Kerala: Under construction in Idukki, country’s first NCC airstrip damaged in incessant rains

Environmentalists feel vindicated as they had said the airstrip in the high ranges, near the Periyar Tiger Reserve, was unfeasible.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 18, 2022 | 5:30 PMUpdatedJul 28, 2022 | 11:31 AM

Kerala: Under construction in Idukki, country’s first NCC airstrip damaged in incessant rains

India’s first and only airstrip for the National Cadet Corps (NCC), which was nearing completion at Sathram near Vandiperiyar in Kerala’s hill district of Idukki, has suffered severe damage in the incessant rains lashing the Western Ghats over the past week.

A significant portion of the airstrip’s runway caved in early Monday, 18 July, while vast amounts of rainwater covered the remaining part, which also developed a major crack, forest officials told South First.

They added that even the remaining portion could collapse if the rains persisted.

Intended for training around 1,000 cadets of the NCC’s Air Wing on small aircraft, the strip — being built at a cost of ₹13 crore — was also promoted as a means to improve tourist traffic to scenic Idukki.

It could also be used for emergency evacuations during extreme weather events.

A NCC-PWD initiative

A joint initiative of the NCC and Kerala’s Public Works Department (PWD), the airstrip has been facing stiff opposition from the state’s Forest Department and environmentalists as it is located just 500 m from the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a well-protected conservation area.

A portion of the under-constriction airstrip has caved in due to the rains. (South First)

Environmental action groups said the ecology and wildlife of the region would be adversely impacted if the airstrip came up near the reserve.

The government, however, went ahead with the project.

According to Idukki-based environmentalist MN Jayachandran, who visited the spot on Monday morning, about 200 m of the runway caved in to an estimated depth of about 150 m.

​The tarring ​on the airstrip area has also been destroyed ​in the incident.

​Highly placed sources in the PWD told South First that an investigation would be initiated into the incident, and that the damage could have been caused by the failure to channel rainwater away from the runway.

Two attempted landings

Though the NCC has attempted test-landing of small aircraft twice in the last six months, they could not because of rough weather conditions. If the rains persist, the whole project could turn to waste.

“The location is not suitable for an airstrip. Hills surround the area and, most of the time, they are engulfed by mist and have a lot of rain. The project is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. It seems the opinion of aviation experts was not sought. Now, it is turning into a failure,” said D Sudheer, forest expert and a former divisional forest officer in Idukki.

​It was hardly a year back that the airstrip first courted controversy when the Forest Department informed the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) that the runway would be located about  600 m from the edge of the tiger reserve, which has won several global awards for conservation.

​The department said the whole project would ​be detrimental to wildlife and the forest ecosystem.

The PWD, however, justified the project and even became its promoter along with the NCC.

Behind schedule

Though the airstrip was scheduled to open in March last year, the formal inauguration continues to be postponed because of the hurdles that have come up one after another.

​Idukki has no air or rail connectivity​, and the local population initially welcomed the airstrip project.

Idukki is in 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 (NBWL) and the NTCA ​before continuing with the work on the airpstrip.

According to​ environmental lawyer V Harish of the Kerala High Court, the damage to the airstrip vindicates the stand of ​the Forest Department.