State illegally gave BIAL forest land for hotel?

A potentially explosive report in today’s Deccan Chronicle

The state government has illegally helped the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) to develop commercial real estate on some 200 acres of forest land. BIAL is developing a star hotel, restaurants and office space on this land — all in violation of the Union government’s rules, regulations and Acts. Documents available with the Deccan Chronicle reveal that the State government, which acquired 1,394 acres from the Forest department on a perpetual lease after taking approval from the Union ministry of environment and forests, has sub-leased the land to Bial. Bial is now aggravating the violation by developing real estate on 200 acres of this land for purely private profit, in violation of provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

The state government, which was advised by the Ramanathan Committee to set up the airport at Devanahalli in the mid-90s, sought permission from the Union ministry to acquire the forest land for the infrastructure project. The Union ministry accorded the permission, but with a string of riders in its letter dated August 27, 2002, prominent among which is the condition that the status of the forest land should never be altered.

On December 17, 2002, the state Forest department transferred 1,394.2 acres to the Karnataka State Industrial Investment and Development Corporation (KSIIDC), which became the lessee. The forest area around Yarthiganahalli, Bettekote, Gangamuthanahalli bearing survey numbers 7, 8, 46, 55P, 23, 35, 88 and 12 were handed over to the KSIIDC, which was the nodal agency for the airport.

Following this, there was a lull in airport development activities for the next two years as the Bial and the State government got into a slugfest with each other over a mutually acceptable concession agreement. Then, in a move to honour its commitment to hand over 4,000-plus acres to Bial, the state altered the government order without taking the requisite permission from the Union ministry using the expedient of inserting text into the original order.

The state government simply issued a corrigendum on March 4, 2004, which reads: “In the sixth line of the order portion, after the word ‘KSIIDC’ and before the word ‘subject’ the following words shall be inserted — and to sub-lease the same by KSIIDC to Bangalore International Airport Limited.” The insertion was made to transfer the land from the KSIIDC to the Bial. The original land transfer order specifically mentions that the forest land will be in the custody of the KSIIDC.

The sub-lease was made in violation of the conditions set by the Union ministry, which had clearly stated in its 2002 approval order that in case of deviations or alterations a fresh reference had to be made to the ministry and clearance obtained. What followed the corrigendum was worse. The KSIIDC entered into a sub-lease agreement with the Bial on August 12, 2004 which allowed the private body to use the forest land for airport, airport-related activities and non-aeronautical activities as well.

By doing this, the state government, which first acquired the land on perpetual lease thereby becoming the lessee, now had sub-leased the land to Bial and become the lessor and allowed real estate development on forest land in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2003, which state that the use of forest land may be allowed for roads, bridges, running high-tension lines and such other infrastructure-related projects only. Even certain other infrastructure projects such as putting up power plants, ports and bus stations on forest land could be taken up only after obtaining permission from the Union ministries which they would give after studying the impact on the environment of such projects.

Even if the Bial were to be given a clean chit in this whole episode, since the consortium is simply going ahead with a masterplan that has the government’s stamp of approval on it, the fact remains that a five-star hotel and commercial office space are being constructed on forest land. Bial has also borrowed money against airport land, which includes the 1,394 acres of forest land in question, from the lead bank financing the project.

What should be the remedial steps taken ? Taking back the land is out of the question. It will hurt the airport operator BIAL beyond repair. At the same time protection of forests is vital. What will be the potential ramifications of this report on the Joint House Committee investigations, or the banking consortium ? As usual, comments are invited.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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