June 30, 2024

Victory over Doloo Airport

Tapan Mishra

DOLOO is a nearly 200-year-old tea garden near Silchar city in Cachar district of lower Assam. A substantial part of the plantation area had been sold by the Doloo Tea Company to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) for building a new airport. Tea plantation in this estate is spread over more than 1200 hectares and has four divisions namely Doloo, Moinagarh, Lalbagh and Murlidha. The Barak valley in Assam houses many such large tea gardens contributing a sizable quantity to tea exports from India. Doloo alone produces 2.4 million kg of CTC (crush, tear, curl method of tea production) black tea per annum.

On the morning of May 12, 2022, the Lalbagh division of the garden witnessed unprecedented events. After prohibitory orders under 144 CrPC had suddenly been imposed the previous night, the workers saw hundreds of bulldozers apparently sent by the Assam government approaching under police protection with the intention of clearing the tea plantation. Workers quickly assembled to protest, but sheer muscle power arrayed against them prevailed. Almost 41 lakh tea plants were uprooted and thousands of shade trees of at least 1 meter or more diameter were felled as part of the process of acquiring 325 hectares of land. Almost 2000 permanent and temporary workers lost their livelihoods overnight.

In the face of huge protests from various quarters against damage to flourishing tea gardens, ecological damage in a sensitive area, and unwarranted loss of livelihoods of thousands of people, a story of murky dealings, regulatory capture, transgressions by the union and state governments in “double-engine” Assam, and collusive malpractices unfolded. After tortuous passage through different levels of judiciary, which did not cover itself in glory, the matter finally landed in the Supreme Court which put a halt to the entire Doloo Airport project. This is the Doloo story.


As the background gradually began to be revealed, the Assam government had been in discussions with AAI to build a new airport near Silchar. It is not known when and why this decision was taken, since Silchar already has a fully functional airport operating currently with fairly high traffic of over 400,000 passengers annually and a fair amount of cargo. Silchar airport, located at Kumbhirgram about 29 km from the city in the foothills of the Barail range, is a “civil enclave” airport owned by the Indian Air Force and operated jointly with the AAI. This may provide at least some rationale for the desire for a fully civil airport, but does not at all justify for the high-handedness that followed. Silchar airport caters to lower Assam, the neighbouring state of Mizoram, and other nearby areas. It is the fifth busiest airport in the North-East and ranks around 45 nationally in terms of aircraft movement, passenger traffic and cargo.

Apparently, the Assam government and AAI had been scouting for sites for a new airport. The present site of the Doloo tea estate was reportedly selected from three sites originally identified in consultation with the state government. The other two sites were the Kharail tea estate in Doloo and the Silcoorie tea estate. Both these are about 10-15 km from Silchar city. Of these three, Kharail is an almost abandoned tea estate with no tea bushes visible in the entire stretch of land, yet was not selected.

Astonishingly, Government of India clarified in a letter dated June 8, 2022 responding to a letter from the local MP, that till that time no proposal had been received by the central government from any stakeholder for establishment of a new greenfield airport in Cachar district. There is no record of any assessment having been done for breaching the 150 km rule or the rationale for setting up a greenfield airport in the area, nor any record of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Applications for green field airports are required to first be reviewed by the director general of civil aviation (DGCA), AAI and MoCA, after which they need to obtain site clearance and in-principle approval from MoCA. None of these steps appear to have been followed.

It may be noted that under the policy for greenfield airports, no new airport can be set up within 150 km of an existing airport unless special permission for the same is obtained from the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA).  Doloo also does not figure in the list of greenfield airports that have received in principle approval from the MoCA as required.

Further, does Doloo qualify as a greenfield airport at all? A greenfield airport is one where there is no pre-existing infrastructure and is built on virtually barren or unused land. The very term “greenfield” is meant to emphasize the environmentally friendly nature of the project: of course, it is another matter entirely that numerous new airports built or being built in India have destroyed vast tracts of ecologically sensitive and productive land in different parts of the country.  

Yet, within a year of the forcible clearing of the Doloo tea estate and the eviction of thousands of workers and their families, and the incredible denial of any request having been received for another airport in the vicinity of Silchar, the minister for civil aviation defended the action in the Rajya Sabha in March 2023 and stated that the ministry had indeed received a proposal from AAI for a greenfield airport in Doloo.  The mystery deepens!


An independent and primary study of ecological loss likely in the process of converting Doloo tea garden to an airport was conducted by a groups of scientists on behalf of the local affected people. (Full disclosure: this writer was part of the study team). As required under EIA regulations, the study was conducted of the impact zone of 5 km radius i.e., 85.3 sq km, and the buffer zone of 10 km radius i.e., 341.2 sq km, to identify important ecological elements and ecologically sensitive areas It was found that the buffer zone contains vast forest land to the north and north-east, classified as moist tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. A wildlife sanctuary named Barail, situated within 10 km radius of the Doloo tea garden, has a substantial diversity of both animal and plant species. In close vicinity of the project site there is a natural lake known as Doloo lake. This natural lake is also going to be heavily impacted by the proposed airport.     

India has four biodiversity hotspots out of 36 in the world. The Doloo area is within the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot which is one among this four. Therefore, it has high species diversity and high level of endemism i.e., species found only in this locale, and also suffers from rapid shrinking of natural habitats. 


Some local groups, acting on behalf of the workers and other stakeholders of the tea estate,  approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Eastern Zone Bench of Kolkata, with a plea to stop  activities related to the airport project  since no environmental impact assessment (EIA) or  environmental management plan (EMP) was made before such a devastating action by the Assam government on behalf of the AAI.  In fact, such projects need detailed EIA and EMP studies along with many other studies to get approval.   

On January 25, 2024, NGT dismissed the plea on the specious grounds that EIA is not required at this stage. The appellants then moved the Supreme Court in search of justice.

The apex court took timely and stern action in its verdict of May 6, 2024. The court rebuked the authorities for carrying out extensive clearing of the site, in which almost 41 lakh tea bushes were uprooted and numerous shade trees were brought down, without prior environmental clearance and in clear violation of environmental regulations. The three-judge bench comprising the chief justice of India, D Y Chandrachud and Justices J B Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra, expressed grave concern over this violation of environmental norms. The SC observed that the NGT took a sluggish approach when dealing with the appellants' grievances and ruled that the tribunal had abdicated its duties as an expert body established by a statute enacted by parliament specifically in the interests of environmental protection. The SC noted that it was the NGT’s responsibility to verify the authenticity of the appellants' grievance.


The union government cannot be absolved of responsibility in this case. AAI is a statutory body under the ministry of civil aviation. Officials of the Assam government provided a false report to the Supreme Court in stating that the removal of tea bushes is a routine activity and that no shade trees were felled on the day. But occasional clearing of tea bushes is an activity of the owners or managers of the tea garden, and not that of the state government, that too by force and unilateral action. The NGT being the protector of our environment became the destroyer in Doloo. But finally the truth prevailed.

The union government, especially under the current dispensation, has been on a rampant spree of privatisation of airports, often with public sector entities acting as the initiators, but finally handing over the airports to the ruling dispensation’s favourite crony capitalist.  Besides large prestigious airports like the one in Navi Mumbai, a large number of smaller regional airports have been built, with government favourites grabbing many of them. All this in the name of a grandiose vision of “viksit bharat” or developed India. While contractors and some airport developers have gained, the travelling public and the taxpayers have lost heavily, as have many star-struck airlines carried away with the government’s boastful plans. Over Rs 2000 crore has been collected from passengers on profitable routes to subsidise the new regional connectivity scheme. But reality bites! 225 out of 479 regional routes have been shut down for lack of passengers and viability!  

The persistent and united struggle of workers of the Doloo tea estate, and the Supreme Court ruling in their favour, has been a slap in the face of the arbitrary and draconian double-engine rule in Assam, and of central agencies acting on their behalf. 

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