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Dubai on ground or pie in sky?

Dubai on ground or pie in sky?
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First Published: Thu, Mar 27 2008. 01 24 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Thu, Mar 27 2008. 01 24 AM IST
Nagpur is not just the centre of India, it is the centre of the globe”. These were the words of Vilas Mutemwar, six times Nagpur MP, at a recent seminar on Mihan, or the proposed multimodal international hub airport at Nagpur. Mihan is being implemented by the Maharashtra Airport Development Corporation (MADC), along with a contiguous special economic zone (SEZ) and a train and truck terminal to provide multi-modal connectivity.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Response to the SEZ has been good, but only from IT units so far, which generate no freight, and there is a real question about the grandiose scale on which Mihan is being planned. MADC is given to distributing futuristic brochures with pictures of serried ranks of up to 100 aircraft parked at a time outside a gigantic new terminal. A new runway is being planned, although the existing runway, which is grossly underutilized, is long enough to handle the B747s used for Haj charter traffic. The airport already possesses 1,500 acres of land, has just been provided with a spanking new terminal building by AAI, and is large enough to handle the growth, for the next 30 years, of passenger and cargo traffic projected in the project report, which is itself highly overoptimistic. It plans to expand in its present location—less than 10km from the centre point of town—at the cost of massive additional displacement over and above that already caused by the SEZ.
The state government is acquiring land from seven villages compulsorily, at a fraction of its market value, although the Bill to amend the Land Acquisition Act, pending in Parliament, requires companies such as MADC to henceforth purchase land from willing buyers through negotiation, as the Punjab government is doing for Chandigarh’s international airport. Had MADC done so, it would have been forced to take a much closer look at how much additional land is really requires (very little, if any at all). It would have taken into account the true cost and economic value of land, and the need to minimize displacement and choose the least displacing of available alternatives, as required by recent judgements of the Supreme Court.
The bulk of traffic for Mihan is to come from international passengers and cargo using it as a hub for connecting flights to other countries, much like the airports at Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore, and also in the case of passengers using it for stopovers. Mihan brochures carry little maps with lines stretching across the continents intersecting in Nagpur (the centre of the globe) and talk about the 250 aircraft overflying Nagpur everyday. The project report says that the range of entertainment and shopping facilities at such hub ­airports, including “swimming pools, bars, personal video rooms…lucky draws, golf” can make even a “five-hour wait too short”. This vision of an airport arcadia peopled by sauna-bathing passengers with time on their hands, if it ever had any applicability, is decades out of date now. The much longer range of today’s aircraft, making possible the convenience and time savings of non-stop flights as well as the prohibitive cost of refuelling in India, renders the possibility of stopover traffic a pipe dream.
As for transfer and transshipment traffic to countries beyond South Asia, it is going to be almost impossible to wean traffic away from the existing hubs in the neighbourhood. Apart from all their off-airport infrastructure advantages, they are the home base of strong carriers such as Emirates, Thai and or Singapore Airlines. In India, the national carrier Air India is quite logically based in Mumbai, as is Jet, and as is Kingfisher in Bangalore, since it is in the seven metros that 90% of the India’s international traffic—both passenger and cargo—originates and terminates.
It is here that new international flights are being added, and where the cargo integrators such as DHL and FedEx are located. The congestion argument for Nagpur capturing a small share of this traffic has weakened since the project report was prepared in 2001, with the new or expanded airports coming up in all the metros. As for originating and terminating traffic, Nagpur is located in the middle of a sparsely populated hinterland, which generates few international passengers and little air-amenable cargo of its own. The exports it does generate are bulky commodities (agricultural commodities, steel, etc.) which go to foreign markets by rail and then sea.
What about Nagpur as a domestic hub, as it was for night airmail flights in the 1950s and 1960s? Here again, with the spokes in the hub-and-spokes model getting directly connected to each other with the growth of traffic, the hub loses its rationale. This is exactly what happened to the night airmail flights. It is quite possible that a regional or even a national carrier might choose to base itself in Nagpur. But this is not going to happen soon. To take a random example, GoAir’s CEO was asked the other day about plans to expand out of Mumbai. He said they were looking at Chennai, Hyderabad Bangalore and Kolkata as possible hubs. Nagpur is nowhere in the picture, nor is spending Rs2,500 crore (at 2002 prices) of taxpayer’s money on unwanted facilities likely to change its current ranking as about the 20th busiest airport in the country.
Vilas Mutemwar said with evident satisfaction at the Mihan seminar that property values in south Nagpur had risen fourfold in the last two years because of the project. This is precisely what is driving the project. The thousands of families affected would not mind losing their land and livelihoods for Nagpur’s development if properly compensated, but not for a bogus project which doesn’t even need their land. Further land acquisition needs to be stopped, and an expert committee set up to review the project immediately.
Prabhu Ghate is a former senior economist with ADB, with a home in one of the affected villages. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Mar 27 2008. 01 24 AM IST