New in Northeast | In Assam, clearing a tea garden to make way for an airport
A curious case of three million tea plants being uprooted and nearly 2,000 workers of a tea garden protesting their loss of livelihood.
A month ago, on May 12, over 100 excavators and bulldozers began uprooting nearly three million tea plants in the Doloo tea estate of Assam’s Cachar district to make way for a greenfield airport to be constructed in the area.
The move, which followed several weeks of tense opposition by nearly 2,000 workers of the tea garden who were upset about losing their livelihoods and the plants, was carried out in presence of several hundred security personnel and imposition of Section 144 of The Code of Criminal Procedure in the area to prevent violence.
Located around 25 km away from Cachar’s headquarter Silchar, Doloo tea estate has around 10,000 “bighas” of land, of which 2500 “bighas” (around 325 hectares) were being acquired by the state government to set up the proposed new airport.
Though Silchar already has an airport, there was talk of adding a second one in the area as the existing one is a defence airport which is also used for civilian aircraft. But how the Cachar district administration cleared out Doloo — a functional tea estate — raised questions.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the construction of the new airport in January. In March, an agreement was signed between the labour unions and the administration to pave way for clearing part of the Doloo tea estate.
On May 29, the state government announced that each of the 1,263 families of tea-garden workers in Doloo, whose livelihoods would get affected by the construction of the airport, would get ₹1 lakh each as a “goodwill gesture”.
Nearly three weeks after a portion of Doloo tea estate was cleared to make way for the new airport, a reply to a Right To Information (RTI) query by Silchar resident Rahul Roy revealed that the Union civil aviation ministry was yet to get any proposal for setting up a greenfield airport in the area.
The reply informed that as per Greenfield Airports (GFA) Policy (2008), an airport developer (including any state government) willing to establish an airport is required to send a proposal to the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA), in a prescribed format for a two-stage process. It starts with site clearance followed by in-principle approval in terms of GFA Policy.
The central government has so far approved the setting up of 21 greenfield airports across the country, including one in Arunachal Pradesh. Eight of these 21 airports have started operating according to the ministry. But the ministry has not received any proposal for the construction of a greenfield airport at Silchar, the reply mentioned.
Responding to the RTI query, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament (MP) from Silchar Rajdeep Roy stated that all due processes were followed while clearing the Doloo tea estate. Office bearers of the ruling party also stated that Union civil aviation ministry officials were spreading the wrong information as the plans to construct a new airport in Silchar had started in 2019.
Last week, days after the civil aviation ministry denied getting any proposal for the new airport, Union civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia also clarified that the Centre hasn’t received any formal request on the issue from the state government’s side.
Replying to a letter by Rajya Sabha MP Sushmita Dev, (who was a former Lok Sabha MP from Silchar), Scindia wrote, "An airport developer or the respective state government willing to establish a greenfield airport is required to send a proposal to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the prescribed format following 2-stage process, site clearance and in-principle approval. But no proposal to construct a greenfield airport in Cachar is received yet."
However, he also said that if any such proposal comes from any airport developer or the state government, the aviation ministry will consider this as per the Greenfield Airports Policy, 2008.
On Friday, the Cachar district administration issued a statement mentioning that the process of land acquisition at Doloo was done following instructions from the state government and all due processes were followed for it.
“There are many questions being raised on the proposed airport at Doloo. It is again informed to all concerned that this particular land was taken up as per instructions received from the state government following due procedure. The land in question was supposed to be handed over free of encumbrance. It is in the final stage of execution and stakeholders are requested to kindly cooperate,” the statement by additional deputy commissioner (revenue) Pankaj Kumar Deka said.
A day after this statement, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also commented on the issue by stating that the state government would first complete the process of acquisition of land for the airport before a formal proposal for its construction is sent to the Union civil aviation ministry.
“How can we submit a proposal for construction of an airport until the land is acquired first?” questioned Sarma while adding that the RTI reply by the Union civil aviation ministry as well as Scindia’s reply to Dev had been misunderstood.
Now a month after 3 million tea plants were uprooted, all eyes are on the state government to submit a proposal for the airport at Doloo to the Centre.