By Shaly Pereira, Bajpe/Oman
[Photographs and local inputs by R.K.Bhat Team Mangalorean – Mangalore]
Ask any person who has traveled the world over and he will unhesitatingly tell you that the landing view at Bajpe is one of the best he has seen. The ‘green green fields of home’ when viewed from the top have undoubtedly brought tears to the eyes of many a weary traveler, returning home from the Americas, Canada, Europe, or the Middle East. The prospect of meeting family members who are eagerly looking forward to their arrival, the thought of a hot home cooked meal prepared by loving hands, all add to the joys of landing at Bajpe.
View from Adyapadi
This is the place from where, most of us took off with a heavy heart, on the wings of destiny – leaving behind our loved ones – to land in our adopted or working country. This is also where we’ve come back again and again, looking out through the window of an encircling plane, our eyes filling up at the sight of those green fields, the meandering roads, the tiny vehicles, the winding streams, our hearts tugging at the thought of being enveloped in those loving arms when we reach home.
It does not matter where you come from. Mangalore, Udupi, Katipalla, Pangla, Kallianpur, Moodbidri, Suratkal etc, the Bajpe airport is as familiar to you as it comes. The gateway to Mangalore has also been the gateway to your dreams and it’s impossible to disassociate yourself from this quaint little town. Arrivals and departures, departures and arrivals, smiles and tears, tears and smiles ? all an unavoidable part of our existence, all pooled in a memorable place called Bajpe.
Make no mistake. Bajpe may just be a small town in the city of Mangalore with a Gram Panchayat holding fort, but the literacy rate stands at 78%, decidedly higher than the national average of 59.5%. The constant sights of the planes taking off and landing have formed the basis for many a dream here, the dream of flying to distant shores to make a living. It’s no wonder then, that a very high percentage of the middle class majority belong to the genre of Non Resident Indians. In fact, every family in this category easily prides itself on having a minimum of at least two family members working on foreign shores. Highest on the record are the Gulf countries, followed by Canada, USA, UK and Australia. Roman Catholics, Muslims and Hindus make up a large percentage of the population.
Kateel, a sacred place for Hindus, dedicated to Goddess Durga is just 8 km away from Bajpe. A famous mosque stands in the middle of Bajpe town and a few feet away stands the St. Joseph Junior College, founded by late Fr. Bernard D’Souza and run by the Christian Brothers. The St. Joseph Church that stands imposingly nearby is famously built in the likeness of an aeroplane, a tribute to the long standing legacy of the Bajpe airport. The foundation stone of this church was laid by none other than the late Pope John Paul II during his visit to Bajpe in 1986. The city of Mangalore is a scenic 45 minutes drive away.
St. Joseph Church Bajpe
Interestingly, the old runway at Bajpe airport is recorded in Aviation history as being one of the most dangerous runways for landing, next only to Leh in Ladhak. A good many years back, Bajpe airport used to be the closest airport not just for Mangaloreans but also for people living in some parts of Kerala. Sadly since then, the Keralites have marched forward (the State already has three international airports) leaving us miles behind fighting some losing battles with our self-centered and mulish bureaucracy.
The Mosque at Bajpe
The Bajpe Airport started its operations fifty-five years ago in 1951 (officially inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952). Nineteen years later, in 1980, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) forwarded a formal proposal to the government to expand the Mangalore airport. The proposal also included a formal request to upgrade the present airport to international standards.
The Temple at Bajpe
Nine years later in March 1989, the Airport Authority deposited Rs. 50 lakhs with the government for land acquisition purposes. During this period, certain sections of the community suggested that Bajpe airport should be shifted to either Padubidri or Bengre, a small island near Tannirbhavi. Amidst this and other problems, the proposal took fourteen years to be taken seriously. In 2003, the issue was revoked under the special land acquisition act by the airport director Mr. Vasudeva.
Bajpe has been constantly in the news for the past few years for many reasons and high on the list is the airport expansion project. The local newspapers and TV which form a large part of the Dakshina Kannada media have religiously relayed news to the public on matters relating to its expansion. But taking into consideration the intricacies of media norms (political clout included), some news has inevitably been played up and presented to the public, some underplayed deliberately, some downright buried and some tom-tommed from the top. Thankfully, a large fraction of the public has given up being gullible a long time ago.
The Adyapadi Angle
The land acquisition tussle in Adyapadi can easily be clubbed under the category of ‘buried news.’ Fifty-five years ago, during the first acquisition for the airport in Bajpe, more than 20 families lost their land to the government for a pittance. While many of these were affluent land owners, there were also those who lost what little land they owned and were left with practically nothing once the deal was done. The present land owners however, are more politically savvy and have consistently demanded adequate land compensation from the government. The struggle between the land owners and the government has been going on since 1989 with the State Government taking its own time to release funds for land acquisition (quoted by civil aviation sources to be Rs. 11 crores for 330 acres).
The ‘Vimana Nildhana Vistharana Virodhi Samithi’ of Adyapadi Village which consists of families in the Adyapadi Village have fought for ten long years against development which comes without adequate compensation and relocation. The fear has been genuine and not without reason. It has mainly stemmed from the awareness that, men, women and children from the nearby Kutthethuru Village were callously evicted overnight to make way for the MRPL project and all this when no rehabilitation or compensation programs were in place.
What further added to the fear and insecurity was the tampering of land records in 1998 by the then Assistant Commissioner for land acquisition, resulting in the transfer of land rights from individual property owners to the Airports Authority of India. 208 families in Adyapadi (90% belonging to the Dalit community) who awaited eviction were left high and dry with no land and no compensation. In their struggle against this gross injustice they were supported by the Dalita Sangarsha Samithi, School Betterment Committee of Adyapadi, Yuva Vedike, Adyapadi, the Parish Council of the Adyapadi Church and the Environment Support Group, Bangalore. An enquiry was set up later and the records brought back to order and though it was common knowledge to the people of Bajpe and Adyapadi very little news coverage was given to the whole sorry episode.
In the recent expansion project 105 families from Adyapadi have been given land site deeds and monetary compensation. In the Sidarthnagar and Sauhardanagar villages, some families were overlooked during the initial survey and missed getting their compensation. However, the injustice was rectified over a period of time by a committee specially formulated for the purpose.
Mr. Vasudeva overseing the renovation work
For the airport director Mr. Vasudev, it has been a personal struggle between the land owners and the government. He has single handedly taken care of this issue by speaking on a one-to-one basis with the land owners and requesting them to join hands with the authorities to upgrade the airport, while also liaisoning with the authorities in getting them a fair compensation. Officials in the airport vouch for his fortitude in approaching the local MLA’s MP’s and Ministers of the Central Government in his bid to overcome the hurdles that blocked the airport expansion. It is no surprise that today, he is highly respected in the local community perhaps for having done what no politician attempted to do, namely gain the trust of the local people.
Word from the Streets of Bajpe
The residents of Bajpe, especially those living in and around the airport have experienced first hand the changes that have taken place in Bajpe over the years and many a time newspaper reports appearing in the local dailies have proved to be a constant source of amusement at community events and nothing else. The shenanigans of our politicians have also failed to incite any interest in the locals and life goes on as usual.
Shops in Bajpe Town
Ask Kamalakka, the fisherwoman who has sold fish in Bajpe ‘paynt’ or market for over 30 years, what the arrival of the new international flight would mean to her and she looks amused and questions (in Tulu) ? "More noise?" But she has second thoughts soon and laughingly adds that Gulf vacationers will now perhaps come to buy her fish a day or two earlier.
Jerryaab who owns a small shop close to the airport vicinity is more skeptical. He says the international flights will not make any difference to him. His business is going to remain unchanged. What with the swank shops that will now maybe come up inside the airport, he doubts if anyone ‘new’ will stop over at his humble ‘angadi’ for a tender coconut.
The jasmine sellers near the city bus stand are more upbeat. They have heard rumors that with the International flights operating directly from Bajpe, their jasmine consignments can go directly to West Asia.
The much older residents of Bajpe reminiscence over the abundant cashew, mango and jackfruit trees which once grew where the airport building presently stands. Those who left for foreign shores in the 50’s and 60’s affirm that the airfare to Mumbai was only Rs. 65 (later raised to Rs. 90) and could not be afforded by those working in India. The younger residents, many of them now working around the globe, fondly remember the time they spent playing on the airport grounds. They recollect that, when the last flight took off, the place used to transform into a cricket field with the laughter and shouts of the children echoing a long way off. (In the late eighties, the airport area was sealed off for security reasons.)
More recently, the increased activity within and around the Bajpe airport has not only been tremendous but also very visible to the residents. The new check-in counters, the employment of new staff members, the additional equipment being brought into the premises, the initiation of extra security measures, the acquisition of land, the new state-of-the-art runway, night landing facilities, the landing of the first Boeing and Airbus, a new customs counter, construction work on the new arrival hall/visitors gallery/shops and now an impending international flight could only mean one thing for the residents. Progress. And progress brings with it new avenues for employment especially for the lower middle class people living in the area. In fact, a number of domestic/field workers have already found small time jobs in the airport.
View of MRPL as you drive from Mangalore to Bajpe
Many residents are of the opinion that with the introduction of the new runway the major hurdle for the airport expansion had passed a long time ago. International flights were a natural progression of this and they are confident that in a short time, many international flights from different destinations will follow. Of course, predictably, there are a few residents who are full of trepidation that such fast faced progress could adversely affect their peaceful town and life, but for the majority it is clear that progress is inevitable and usually comes with a price.
Is the worst behind us?
The hurdles have been many – shortage of trained personnel, lack of catering facilities, the airport renaming dispute, adherence to International Security Standards, delay in approval of flight schedules and of course, the covert opposition of the domestic carriers (Jet Air in particular) which is referred in business media as the biggest stumbling block to the International LCC’s (low cost carriers). The airport expansion project has been routinely ear-marked in the Interim budget and thrashed out (half-heartedly?) in the Lok Sabha but even though people have climbed over themselves to have a share of the pie and ridden piggy back to gain limelight, there have been those (NRI forums across the Gulf in particular) who have worked silently and tirelessly behind the scenes to make this project a success.
On the home front, the airport director Mr. Vasudeva and his committed team can now afford to heave a big sigh of relief. Constantly tossed between the demanding VIP’s, the deadline shoving officials and the unreliable politicians, they have somehow managed to strike a balance between all. And all this with a tenacious press hot on their heels.
The IXE code is now on the International map and perhaps Bajpe will never be the same again. As Mangaloreans however, we have lots of things to look forward to. More inter-linked travel routes (International & Domestic), less traveling hassles, more investments in the region, an influx of tourists and hopefully a ‘healthy’ competition between the airlines that will benefit the passengers.
And ten years from now, if we are ‘still’ able to look down and see those green green fields of home from a tiny aeroplane window, we can safely assume that we didn’t allow the flow of ‘progress’ to hinder us.
Power supply to the Airport
Memories of Another Day!
On August 18, 1981, an Indian Airlines Flight No. 557, that took off from HAL airport Bangalore met with an accident while landing at Bajpe airport. There were 26 passengers on board including the crew. According to the accident report, "The aircraft overran the runway and nosed over into a valley and came to rest against two boulders with the nosegear collapsed." The pilot apparently insisted on landing despite adverse weather conditions. The rumor that the plane went over the famous table top and landed precariously between two trees was just that ? a rumor. But it did result in some nerve-racking, nail-biting moments for many Mangaloreans who have landed there since. As for the written-off plane, it was dumped on the airport grounds and served as a romantic hide-out for many an adventurous couple.
On February 6, 1986, Pope John Paul II’s private plane touched down at Bajpe airport, as part of his pre-scheduled ten day visit to New Delhi, Kolkata, Shillong, Chennai, Goa, Mangalore, Kerala, Mumbai and Pune. More than 5 lakh people gathered on the open grounds opposite the Bajpe police station to pay their respects to the Pope. A 12 foot high bullet proof stage was erected on the grounds so that the people could view the Pope even from a distance. The foundation of the stage still stands. The 3km stretch of road from the Airport to the grounds was given a complete face lift and the Pope was driven on this stretch on an open jeep. He blessed and greeted the scores of people who lined the streets to get a closer look at him and endeared himself to the crowd by beginning his public address in Konkani. Witnesses say it was the first time, a crowd of this magnitude was seen in Bajpe. Though there were a host of VIP’s who visited Mangalore (including Mother Theresa), the Pope was the only one who returned from Bajpe without visiting Mangalore. Mr. Manohar Prasad, a journalist who covered the Pope’s visit was quoted in ‘The Hindu’ as saying ? "The Pope was given a gift of a simple silk cloth on which the map of India had been etched with a dotted representation of Mangalore and a picture of Mahatma Gandhi in the background."
On October 23, 2001, soon after the 9/11 incident, the Airports Authority received an anonymous letter about hijacking a Jet Airways plane from Mangalore airport and crashing it against the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore, following which arrangements were made so that the Indian Air Force fighter planes had to escort the passenger planes for four consecutive days. Fortunately for all concerned, the letter turned out to be a hoax and was traced to an address in Udupi.
*Statistical and historical information compiled from recorded public reports, AAI website, Adyapadi VNVV Samithi, Local sources in Bajpe/Adyapadi, Bajpe Airport officials, Aviation Safety Network website, Environment Support Group (ESG) website and Business India.