Explained: Why activists and residents are up in arms against a plan to expand Dehradun airport

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has asked the state government to explore the possibility of acquiring a different patch of land for the expansion, so that the trees could be spared.

Environmental activists and local residents in Uttarakhand are opposing the cutting of trees for a project to expand Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport. Political parties too, have jumped into the controversy.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has asked the state government to explore the possibility of acquiring a different patch of land for the expansion, so that the trees could be spared.

Of the 9,745 trees that are proposed to be cut, 3,405 are khair, 2,444 are sheesham, 1,234 teak, 1,121 kanju, 549 jhingan, and 120 are gulmohar. A government official argued that the majority of these trees do not have very thick trunks.

What is the project to expand the airport?

The Uttarakhand Civil Aviation Development Authority has proposed the expansion of Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun with the aim of upgrading it to meet international standards. The project components include development of the airport and the parking area, building a new ATC tower, and more than doubling the length of the runway from the existing 1.7 km to 3.5 km.

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It is proposed to take over 87 hectares of forest land in Doiwala village in Dehradun district, and another 17.41 hectares of non-forest land for the project. For the runway, the airport area is proposed to be expanded by 885 metres in the direction of Doiwala, and 2,030 metres towards Rishikesh. The forest area earmarked for the expansion is in the Thano range, a prominent tourism destination where local people run a number of homestays.

So who is protesting and why?

Last month, social activists and local residents from the Thano forest range and nearby areas of Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar assembled outside the airport and staged a protest against the proposal to cut 9,745 trees in the affected area.

Invoking the famous Chipko movement which began in Uttarakhand in the 1970s, they tied “raksha sutras” around the trees to express their concern for the environment, and to demand the conservation of green cover. They trended the agitation and streamed it live on social media to garner mass support.

A similar protest was done at the same site on November 1. The activists have started an online signature campaign, and they decided early on that they would march through the city on November 8, to register their protest a day before the state’s foundation day celebrations.

The Opposition Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have extended support to the agitation, and demanded that the government look for alternative ways to develop the airport without cutting trees. The ruling BJP has fallen back on its well-worn defence of ‘development’ and ‘national security’ — it has called the Opposition “anti-development”, and has said in a statement: “Uttarakhand has borders with Nepal and China. After the recent dispute with China, its (airport) expansion has become necessary.”

What is the government’s argument for cutting the trees?

Highlighting the significance of the project, a note attached with the proposal sent to the Centre, says that due to the hilly geography, people are dependent on roads for travel and movement. A large part of the state shares an international border with China, and the expansion of Jolly Grant airport is strategically very important.

Also, the note says, the state has to face frequent natural disasters, and air operations are very important for rescue and relief. Air operations will also help promote tourism to the Char Dham.

With this objective, the building of new helipads, and expansion of existing helipads and runways is being carried out. With financial assistance of the ADB, over 60 helipads are being developed and upgraded in the state. Also, the Hilmalaya Darshan scheme involving private helicopter operators has been started to promote tourism.

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