The Navi Mumbai International Airport project is just the kind of thing to make a politician praful
Pity Jairam Ramesh. The spirited Minister of State for Environment and Forests finds himself fighting a lonely battle against the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) project. The Aviation Minister lashed out at him in public. Now others — the editors of the Indian Express; the Governor of Maharashtra; and the young (and clueless) Turks of Indian politics — have also waded in against him. They accuse Ramesh of kowtowing to a knee-jerk, maudlin, impractical and fundamentally brainless “green” lobby, an amorphous group that conveniently excludes local citizens opposing the project. Environmentalists are afflicted by the BANANA (“Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone”) syndrome; the local population is ignored altogether. Both green and brown must be sacrificed for the greater good of the airborne.
CIDCO has produced a massive five-volume Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report in which a dizzying mass of data is compiled, tabulated, graphed and presented in more ways than is probably legal. In substance, the EIA report tells us three things: first, that Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) is overburdened and cannot handle future traffic; second, that this is the only available site; and third, that the environmental damage at this site is insignificant.
Each assertion is wrong. True, CSIA is the busiest in the country. But with growth in air traffic has also come a diversion of international flights direct to Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Kochi and elsewhere, all earlier routed through Mumbai. Charter flights now fly straight into Goa. Though clearly relevant, this information, available with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, finds no place in CIDCO’s EIA Report.
The environmental impacts at the NMIA are anything but insignificant. The EIA report says that mangroves cover a mere 9.29% of the project site’s enormous 2054 ha (20.54 sq kms). This works out to a huge 477 acres under mangroves. This loss is to be compensated by mangrove afforestation. Where? In Dahanu. It’s not immediately clear how planting mangroves in Dahanu 140 kms to the north-west is going to do anything to help the coastal areas of Navi Mumbai. Over a quarter of the site (26.77%; about 1374 acres) is mud flats. This is not barren land. It is a huge ecologically fragile area and its destruction affects bird life and marine life, including fisheries on which the local population depends. Over 1800 acres of ecologically sensitive land are to be destroyed.
The report also says that the runways are to be built on these mudflats. That means excavation and land filling to an enormous extent and to great depth. This is no ordinary blacktop road; huge aircraft are supposed to land here at high speed. The excavation and filling will need to be deep, probably well over 6mtrs (18 feet), for all 1800 acres of eco-sensitive land. Where is all this landfill material to come from? Quarrying, we are told, from the nearby hills (“blasting of hillocks” is the phrase used).
Five rivers criss-cross the site. One has to be “trained” (read channelled), another diverted. We all know what happened when they “trained” and diverted the Mithi in Mumbai: the first thing that went underwater was the airport.
The area is surrounded by hills. At least one entire hill (Ulve) is to be flattened (one of the reasons Rewas-Mandwa was rejected was that it involved cutting a much hill, much lower than those at NMIA). But also mentioned specifically are — and this is a real tragedy — Matheran and Elephanta. The latter, a mere 13.5 kms to the west, is directly in the funnel of aircraft taking off and landing. Matheran, a notified Eco-Sensitive Zone, and the Karnala Bird Sanctuary are within a 20 km radius of the site. Don’t be surprised if, a few years from now, we are told that the hills of Elephanta and Matheran need to be shaved. Aircraft will be as low as 2200 feet above Elephanta, perhaps even less over Matheran. We are not told if this meets international air safety norms. It’s as if Mangalore never happened.
How will anyone even get to this place? The site is south-west of Kalamboli just before the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. At present, the only way of getting there is driving through the mess of Sion and Panvel. How is this of assistance to passengers? The report itself suggests that the only means of road access are the Sion-Panvel Highway; nothing further is envisioned, such as the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link. In fact, the want of the Rs.8000 crore Trans-Harbour Link is cited as a reason for the unsuitability of Rewas-Mandwa (it wasn’t), although a bird’s eye view of the two sites shows that a fork to the north-east of such a link would best connect the NMIA to Mumbai. But that would easily double the project cost. The report does mention a high-speed water transportation system. That this will be unavailable for four months of the year does not seem to matter. The monsoon is to be rearranged, too.
The report claims that a public hearing was conducted as mandated by law. It was not. The Report itself was not made available before the date of the hearing, only the Executive Summary (a masterpiece of subterfuge) was. The hearing was completely boycotted by the local citizenry. Present were only CIDCO representatives, consultants and the press. The hearing is supposed to be public, not a tea party for friends and admirers.
At over Rs.9600 crores, this is a monster of a project, and it is admittedly a greenfield project. That means everything must be built from scratch: the terminal, all facilities, parking aprons, runways, taxiways, the works. A fourth of the site area is “non-aeronautical”. This includes hotels, warehouses, banks, offices, housing, shopping malls, convention and exhibition centres, and leisure and entertainment areas. Is this an airport or a township?
More egregious is the emphasis in the bespoke EIA Report (and by Praful Patel in the media) on site selection. Patel says this is the site; there is no other, and there is no question of changing the location. The EIA Report studies only two sites: the present location and the Rewas-Mandwa site that was formally abandoned years ago. The disused pre-War airfield at Nevali near Kalyan is said to be too far, which is clearly untrue — it’s only 15 kms further. Besides, the Kalyan airfield already has an airstrip and is on a level plain, with only the Malangad hills to the west, while the NMIA is whole lot bumpier throughout. There are existing road and rail connections to Nevali that only need to be upgraded. The government once surveyed this site and its lower-echelon officers felt it was best suited. But, as we all know, politics makes demands quite unrelated to reality, governance or accountability. This is fly-by-liar technology.
Estimates vary. Some say CSIA will have to hand 50 million air travellers a year by 2012 (twice what it does now); and that the current expansion will only allow for 40 million passengers per year. Again, this study suffers from a fundamental flaw. Nobody is even considering moving the encroachers off the airport land. Logically, there’s no problem in splitting the traffic: turboprops, helicopters and other small aircraft should be diverted to an airport elsewhere and not clog up a major hub. But no VIP wants to land anywhere other than at the main airport. How else can you possibly inconvenience thousands of paying passengers with free “VIP movement” or bask in the glare of a thousand irate eyes as you sweep past every checkpoint, every gate, every stop in our infernal stuttering system of what it takes to actually get into an aircraft?
If Kalyan isn’t an option for any reason, the one site that should have been considered has been ignored entirely: the Mumbai airport itself. Why is CSIA incapable of expansion? The answer suggests itself: because the government has allowed nearly 250 acres to be encroached. Who would want to risk lose the vote banks those encroachments represent? To do that you must have cojones. Therefore, ignore CSIA, reject Nevali on some completely untenable ground, and plump for the one site that requires the maximum expenditure, never mind that it is, by a mile, the least suitable site.
At Navi Mumbai, 2000 of the 2054 ha need to be acquired. 10 settlements of 7 villages will be displaced. CSIA is a cheaper, faster and more cost-efficient solution and it is right under noses. No land needs to be acquired here. It belongs to the government anyway. Rehabilitating encroachers on 247 acres is less expensive than acquiring 5135 acres and resettling seven villages. CSIA does not need facilities and services to be newly built, merely expanded and renovated.
Jairam Ramesh is absolutely right in demanding a re-think, a social impact assessment and explanations about site selection. What is to be made of this indiginant insistence on NMIA, this refusal to consider any other site? Consider this: Government-owned land in Mumbai is allowed to be encroached. Resettlment of those encroachers is not considered. Instead, it is in the “public interest”, and more equitable, to uproot ten entire settlements somewhere else, pillage the environment, risk damage to a world heritage site and an eco-sensitive zone. This is the kind of “public” project our Law Minister wants us not to oppose. We should be mad not to.
A shiny new airport is so much sexier. So what if it is inconvenient and causes far more social and environmental damage? At over Rs.9000 crores, it’s enough to make any politician praful.
A shorter version of this article first appeared on Friday, 6 August 2010, under the title “Plane Vote-Bank Politics” in the Mumbai Mirror and Bangalore Mirror.
The Plane Untruth
Pity Jairam Ramesh. The spirited Minister of State for Environment and Forests finds himself fighting a lonely battle against the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) project. The Aviation Minister lashed out at him in public. Now others -- the editors of the [*Indian Express*][ie]; the [Governor of Maharashtra][gov]; and the [young (and clueless) Turks][turks] of Indian politics -- have also waded in against him. They accuse Ramesh of kowtowing to a knee-jerk, maudlin, impractical and fundamentally brainless "green" lobby, an amorphous group that conveniently excludes local citizens opposing the project. Environmentalists are afflicted by the BANANA ("Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone") syndrome; the local population is ignored altogether. Both green and brown must be sacrificed for the greater good of the airborne.
[ie]: http://www.indianexpress.com/story-print/653213/ "Mumbai Grounded; Indian Express, 29 July 2010"
[gov]: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Governor-roots-for-Navi-Mum-airport/articleshow/6239759.cms "Governor roots for Navi Mumbai Airport; Times of India, 31 July 2010"
[turks]: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/PM-promises-to-sort-out-Navi-Mumbai-airport-tangle/articleshow/6249534.cms "Young Parliamentarians seek PM's intervention, Times of India, 3 August 2010"