service through four private firms from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Ernakulam and Kasaragode on the northern coast.
"Not many tourists will use this to fly from Alappuzha to Kochi as travel by train or road is a better alternative for a few hundred rupees than paying a whopping Rs.4,000 per ticket. Moreover, only six people can fly at a time. How does this boost tourism and at what cost," Prasad wondered.
Prasad was honoured in Kochi on World Environment Day (Wednesday) by 98-year-old former Supreme Court judge Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer for his pioneering role in protecting Silent Valley in the nearby Idukki district during the 1970s and for leading social movements to safeguard the state's fragile biodiversity across the Western Ghats region.
"The fishermen's unions and opposition parties have already opposed the costly service, ostensibly to promote tourism, when there is no dearth of tourists from across the country or abroad, especially from the Gulf region, which has the largest number of Indian expats from this state," Green Media Group head P.S. Easa said.
Activists also expressed concern that the flight service will affect thousands of birds, including migratory, that fly into the region every year.
"The state government is more worried about bird hits to the aircraft than violating their airspace and nesting season. Air, noise and water pollution from the service will disrupt the entire ecosystem and cause damage to the flora and fauna of the state," Easa said.
Prasad, Easa and other ecologists have decided to back the fishermen's unions to file public interest litigation in the local courts for a stay on the service.
"Fishermen will not allow the service to be operated in their backwaters as it will play havoc with their livelihood and cause irreparable damage to marine life, birds and precious water bodies in our lakes and rivers," Prasad reiterated.
The tourism corporation has roped in Wings Aviation & Odds Travel Solutions to launch the initial operations on the first circuit connecting Astamudi, Punnamada, Kumarakom, Munnar, Bolgatty and Bekal with hops from the three airports along the coastline.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Tourism Minister A.P. Anil Kumar have already faced opposition to the service as the launch flight June 2 from Kollam could not land in the backwaters of Alappuzha due to protests by fishermen and inclement weather.
Kumar had earlier said that the fishing community at Kollam had approved the project and the government would convince fishermen at Alappuzha that the service would not impact their livelihood.