New Delhi: The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has pulled up the aviation ministry for wasting taxpayers’ money on developing Gondia airport in Maharashtra despite knowing it wouldn’t be handling flights anytime soon.
Gondia is one of the 30 airports in the country which were developed by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) under the directions of the aviation ministry in the past decade. It is also the constituency of Praful Patel, who was aviation minister in that period.
The airport was built to handle big jets like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, which ply on metro routes and not to such small cities. It had been expected to earn revenue with the establishment of a National Flying Training Institute (NFTI).
“No commercial flights were operational or intended to/from the airport while envisaging its development for NFTI. No commercial flights have been scheduled subsequent to the development of the airport, either,” CAG said in its Union Commercial Compliance Report 15 of 2016, “Hence, it may be correct to state that the development of infrastructure at Gondia was intended solely for meeting the requirement of NFTI (as brought out in 139th meeting of AAI Board (August 2010)”
The aviation ministry in November 2007 approved the proposal to establish NFTI in a joint venture with Canada-based CAE International Flight School (Mauritius) Ltd.
The foreign partner was to hold 51% in the joint venture and AAI and Pawan Hans Helicopters the rest. Till date, an expenditure of Rs.201.64 crore (of which Rs.198.8 crore was from government budgetary funds) has been incurred for development of the Birsi airport in Gondia, CAG said.
AAI earned revenue of only Rs.11.07 crore from NFTI during April 2009 to March 2015. The accumulated losses incurred by AAI on Gondia airport during April 2009-March 2015 was Rs.27.31 crore.
“The matter was reported to the ministry in September 2015; their reply was awaited,” the report said. AAI defended its move in the CAG report. “The Institute is serving the nation by creating skilled pilots to meet our aviation industry demand,” AAI said in its reply to CAG.
It added that aviation infrastructure created at Birsi airport was sufficient to handle commercial domestic flights for which AAI is requesting airlines to start scheduled operations. “Since the airlines plan their flight schedules as per their market survey and fleet availability, the commercial flights have not yet commenced,” it said.
CAG dismissed the defence, saying the number of people trained at the institute was way below what had been projected. A text message sent to Patel seeking comment remained unanswered.
Then aviation minister Praful Patel said it was interesting to note that only Gondia was picked up for the CAG audit when there were several other airports also without flights.
“Its one of the many airports developed by AAI in the hope that flights will operate. It they haven’t we hope under new Regional Connectivity Scheme we hope they will,” Patel said adding flying school pays commercial rates to AAI.
India has over 70 airports which are connected by flights but it has also spent hundreds of crores on developing the 30 airports, where no flights have commenced, according to the aviation ministry. These include Gondia, Juhu, Kolhapur and Sholapur, Akola and Jalgaon. Rajasthan and Punjab have three each in the list, at towns such as Jaisalmer, Bhatinda, Ludhiana and Pathankot.
Last month, the aviation ministry again sought a budgetary provision of Rs.4,650 crore to revive a total of 50 underserved airports/airstrips, minister of state for aviation Jayant Sinha told the Rajya Sabha. Like Gondia, many of these air strips were built by the British during World War II in 1940.