Climate Change

Portion of NCC airstrip in Kerala’s Idukki caves in amid heavy rain

Airstrip has been facing stiff opposition from state forest department and environmentalists, as it is located hardly 500 metres from the periyar tiger reserve

By K A Shaji
Published: Thursday 21 July 2022
A view of the Satram airstrip in Idukki district after a portion of the runway caved in following heavy rain. (Photo: K A Shaji)

A part of an airstrip that caters to the National Cadets Corps (NCC) in Kerala’s Idukki district was washed away in a landslip amid week-long heavy rains in the Western Ghats there.

A significant part of the runway caved in across 100 metres July 18, 2022. The rest went under water.

Also read: Will new airstrip in Kerala’s Idukki be a permanent threat to Periyar Tiger Reserve

Sathram airstrip, near Vandiperiyar village, is India's first and only airstrip for the National Cadet Corps (NCC). The project is nearing completion at an expense of Rs 13 crore.

A significant crack was visible on the existing portions of the runway and the remaining portions would collapse if the rains persisted, forest officials told Down To Earth.

The airstrip has been facing stiff opposition from the state forest department and environmentalists, as it is located hardly 500 metres from the periyar tiger reserve.

The project was launched to train around 1,000 air wing cadets, every year, for flying small aircrafts. The strip was also promoted to enhance tourism in Idukki, apart from conducting emergency evacuations during extreme weather events.

The project is a joint initiative of NCC national headquarters and Kerala’s public works department (PWD).

The ecology, environment and wildlife of the region may face adverse impacts if it comes up there, environmental action groups had predicted. But the government continued with the project, amid opposition from various groups.

About 200 metres of the runway caved in already to an estimated depth of about 150 metres and the tarring work on the airstrip area has also been destroyed in the incident, according to MN Jayachandran, an Idukki-based environmentalist, who visited the spot after the incident.

Sources in the state PWD said an investigation would be initiated on the matter. The damage might have happened because the officials failed to channel the rainwater from the runway.

NCC tried to land small aircrafts twice in the last six months, but the irregular construction and rough weather conditions spoiled the attempts. If the rains persist, the whole project will turn to a failure.

The location is not suitable for an airstrip. The area is surrounded by hills and most of the times it is engulfed by mist and rain. The project is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events,” said D Sudheer, a forest expert and former divisional forest officer in Idukki.

It seems no opinions of aviation experts have been solicited in advance. Now, it is turning into a proven failure, he added.

Last year, the airstrip had courted controversy when the state forest department informed National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) that the runway is located hardly 600 metres from the reserve boundary.

The department had also informed that the whole project would be detrimental to wildlife and the forest ecosystem of the region. 

But the state PWD justified it and acted as a promoter of the project along with NCC. The formal inauguration of the airstrip, scheduled for March 2021, continues to be postponed, owing to the hurdles which come up one after another.

Idukki has no air or rail connectivity, and the general people welcomed the airstrip initially. On the other hand, Idukki is a vulnerable portion of the Western Ghats and it houses some well-protected national parks and wildlife sanctuaries apart from the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

Meanwhile, environmental activists are demanding a statutory clearance of the National Board for Wildlife and NTCA before initiating further work as the air strip is located within a 10 kilometer radius of the tiger reserve.

“The damage to the airstrip now vindicates the apprehensions of the forest department. It stands that it will have a devastating impact on wildlife and ecology,” said V Harish, an environmental lawyer of Kerala High Court.

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