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Landing In Deep Waters

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The other day when i was talking to a senior official at the aviation ministry, he joked about how very soon flights to Mumbai will be landing in deep waters — literally! The joke would have been funny except that it is alarmingly close to the truth.

I know people's imagination is caught up with the Commonwealth Games, but the proposed airport for the financial capital at Navi Mumbai sets new records for how slow and inefficient governments can be.

The existing Mumbai airport at Santa Cruz handles 25.6 million passengers a year. By 2013, the airport will be in a position to handle 40 million passengers. Beyond that, as things stand, capacity at the existing facility can't be stretched.

Airlines have already been complaining of severe congestion at Mumbai. There is no space to park aircraft. Jet's executive director Saroj Datta recently issued a red alert saying that airlines might even have to drop Mumbai from their schedules.

But despite two decades of planning, the new Navi Mumbai airport is nowhere in sight. I don't know how many people are aware of this, but a pre-feasibility study was conducted way back in 1996 (no official in the aviation ministry, the Airports Authority of India or CIDCO could recall when the airport was first conceived). It took another three years before the techno-economic feasibility study was completed. By 2001, however, the proposal somehow reached the central government.

Ten years passed after the pre-feasibility study was completed before International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was asked to conduct its mandatory simulation study in 2006. After that, things moved at a brisk pace. The Cabinet clearance for the project came through within a year of the ICAO simulation study on 31 May 2007.

Soon after, a "visibly relaxed" Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said: "We have received an in-principle clearance for the Navi Mumbai international airport, which has been planned to ease out the burgeoning burden on the existing Mumbai international airport. The project is expected to be complete by 2012."

At the time (14 May 2008), the environment ministry had also given its clearance for the then Rs 4,700-odd crore Navi Mumbai international airport. The ministry had been dithering over its clearance for the project on the grounds that the airport would involve reclamation of low-lying areas in an ecologically fragile zone as well as destruction of several hectares of mangroves.

Back in August 2007, on one of my visits to Navi Mumbai, I met CIDCO officials who were visibly excited that bids for the project would "finally" be invited in September 2007. At the time as with any proposed airport in India, land sharks (who were hoping to make a quick buck), industrialists, bureaucrats and millions of regular investors (who were real end-users and had burnt their fingers since most developments were delayed) had tied their fate to the Navi Mumbai airport by buying up large tracts of land around the site. Big business houses had shown their clear interest both in developing the airport and sharing in the Navi Mumbai pie. Mukesh Ambani invested in land to set up his 23-storeyed headquarters in one of the nodes of the city.

But within months of Deshmukh's confident claims, the environment ministry again woke up and started raising the very same objections that it had raised earlier. The ministry decided to go in for an environmental assessment study that is yet to see the light of day. Two alternative locations — Rewas-Mandwa near Alibaug and Nevali near Kalyan, 55 km from the current airport — have also been half-heartedly examined and dropped. As one official put it: "No one has the energy or commitment to locate a new site."

Only when push has come to shove (the existing Mumbai airport is reaching saturation levels and airlines are in a panic over the congestion) have the Prime Minister, the civil aviation minister and the environment ministry woken up to the issue at hand. Meanwhile, the cost of the proposed airport has doubled (aviation ministry sources say that it will be Rs 9,000-10,000 crore for the first phase). According to one official, the process of clearing the airport is finally underway and if things proceed as planned, the airport should be opened for bidding in 2011 and operational by 2014.

So, where does all this leave us — the passengers and citizens of the country? We will finally get an airport at precisely the same site for double or maybe even triple the initial cost close to 20 years after it was first proposed.

anjulibhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 18-10-2010)