Efforts on to revive Navi Mumbai airport project

The airport is yet to receive environmental clearance but the efforts by chief minister Ashok Chavan, who recently led a delegation to the prime minister to urge him to intervene personally in the matter, and civil aviation minister Praful Patel’s firm stand on the Navi Mumbai site, seem to have paid off.

The prime minister’s office has taken up the issue with environment ministry for speedy clearances. Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who has raised serious objections to the project on account of the likely damage to environment and ecology, has conveyed to the prime minister that a way would be found to address environmental concerns and the project would move forward.

Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji airport will reach saturation point in passenger handling capacity — of about 40 million — in another two years’ time. Till 2007, Mumbai airport was the busiest in India. Now it has been overtaken by the Delhi airport. The Navi Mumbai airport was expected to absorb annually 10 million passengers in its first operational year in 2012, doubling to 20 million by 2020 followed by 30 million passengers in 2025 and ultimately 40 million by 2030. But we are already in 2010 and till a few days back nobody knew whether the airport would ever see the light of the day.

The airport is to come up at Kopra-Panvel area and is to be built through public-private partnership (PPP) with a private sector partner getting 74 per cent equity while the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the state government, through CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation) contributing 13 per cent each. The land required is about 11.4 sq km for the core airport activity and it is proposed to lay two parallel runways each of 4,500 metres long. It is to be located on highway NH 4B near Panvel, about 35 km from the existing airport.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has already given clearance to the airport on technical parameters. The cost of the project was estimated at between Rs 3,200 crore and Rs 4,000 crore. Though according to CIDCO, the total cost of the airport will be about Rs 9,970 crore.

The airport is to be built on 1,142 hectares of land of which 56 per cent is already in AAI’s possession. The state government has sorted out land issues for another 22 per cent of the proposed land and CIDCO is slated to get control over this land also. CIDCO is in the process of working out a compensation package for around 20,000 people inhabiting the remaining land.

According to government sources, the location of the proposed airport at Navi Mumbai has been considered on several parameters. Prominent among these is the fact that Navi Mumbai is expected to absorb the future growth in population, business and commercial activity of the region.

But the detractors of the project dismiss such claims. They point out that land acquisitions have not been completed and farmers are unhappy over compensation. They also point out that world over almost all new international airports are build away from the city and a dedicated road/rail connectivity is provided to passengers.

Environmental concerns

More than anything else, the project has raised serious environmental concerns. Over 30 per cent of the entire proposed land falls under the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ), although the National Coastal Zone Management Authority (NCZMA) gave its approval to the project and the Centre also notified amendments to the CRZ rules to facilitate the project.

The main concerns raised by the environment ministry are on account of destruction of 400 acres of mangrove, the diversion of Ulwe and Gadhi rivers and the blasting of a 90 metre hillock. The construction of the airport would involve reclamation of low-lying areas in an ecologically fragile zone as well as destruction of several hectares of mangrove.
The diversion of the two rivers is a very serious issue considering the unprecedented flooding Mumbai faced in July, 2005. A similar fate could befall on Panvel and its adjoining areas if the rivers are diverted, environmentalists fear. A study conducted by the Mumbai IIT concluded that the development of the airport without diverting the Ulwe and the Gadhi rivers is not technically feasible or viable, as this option would cost about Rs 16,000 crore and defeat the very purpose of retaining the geomorphology of rivers and its aquatic life and mangrove.

Nevertheless, after the prompting by the prime minister’s office, the experts appraisal committee (EAC), under the environment ministry, directed CIDCO to submit maps that would enable a proper study of the impact on the coastal zone and changes in land use pattern. On its part, the civil aviation ministry has promised to look at the environment ministry’s suggestion for design changes, including considering a runway on stilts so that diversion of the Ulwe and Gadhi rivers can be minimised.

Three other alternative sites considered earlier have been put aside as Praful Patel has ruled out change in location of the airport. On Navi Mumbai site, while expressing its reservation due to the existence two hillocks on the proposed runways which may pose significant safety hazard, the EAC asked the authorities about the project’s impact on the nearby locality as well Karnala bird sanctuary.

The ministry has also asked Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to conduct a parallel survey on the environmental feasibility of the Navi Mumbai airport site.

Whatever said and done, the airport has already missed its deadline of 2012 and no one is certain when the construction of the project will actually begin. Patel, however, has high hopes and said the first phase of the Navi Mumbai airport would be thrown open by 2013. When that happens, it will be an answer to Delhi’s swanky Terminal 3 and Mumbai will once again be able to reclaim its top position for air traffic.

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