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Stranded On The Runway

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I know chief ministers can often be difficult customers, but, in this particular case, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has taken the cake. 
I refer, once again, to the Navi Mumbai airport project for which Cidco (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra) was supposed to have invited requests for proposal this January, at the very latest; needless to add that this is nowhere on the horizon.
The minister recently gave it a new, rather dramatic,  twist: He said he would finalise the compensation package for villagers affected by the airport project only after Cidco redressed all the grievances of the people on account of the agency’s previous projects. Phew! 
Now, that’s a tall, almost impossible task. The number of people affected by more than a dozen Cidco projects could well run into a few million. Asking the agency to redress the grievances of all these people before he can finalise the compensation package for the airport project is a bit like asking the mountain to come to Mohammed. Clearly, the chief minister is in no hurry to see the Navi Mumbai airport project take off.
Considering the sheer number of hurdles that the Navi Mumbai project needs to clear, I think it’s high time that the Centre stepped in. It needs to appoint a senior officer — of joint secretary level, at the very least — to push the project. He should ensure that all the barriers in its way are removed and the problems resolved amicably. He must be made accountable, the only way to push the project. 
A former environment ministry official may not be a bad choice for the job, considering that the ministry has placed 69 (yes, you read that right) conditions on the project, all of which must be met before it can be given the go-ahead.
In fact, if necessary, a small team of people — one from the Centre, one from the state government and one or two from Cidco — can be handed over this task. Of course, the project leader needs to be more in the mode and style of an E. Sreedharan than a Nandan Nilekani, as the Delhi Metro and Aadhar projects have clearly shown us. A dynamic leader from within the system may be able to deliver better results than a super-dynamic one from outside.
I am a bit surprised by the total apathy of the Centre in regard to this project, which can potentially affect the entire country and its growth in due course. Is the Centre unable to see the impact a choked airport in Mumbai, our financial capital, will have on the rest of the country? Can we really afford to ignore Mumbai? Or, is it simply that this will soon be someone else’s problem and that ‘someone’ is unlikely to be the UPA, which means that it is admitting defeat even before it has reached the battleground?
The project, about which I first wrote in 2010 (17 October) and then again in 2011 (23 December), has seen a 300 per cent escalation in its cost since its launch and which continues to rise every month. It looks like this project is going to set a new record for delays — it is certainly not going to be completed anytime soon. 
The project’s pre-feasibility study was done in 1996, and the techno-economic feasibility study was completed three years later. By 2001, the proposal reached the central government. A dozen years have elapsed since then, but bids for the project have yet to be invited. 
The existing airport, which will soon have a total handling capacity of 40 million passengers — both domestic and international — handled a little over 30 million passengers in 2012. While its passenger count is growing at a lower rate than that of the Delhi airport, authorities are certain that it will reach saturation by 2015. Airlines already complain of lack of space and hangars. Business and private aircraft owners have been grumbling about the step-fatherly treatment they receive in this regard.
So, we are already cutting it rather fine.


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-04-2013)