KOCHI/IDUKKI: It was a memorable day for the residents of Satram and Kumili in Idukki on Thursday. Celebrations erupted on the ground as the two-seater Virus SW 80 aircraft touched down at the Idukki airstrip at 10.15 am. A jubilant Peermade MLA Vazhoor Soman said the day marks a new beginning for Idukki. The leaders are planning to bring Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to inaugurate the airstrip. Vazhoor Soman said a decision on the future course of action will be taken after meeting chief minister and Higher Education Minister R Bindu.
Though the airstrip has been built to provide flight training to NCC cadets, Water Resources Minister Roshy Augustine said it can be utilised for tourism in future.
While the political class was in a celebratory mood, environmentalists said the flight landing has been conducted in violation of the Supreme Court order issued on June 3, which banned all development activities in the one-km buffer zone around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
The airstrip is located just 662 m away from the boundary of Periyar Tiger Reserve and the authorities have not obtained sanctions from the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The NCC was able to safely land the aircraft at the airstrip on the third attempt. In April, a Virus SW 80 aircraft had made nine repeated attempts to land at Satram after which the mission was aborted. The NCC had demanded to raze a hill near the airstrip to ensure safe landing. For this, the forest department had provided additional land to the PWD in April 2022. The landing trial was conducted after razing the hill.
“It marks the dawn of a new era for the development of the high range. Though the first preference is to provide training to NCC cadets, we can use the airstrip for medical emergency and tourism purposes in future,” said Minister Roshy Augustine.
“The district collector had issued an order on September 30 to facilitate helicopter operation at Satram airstrip during the Sabarimala season for emergency evacuation in case of untoward incidents at Sabarimala. This order has been issued under the disaster management act to hoodwink the court and the environment ministry. There is a helipad at Nilakkal to cater to the needs of Sabarimala pilgrims and there is no need to transport the injured to Satram for airlifting. Sabarimala is located 28 km away and the road passes through dense forest,” said environment activist M N Jayachandran who has approached the Kerala High Court against the airstrip project.
“The flight operation is in violation of the Supreme Court order and I will approach the court seeking contempt of court proceedings against the authorities involved,” he said.
Sources with the forest department said the authorities have not taken mandatory clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest under the Wildlife Protection Act. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had informed the Kerala High Court in April that clearance from the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) was mandatory for proposals involving development activities within 10km of a wildlife sanctuary. The operation of aircraft near the tiger reserve will disturb wildlife. Above all, the terrain is unstable and a portion of the airstrip was washed away during the recent floods.
NCC 1 Kerala Air Squadron Thiruvananthapuram commanding officer A G Sreenivasan was the pilot who landed the aircraft on the airstrip. NCC 3 Kerala Air Squadron Kochi Captain Udaya Ravi was the co-pilot.
The airstrip has a length of 650 m and was constructed by the PWD for operation of microlight aircraft. A hangar has been built to park four aircraft and an accommodation facility for students has been arranged at the CSI High School building.