Grounded

 
By FEIZEL SAMATH
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Farmer Premachandra led the ca (Credit: J WEERASEKERA) Farmers succeed in changing Sri Lanka government's choice of airport site

H M Premachandra, a 52-year-old farmer in Sri Lanka, doesn't come across as someone who would take on the country's first citizen--President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But he, along with 800 families in the southern coastal district of Hambantota, succeeded in stalling the country's plans to build an international airport in Hambantota town, the capital of the district.

"There was no agenda. It was not a personal battle; I fought in the national interest. Why did the Rajapaksas back out? Maybe because we were honest," said Premachandra. The move entailed fighting the Rajapaksa brothers--Chamal, minister for ports and shipping, and Basil, adviser to the president.

In Hambantota, but not here
Premachandra said that the farmers did not object to an airport in the district; its location was the bone of contention."Better places exist for this project in Hambantota. Why choose 1,125 hectares in Buttala, an area with fertile land and about 2,500 families from seven villages dependent on it? Also, the area is bound on three sides by protected areas," said Premachandra who is the president of a paddy farmers' society in the district known for its beaches and national parks.

In March 2006, the president apprised farmers and Hambantota residents of the project. People objected but the president pronounced the government would go ahead. In May 2006, the farmers filed a petition in the court. They claimed that the environmental impact assessment was not done. But the court ordered that the issue was premature and asked the farmers to get back after construction on the site had begun. The protracted protests lasted until July 2008, when the government announced that it would abandon work at the planned site and move the project to some other location.

The government's rationale for a second international airport at Hambantota was growing hurdles at a distance of about 250 km--Colombo city. The capital was getting more congested. It was becoming increasingly cumbersome and time consuming to reach areas outside Colombo because of narrow and poorly maintained roads. Hambantota seemed ideal because it had a lot of space and was close to key tourist hubs in the south.

But farmers said the airport would affect the livelihoods of hundreds of their fraternity and disrupt a bird sanctuary, host to millions of migratory birds every year. Premachandra said their protest was not to just protect the farmland. "Birds too have a right to live. Also, can you value paddy land in rupees in a country where the economy is driven by rice production and consumption? If we lose such land, we lose our food security," he said.

The government had accused that the Marxist People's Liberation Front (or jvp), of which Premachandra is a member, had instigated the campaign. "I have been a member of other political parties in the past. This had nothing to do with politics, the way it was made out to be. We were fighting for our rights and a common cause," he said, laughing. The jvp, as a coalition partner of an alliance that helped Rajapaksa win the election, subsequently pulled out of the coalition and is now critical of the government, accusing it of corruption and mismanagement.

Hambantota, constituency of the current president, was considered the second most impoverished district in Sri Lanka. Things changed after Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005. Construction of a harbour-cum-port is apace in the district. It is on a crucial shipping line through which about 300 ships pass everyday. The roads have been paved and expanded. An oil refinery is also in the pipeline.

People want development because it will bring more jobs, said Premachandra, but not at the cost of fertile land.

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