By P. Sreekumaran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The Sabarimala airport project has become a bone of contention between the Union Government and the Kerala Government.
There is an air of uncertainty over the project with the Civil Aviation Ministry expressing misgivings over the State’s proposal to construct the Greenfield airport. The project has run into rough weather with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) raising objections to the design and feasibility report. The report says that approval cannot be given to the project as it goes against the Greenfield Airports policy.
Kerala Government has, however, contended that the report has nothing to do with it as the report is only part of an internal communication between the Union Civil Aviation Ministry and the DGCA. The Government has satisfactorily answered the few questions raised by the Ministry, according to MG Rajamanickam, Managing Director of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC), which is the nodal agency for the project. The Government, for instance, has directed that the field examination of the Cheruvalli estate in Kottayam district, where the airport is supposed to come up, be conducted at the earliest. There is also a dispute over the ownership of the estate. An officers’ team which went to the estate to conduct the field survey was stopped by a section of the people. The team had to return without conducting the survey in view of the opposition.
One of the objections raised by the Ministry was that the proposed site has an aerial distance of 88 km and 110 km from the Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram airports respectively. The Greenfield Airport Policy stipulates that no airport can be allowed within an aerial distance of 150 km of an existing airport. Although this is the general norm, Kerala argues that the country does have Greenfield airports within 50 km aerial distance of other airports. For instance, the Kannur airport falls between Mangaluru and Kozhikode airports. The 150-km aerial distance norm has not been observed in the case of Kannur airport.
Another point on which the Ministry had doubts was in respect of two villages close to the project site. The Ministry seems to have come to the conclusion that the villages are thickly populated. However, these are only ‘revenue villages’, which means they are not densely populated. The Ministry also wants clarification on whether the proposed airport should have a table-top runway in view of the nature of the land. Will there be any need to construct the runway on the lines of Mangaluru and Kozhikode airports? That was another question posed by the Ministry.
Kerala has sought to allay the Ministry’s fears on this count by saying that there is no need for a table-top runway as there will be enough space for a normal-length runway. The airport is supposed to have a 2,700-metre runway. In support of its contention, Kerala has further clarified that it is also planning to undertake a topographical study of the area which will reveal the micro details of such apprehensions.
The DGCA report is critical of the techno-economic feasibility report prepared by Louis Berger, a private consultant. The report is not at all reliable, contends the DGCA, which takes particular exception to that part of the consultant’s report which states that “any reliance on this report by any third party or external agency shall be solely at their risk and cost, with no obligation/liability on the part of Louis Berger. No representation or warranty is given as to the reasonableness of forecasts or the assumption on which they may be based and nothing in this report is or should be relied on as a promise, representation or warranty.”
Moreover, the “appended map/chart to get the site clearance approval are not signed or authenticated by the surveyor and the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation ((KSIDC), the nodal agency for the project, as the contents of documents varies at various places,” it adds. Kerala has rejected this on the ground that the KSIDC has signed the application. As the consultant’s report is only part of the application, there is no need for the consultant to sign it. But, if the DGCA so desires, a signed copy will be sent to it.
There is no denying the importance of the Sabarimala airport for the development of the central Kerala region, which accounts for 30 per cent of the total flow of passengers through the airports in Kerala. This being the ground reality, the need for early clearance of the project cannot be overemphasized.
With Kerala having answered most of the the questions raised by the Civil Aviation Ministry satisfactorily, the ball is now in the Ministry’s court. The Union Government cannot reject the long-standing demand for an airport close to Sabarimala on technical grounds. The political and electoral cost it will have to pay will be heavy. And that is a luxury the BJP-led Union Government cannot afford at this juncture when the party is trying hard to recover lost ground in the State steeped in secular ethos. In view of this ground reality, Kerala hopes the Civil Aviation Ministry will give the green signal for the Sabarimala airport project at the earliest. (IPA Service)