Louis Berger Prepared Sabarimala Airport Report Without Entering Site
Louis Berger, an American consultancy firm which was paid Rs 4.6 crore to do a feasibility study of the proposed Sabarimala airport in Cheruvally estate in Kerala, had not entered the project site as the land ‘belongs’ to Believers Church, a government note reveals.
The Kerala government is planning to build its fifth international airport in the 2263 acre-Cheruvally Estate, near Erumely, in Central Travancore in 2017 and Louis Berger was entrusted to carry out the feasibility study. Louis Berger had completed the study and submitted the report in the end of 2018 even before the land was decided for the project.
A note on special meetings held to analyse the progress of the Sabarimala airport project in presence of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on 03 February, reveals that the report submitted by Louis Berger was not comprehensive.
“They have not completed all the tasks entrusted to them like in-principle approval of the central government, environmental impact assessment and other clearances of the central government department agencies,” the note seen by The Lede reads.
In the note, Kerala revenue department principal secretary says that even though there is a dispute on the title of the land, there was no issue of a notification under Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Act.
“The land value could be deposited in the court and the amount would go to the titleholder as and when the court took a decision on the title of the land. Once the notification is issued, it would be possible for government agencies and the consultant to enter the land for the survey, studies, etc,” the note adds.
The note also reveals that special officer for the Sabarimala airport project, Louis Berger should rework the techno feasibility report after they were able to enter the project site.
“Further payment for the consultant should be given only after this and they can be entrusted to do the detailed project report too,” the note reveals as a special officer saying.
The Techno Feasibility Report prepared by Louis Berger also reveals that the Sabarimala project will replicate the Kannur International Airport Limited (KIAL) model.
Commissioned in December 2018, Kannur airport is an unlisted company where the Kerala government holds only 39.25% of the paid-up share capital.
The central government does not hold even a single share in KIAL. Thus, KIAL does not come under the definition of a government company and it cannot be audited by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).
There was a controversy in entrusting the CAG as the auditor of KIAL in 2019. The Kannur airport approached the court and got a favourable verdict in keeping CAG away.
The Kannur airport told in the court, that Section 139(5) (appointment of an auditor by the CAG) applies only to a government company as defined in Section 2(45) of the Companies Act 2013 or any other company-owned or controlled, directly or indirectly by the central government or by any state government or governments or partly by the central government and partly by one or more state governments.
L Narayan, an auditor and resident of Kottayam, where the Sabarimala airport would be coming up said that if it is similar to the KIAL model, then the deal was murky.
“If the government is going to build Sabarimala airport in the KIAL model, then CAG will be kept away as the government did in Kannur. When consultancies and auditing firms are under the scanner for corruption globally and locally, then can we expect a fair thing?” Narayan asked.
Even though Kerala Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala had questioned why the government had given the consultancy to a tainted firm like Louis Berger, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan evaded the question and said that the government is confident in getting the land from Believers Church.
Meanwhile, talking to The Lede, Susheela R Bhatt, former special government pleader, said that the Left government’s final decision to acquire 2262 acres of estate land from Cheruvally estate for the proposed Sabarimala Airport has once again strengthened doubts that the said project was for allegedly bailing out the estate owners.
“If the government fails the case and the Believers Church establishes its claim, then it would help other land grabbers to claim their ‘ownership’,” the former government pleader said.
There are around 5.4 lakh acres of government land ‘owned’ by plantation groups.
According to the former government pleader, even before the land to be acquired was officially announced by the Kerala government, the Believers Church had allegedly known about the project much earlier.
“This is quite evident from the submission that they made before the Kerala High Court in 2016. In the submission, they had said about the state government’s proposal to establish an airport in the nearby place. The submission finds mention in the High Court order related to cutting of trees in the estate for drawing a power supply line from Kanjirapally to Erumely Sub Station (proposed). However, it was only in 2017, a year after the Court order that the government had entrusted a four-member panel under then Revenue Secretary PH Kurian to identify a suitable place for the proposed airport,” the former government pleader said.
The former government pleader adds that the panel had only identified Cheruvally Estate as the most suitable land for the Greenfield airport whereas several stretches of land in nearby locations have been left out, which only added to the suspicion.
“All these only raise the doubt if Cheruvally had already been fixed for the Sabarimala airport,” the former government pleader added.