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Hanging In The Air?

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Whatever happened to the Navi Mumbai Airport (NMIA)? Ever since former environment minister Jairam Ramesh dug in his heels over it, all has been quiet on the western front. So, on a recent trip to Mumbai, I decided to find out whether this airport was at all on the cards, and if so, by which century.

I met the present chief of Cidco (the agency developing Navi Mumbai and the airport), Tanaji Satre, who assured me that things were absolutely on course (which probably means it will be ready before the turn of the next century), and that they were hoping to issue a request for qualification if not by December-end, certainly by the end of January 2012.

Satre went on to elaborate that the airport would now cost Rs 14,000-odd crore instead of the Rs 9,000 crore envisaged in 2007-08. Its capacity and other specifications remain the same — it would be built to handle 60 million passengers by 2030. It would take the pressure off the present Santa Cruz facility, which many argue is already saturated.

However, what is more interesting than the airport itself is the grand plan for connecting the airport, which will cost a total of — hold your breath — Rs 86,000 crore. A detailed plan for this has recently been developed by Canadian consultancy Lea Associates. Although the connectivity plan is primarily for the development of the entire region, the airport has been one of its main focuses. The aim is that no matter where you are in the vicinity, the airport should take you at most an hour to reach.

Let me list some of the highlights. There is a plan to widen arterial roads and highways feeding traffic to NMIA such as NH 4B, NH4 and Aamra Marg. The Sion-Panvel Highway is to be widened (from 6 to 10 lanes) to improve access from central Mumbai and Pune. These projects involve the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL). Wherever possible, the private sector will be roped in through public-private partnerships.

The MMRDA is developing a metro link from Ghatkopar to Panvel via Vashi which will connect with Bandra and Versova. There is a second metro corridor, connecting areas such as  Colaba, Siddhivinayak and Mahim. A part of the metro — from Mankhurd to Panvel — will be developed by Cidco at its own cost. It will be around 120 km and is expected to cost around Rs 200 crore per km.

Then, there is a plan to develop a Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus-Panvel rail corridor along the Harbor line. This 55-km corridor is likely to be developed by Maharashtra Rail Vikas Corporation and will cost around Rs 3,000 crore. This may also involve the Central Railways.

Then, just like the Worli-Bandra Sea Link, a new 28-km sea link, is planned from Shivadi to Nava Sheva — again to be developed by MTHL and MMRDA.

In fact, if things go as planned by the consultancy and Cidco, this would be one of the best connected airports in the country. As I listened, I realised that this was a pretty big ‘if', because of the sheer number of government agencies involved.

But when I voiced my doubts , Satre expressed equal surprise. He sees absolutely no reason why everything should not fall into place exactly as planned. Yes, many government agencies were involved, but everything had to fall in place only by 2030, so everyone had plenty of time to get their act together, was his way of looking at it.

Cidco, in any case, is already working on getting its act together — and it is quite an act. There is the matter of cutting through a massive hill (which Cidco has embarked on) and then leveling around 1,160 hectares of land.  Of course, before the road rollers get down to the job, there is the small matter of shifting the 5,000 odd families living in the area — a matter that has stalled the land acquisition process so far. Then, there are some high-tension lines (along 40-km) that need to be shifted. All of this will cost Cidco around Rs 4,000 crore — a figure that did not seem to faze the chief executive in the least.

After all this is done, Cidco will start working on the 69  conditions placed on the project by the environment ministry. This includes development of a 245-hectare mangrove park. That should in fact please the forest department enough to give Cidco its final clearance. Call me a  pessimist if you will, but January seems a little too ambitious, Satre's best intentions notwithstanding...

anjulibhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-01-2012)