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Second Mumbai international airport - another view

Mumbai international airportRecently the members of parliament (MPs) representing all hues from Mumbai displayed rare unity when, together, they met the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. At stake was the clearance of the proposal for the second international airport for the metropolis held up at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) of the Indian government.

The Ministry has raised several environmental issues suitable replies to which have not yet been provided. The intention of the MPs was to pressurise the MOEF for expediting the environmental clearances. None dared skipping the meet as this was a proposal, howsoever controversial, that would boost further economic growth of the metropolis even if it happens to be suicidal. They smelt nothing but votes once the second airport came through.

Economic growth is the new deity in India at the altar of which everything has to be sacrificed – whether it is natural resources, the natural world, the environment or whatever. The word connotes development and progress which, in our context, is seemingly limitless and endless.

The proposal for establishment of Mumbai’s second airport has for some time been a subject of public discourse and inter-ministerial squabbles. It is proposed to be located in Navi (New) Mumbai about 35 kilometres away from the existing Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA). Its proponent, City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) of Mumbai, contends that enhancement of aviation facilities for Mumbai has become absolutely essential as the existing airport is fast reaching saturation level.  Besides, a second airport is needed for retaining the leadership of Maharashtra in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), thereby “creating a place of pride for itself and add to the prosperity of its people”.

According to the CIDCO website, the new airport, to be built under public-private partnership, is expected to “absorb” the future growth in business and commercial activity of the region. CIDCO also thinks that availability of physical and social infrastructure coupled with “environmental friendly site” makes the Navi Mumbai airport viable in every respect. Further, the growth in resident population in Navi Mumbai, rapid development of its Central Business District, along with economic activities in the Special Economic Zone, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Thane-Belapur and Taloja industrial areas and the huge catchment area ranging from Pune to South Mumbai would assure a steady growth in traffic. It is expected to cater to 20 million passengers by 2020, 30 million in 2025 and ultimately 40 million by 2030. It is going to be one of the world’s few “greenfield”, state-of-the-art airports offering world class facilities to passengers, cargo and airlines. Needless to mention, the Maharashtra government had given prompt approval to the proposal.

That Mumbai is already bursting at its seams is, apparently, of no concern to the promoter. It is already the most populous city in India and the second most populous city in the world with 14 million people huddled within its seven islands. According to Wikipedia, along with the neighbouring urban areas of Navi Mumbai, Thane, etc. it is one of the most populous urban regions in the world.

As regards the quality of life Mumbai offers to its citizens, a telling report of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation recently appeared in the print media. The Corporation’s Environment Status Report for 2009-2010, released on September 3, 2010, reveals that the presence of the highly carcinogenic chemical, benzo(a)pyrene, has increased eight-fold. Benzo(a)pyrene is a component of chemicals called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and is emitted from automobile exhaust, tar, combustion of organic materials such as wood and coal. The report also reveals a jump in the presence of other PAHs that, all taken together, are potent air pollutants and have been identified as, both “carcinogenic and mutagenic”. The BMC attributes the rise in these carcinogenic pollutants to, inter alia, increased construction and rapid industrialisation. And, yet CIDCO would like more construction and further industrial growth.

The CIDCO in its website has said that new airport has been proposed at an “environment-friendly site”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The MOEF, under the new vigorous leadership of Jairam Ramesh, has taken objection to the proposal on several counts. For the new airport about 400 acres of mangrove forests are proposed to be displaced. These protect Mumbai’s fragile coastline against flash floods, serve as hatching grounds for fish and also act as natural purifier of air. It seems, already massive destruction of mangroves has taken place near the suburb of Dahisar. Besides, no lessons seem to have been learnt from the yearly floods, especially that of 2005, largely caused by the diversion of Mithi River to facilitate building of the existing airport 50 years ago. Overlooking history, CIDCO has proposed diversion of not one but two rivers to accommodate the airport. The building of the proposed airport would also require levelling of an 80 metre high hill that, environmentalists say, raises “significant coastal zone management issues”. Environmentalists also feel that the new airport, unless artificially raised by 7 or 8 metres, would be vulnerable to high tides.

The existing CSI Airport of Mumbai was rated only this year by the Airports Council International as the best in the country among those that handle 15 million or more passengers. Globally also it has improved its rating from 87 to 23. Reports have also indicated that there are slots, though inconvenient, even now available which have been rejected by some foreign airlines. Besides, the Civil Aviation Ministry is considering a crack-down on delayed flights to decongest the Mumbai and Delhi airports. Besides, to forestall choking of the airport the nearby international airports of Goa, Ahmedabad and Pune could be modernised and expanded. Pune, in fact, has been cited to be in the catchment of the proposed Navi Mumbai Airport and, yet, there is no proposal for the expansion of its airport.

As is evident, the proposal for the second airport for the metropolis is entirely driven by “growth” – of passenger and cargo traffic, of industry, international trade and commerce, FDI and, above all, for “pride” and “prosperity” of the locals. The airport is expected to propel growth in passenger traffic to 40 million by 2030. Once that is achieved, will CIDCO propose a third international airport for the metropolis to decongest the proposed one? Can one go on adding airports in a city to provide for ever-rising traffic? One gets the feeling that, Mumbai feels a little jealous of Delhi as the latter has since got an upgraded airport that is supposedly “world class”.

From all evidences, the time seems to have come when authorities in Mumbai must cry a halt to all growth, be satisfied with what it has and strive to improve upon it. The new airport will in no way improve the quality of life of the people. And, barring a few low-level jobs the poor will get nothing out of it. Economic growth in India has a strong relationship with enrichment of the rich and rise in the levels of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Besides, bigger a city becomes, greater is the deprivation of its poor. Despite being the richest city in the country with the highest GDP, more than 50% of Mumbai’s population currently lives in slums in conditions that are sub-human.

The proposal for the second international airport for Mumbai would, therefore, seem to be untenable from many points of view, especially those of its environment and well-being of its citizens.


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