The residents of Jewar, a sleepy tehsil (a small unit of revenue collection and administration typically comprising a few towns and villages) of Uttar Pradesh, 75km from New Delhi, have seen enough aircraft, usually helicopters, to not be excited by transient sightings any more. Elections—recently concluded ones to the state assembly, and others before them—have ensured that.
But the 200,000-plus residents of Jewar have been thrown into a state of excitement by the announcement that the state’s new chief minister Mayawatiof the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) wants to build an international airport in the tehsil. A few helicopters is one thing; daily scheduled landings by aircraft of all hues, something else.
In the last week of May, Mayawati revived her four-year-old proposal for an international airport in Jewar in a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The civil aviation ministry has now asked the state government to submit details of the project. The chief minister is from Badalpur village, about 60km from Jewar.
Residents speak of how 20,000 people from Jewar town and the villages surrounding it attended an election meeting where Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi, family spoke. Gandhi flew to the meeting venue in a helicopter. That meeting attracted more people than meetings addressed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders Rajnath Singh and Kalyan Singh, say residents. The two Singhs arrived at Jewar by helicopters too.
Neither the BJP nor the Congress won the seat in the assembly elections though; another Singh, BSP’s Horam Singh, a former member of BJP, did. And he’s hoping to oversee the conversion of Jewar, a detour off the Delhi-Agra highway, into a destination.
Jewar tehsil comprises the main eponymous town—two smaller towns and 92 villages—and on Saturday, the prevailing mood in the town and in some of the surrounding villages was anticipation: of jobs that the new airport will create, and compensation for land. Around a dozen of these villages could give way to a sprawling hub for international aviation, complete with contemporary infrastructure for passengers, aircraft and cargo.
If the new airport sticks to the original plan submitted by Mayawati’s government when it was in power in 2003, the airport will come up along the highway from Greater Noida to Jewar, largely on land that is currently under cultivation. Most farmers in the tehsil, though, said they were looking forward to selling their land to the government.
“We are not opposed to acquisition of our lands. All we want is adequate compensation,” said 87-year-old Mani Ram, of Kishorpur village, tearing himself away from his hookah for a considered comment. Naval Singh, a 56-year-old farmer, echoed the sentiment: “Most of us have small landholdings, just between five and 15 bighas (15,125-45,375 sq. yards), mostly on the lower side. If we get the money, we can shift to cheaper land in districts such as Aligarh and save some.”
Farmers in some parts of the country have been protesting against acquisition of their land for special economic zones, industries and infrastructure projects. The willingness of farmers in Jewar to sell their land could stem from the poor state of agriculture. In 2006-07, the agricultural economy grew only by 2.7% compared with 9.4% for the economy as a whole. And its contribution to the overall economy, once more than half, is now down to less than a fifth.
Residents of Sabota village, who expect to lose their farms but not their houses, said they expect favourable terms for the land. “We won’t give up our land cheap,” said Santosh Sharma Parashar, who has been married into a Delhi-family, but regularly visits her paternal home in Sabota.
“I am in Lucknow to talk to Behenji (Mayawati),” said Horam Singh. “I will plead with her to announce adequate compensation for the farmers who will have to part with their lands,” he added.
Those without land are looking forward to jobs. Devraj Singh, an agricultural contract labourer, said he would “get more work if the airport comes up”. And Jitendra Kumar, a 19-year-old college student, added the airport would create opportunities for people like him. “There are simply no jobs here. There is no industry. If the airport comes up, at least people like me can drive taxis.”
Land prices have already risen in Jewar, with much of the rise happening in the past month, well before the airport project was announced. Some residents said prices have doubled or quadrupled in this period, but Ramesh Chand Sharma, a government employee and the officiating in-charge of the local registrar’s office, said it would take at least a month for the announcement to reflect in actual transactions.
Sharma added the number of agreements in May rose 50% over the past year and that prices are at least 100-300% more than official rates fixed by the government a year ago. These rates vary widely across the tehsil, from Rs900 to Rs25 lakh a hectare (2.5 acres or more than 100,000 sq. ft). Spurred by the rise in prices, the government plans to revise circle rates this year (these are usually revised only once in two years), said Sharma.
Residents said prospective buyers for land have started turning up, hoping to buy it cheap from farmers and sell it to the government at a higher price later. Many of these people drive up in Tata Safaris and Mahindra Scorpios from Gurgaon and Noida, added residents. These people are those who have made enough money selling their land holdings in Gurgaon and Noida to the respective governments, they said. Sharma confirmed this. “Almost all prospective buyers here are the people who have made money out of land acquisition,” he said. “Nobody else is interested in this place. No inquiry from a real-estate developer, for instance, has ever come,” he added.
Residents are hoping that the interest shown by such buyers forces the government to increase circle rates by more than the 10-15%, which is the norm for such increments.
Sharma said some such buyers had arrived in 2003 as well, when the airport project was first announced. “Mayawati lost power and the speculators exited in a hurry,” he added.
The revival of the airport project, at least on paper, is good news for residents.
As Rajendra Prasad Sharma, 63, a staunch supporter of the Congress party and perhaps the wealthiest person in the town, said, there isn’t much else (other than the airport) residents can pin their hopes on. Sharma, popularly known as Raja Babu in town, owns several shops and the only cinema in Jewar. He said that despite tickets priced at Rs20 (for balcony seats), he seldom attracts more than 80 people; the theatre accommodates 400. Sharma’s cinema screens only films that are six-months-old, and he now plans to convert it into a two-screen multiplex with shops on the lower level.
Sharma claims he gets several enquiries about his properties every day. “Some of these (properties) have appreciated from Rs2,500 per sq. yard (Rs280 per sq. ft) to Rs8,000 (Rs890),” he said. “The airport is fine if it actually comes up, but farmers will lose their land and won’t get jobs in the airport either.”
The 2003 proposal for an airport at Jewar involved a 2,471.05-acre Taj International Airport and Aviation Hub, which would have been much bigger than Mumbai’s 1,875- acre airport, but less than half the size of the country’s largest airport, the 5,106.43-acre one at Delhi. That project was modelled on the lines of international airports, which earn just 30% of their revenue from aviation-related tariffs. The rest, according to that proposal, was to come from non-aviation related usage, including duty-free shops, food and beverage sales, outdoor advertising, and hotels.
That contrasts with Delhi’s airport, which earns only about 40% of its revenues from non-aviation activities. Most Indian airports depend on aviation-related earnings.
After the new proposal reaches the civil aviation ministry, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) will carry out a techno-feasibility study to assess whether the land and airspace around Jewar can sustain an airport. And the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao) will need to study the proposal and the area for security clearance and traffic growth estimates. UN agency Icao focuses on safe aviation.
Even if the state acquires all clearances and the land for the project, it will need the Centre to waive a rule on airport infrastructure that mandates a 150km aerial distance between any two international airports. Delhi’s airport is around 100km from Jewar. As if to show it is willing to make exceptions, last week, the Centre cleared the Navi Mumbai International Airport, which will be just 35km away from Mumbai’s existing airport.
Arun Arora, spokesperson for Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL), said that according to the prevailing rules, if the government decided to waive the 150km rule, the first right of refusal for developing the proposed airport would be with the developer of the existing airport. That means, in case the Jewar project is sanctioned, GMR Infrastructure-led consortium that runs DIAL would get the first right of refusal. Arora refused to comment on the feasibility of the proposed project, but said DIAL would certainly bid for it when it comes up.
A representative of the civil aviation ministry said the viability of the new airport would have to be studied. “The Delhi airport is already undergoing modernization. Whether the projected traffic growth justifies a new airport needs to be studied,” said Maushumi Chakravarty, spokesperson for the civil aviation ministry .
After the ongoing upgradation, Delhi’s airport is expected to handle 37 million passengers a year by 2012 against 20 million currently.
The proposed airport in Jewar may have other possible competitors as well, including those in Amritsar and Jaipur, which are also undergoing upgradation. An official in the aviation ministry, who did not wish to be named, said neither AAI nor the ministry was keen on the project.
In Jewar, however, the airport buzz is largely welcome, especially since a hailstorm in February devastated this year’s wheat harvest.