Panjim: It’s déjà vu all over again in Goa, as the Supreme Court intervened on 29 March to suspend environmental clearance for the international airport project at Mopa in Pernem, the northernmost taluka of India’s smallest state. In an uncanny reprisal of related previous judgments, especially the historic 2018 cancellation of all iron ore mining leases in Goa, the apex court expressed “serious displeasure" about the state government’s constant denials and obfuscations, particularly the environmental impact assessment (EIA) project report which led to the “failure of due process commencing from non-disclosure".

This is only the latest setback for the controversial “second airport" which has weathered near-unanimous criticism from air transport experts, as well as vehement opposition within the state. Many locals compare the Mopa project to Frankenstein’s monster—cobbled together with dodgy parts, peddled by dubious special interests, but keeps going long after it should be dead.

One obvious reason for this is its backers function at the highest levels of the Indian government. For example, earlier this month, the chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, Amitabh Kant, took the unusual step of writing an opinion piece in The Economic Times to publically castigate the Supreme Court’s decision as “unfortunate as the verdict could harm job creation, travel and tourism beyond this particular case… It’s a dangerous precedent to set."

In fact, the thrust of the ruling is deceptively straightforward. All the court actually demanded was another report from the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change, to be submitted in 30 days. But much more could be immediately read into the 93-page judgement, with its array of citations including the writings of Amartya Sen, the IUCN World Declaration on the Environmental Rule of Law, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and even the Oxford doctoral thesis of one Dhvani Mehta (who won the Rhodes Scholarship in 2008), which includes an ominous warning that the airport’s clearance “will be liable to be rejected in the event of a suppression or misstatement of material facts".

Reactions to the SC ruling

Within hours of the ruling becoming public, the state administration had fallen under a pall of gloom, amid fast-spreading rumours that another humiliating shutdown will be unavoidable.

Elsewhere, jubilation reigned. The United Nations Environment Programme tweeted, “Good news for the environment: The Supreme Court of India drew on our 1st Environmental Rule of Law report in a major ruling last week, suspending a controversial permit for the development of an international airport in Goa—a widely recognized global biodiversity hotspot."

The Mopa airport project site.
The Mopa airport project site. (Vinay J/Mint)

On the same social media platform, the veteran conservationist and former member of the National Wildlife Board (NBWL), Prerna Singh Bindra, exulted, “The health of the #environment is key to preserving the right to life as a constitutionally recognized value under Article 21 of the #Constitution." Supreme Court turning down sham #environment clearance for #Goa MOPA airport. Best news so far."

Bindra has visited and studied Mopa for years. In her 2017 book The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis she recalls the airport site as “a place of ecological and cultural significance" where scientists “found the presence of leopards, otters, sambar deers, and the Indian pangolin" and the occasional tiger. Yet, “the EIA report on the basis of which the project got its environment clearance" lists only “dogs and cats, cattle, and common house mice and rats among a few others".

When the airport’s foundation-laying ceremony was conducted (somewhat absurdly, 50 kilometres (km) from the actual location) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016, she noted that “in laying that stone, the Prime Minister endorsed not only a shoddy and inept EIA but also sent a message that wildlife, environment, and people’s concerns are of little consequence in the trajectory of India’s economic growth".

Key questions about Mopa

Even beyond the environment, Mopa is being rammed through despite significant operational questions, including the fact it is situated just 63km from Goa’s existing international airport at Dabolim, with the brand new Sindhudurg Chipi airport across the Maharashtra border another scant 60km in the opposite direction. The bunching makes no sense, and flouts every international guideline. Within India, ever since 1947, the centre has always enforced an informal rule that no new airport could come up less than 150km from another, but now three will be lined up in less that amount of territory in this fragile slice of the Konkan coastline.

“Mopa airport is a perfect example of how, when, and where not to build a greenfield airport," says Abhijit Prabhudesai of the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, one of two appellants (the other is Mopa resident Hanuman Aroskar) in the civil appeal under process in the Supreme Court. If the massed billion-dollar political and economic interests behind the project represent an overwhelming Goliath, this disarming 52-year-old is their giant-slaying nightmare.

Prabhudesai worked at the department of civil aviation in Dubai, where he spent several years in charge of airport expansion and construction, and is firmly convinced that the airport project “has serious technical flaws which have no answers". In fact, this was the government’s own view in the first place, as constantly reiterated by R. C. Khurana, the former executive director of the Airports Authority of India, who chaired the first site selection committee, which dismissed Mopa as “unsafe and inadequate as a location from the aviation point of view". In 2013, he recalled, “Three sides of the Mopa Plateau have sharp drops which is not safe for aircraft landing. The runway itself is maybe 3.5km, but should have at least 5km stretch for safe aircraft manoeuvring. The recommendations of my Committee were very clear…but when a state keeps pushing it with the centre, the ministry took a call."

Khurana’s rueful admission is another reminder about how Goa’s administration consistently contravenes its sworn responsibilities, against the interests of its own constituents. Last year’s stinging Bombay high court rebuke in its ruling against mining lease renewal is illustrative, “We are surprised at the vehemence at which the state has asserted the right of the mining lease holders…We got a feeling that the dividing line was blurred. A neutral, balanced and measured response by the state would have been more appropriate and commensurate with its role." It concluded, “This sharp contrast in the state response in respect of these two ends of mining spectrum, the Mining Affected and the Mining Beneficiaries, is too stark for us not to notice. We write it here because it pains our conscience."

Brazen land grab

Look closely at the nitty-gritty, and it quickly becomes clear the ill-conceived airport is itself secondary to the larger ramifications of the Mopa project. In fact, like all other notable 21st century power plays in Goa’s political economy, it’s just another brazen land grab, where the state has conspired to seize an astounding 2,271 acres from smallholding farmers (by contrast, the biggest air transport hub in India at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport comprises only 1,450 acres) for unsupervised redevelopment.

Last year, the mask slipped somewhat at an event in Macau, when gambling industry analyst Grant Govertsen inadvertently confirmed the extremely poorly-kept secret, “The Indian government has asked casinos to build integrated resorts (surrounding the new airport)…we expect Goa to quickly become a $1 billion market as it transitions to land-based casinos."

But even these neon Las Vegas dreams are merely one part of what the bloated Mopa project includes. Back in 2015, Goans were startled to learn the draft terms of agreement called for the winning bidder (then rumoured, and now confirmed to be Bengaluru-based GMR Group) to get an incredible 232 acres—over 10% of the total project land—“for unrestricted use for commercial development" without requiring any approvals by the state town and country planning board.

Even worse, if the project was to be cancelled for any reason, all that prime property would remain with the concessionaire, along with the carte blanche. Despite sustained protests, including public written objection from the administration’s own undersecretary for expenditure, the cabinet nonetheless accepted the terms unanimously.

That craven capitulation was under Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar (though he always acted on the instructions of the late Manohar Parrikar, who was then serving as union defence minister). But there is no partisan angle to the Mopa shenanigans, which indict the entire political class of Goa alongside their cronies in New Delhi. In conspicuous cahoots, they have unscrupulously bulldozed the project forward against all advice, starting from the initial feasibility report filed by UN-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization in 2007, which dismissed the idea of two airports in Goa as “unviable".

Those inconvenient findings were shelved, and the pliant Louis Berger Group was inveigled to cook up something different. The consultancy’s James McClung later admitted in a US court he had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying nearly $1 million in cash bribes to the Congress’ political heavyweights, Digambar Kamat and Churchill Alemao.

The dangers ahead

Prabhudessai says the writing is already on the wall about what will happen to Goa if this project proceeds to plan, “Refusal to consider scientific airport planning considerations, usually due to the enticement of short-term gains due to real estate speculation, has led to an epidemic of ‘ghost airports’ across the world, and the economic collapse of the state usually follows. Mopa airport will not only destroy the water and food security of Goa, and displace tens of thousands of farming families, while destroying the hills and fields for projects that will be retroactively touted as vital for the survival of this white elephant, but it will also be the final nail in the coffin of the tourism industry."

There are more relevant examples closer to home. In 2016, the then minister for civil aviation, A. Gajapathi Raju, admitted to the Parliament that India had built 25 new airports in two years, but none of them handled any scheduled flights, while an additional 35 are “non-operational".

Another precedent was set across the Palk Strait in Sri Lanka, where then president (and alleged war criminal) Mahinda Rajapaksa built the grandiose Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (named after his mother) at his home town of Hambantota, despite the perfectly adequate facility near Colombo. For some time, the strongman forced the national airline to use his new location, but that stopped after he lost power in 2015. Today, this massively expensive venture is infamously known as “the world’s emptiest airport".

Immediately after the Supreme Court stayed work at Mopa, I wrote to Prerna Bindra asking about broader implications. She emailed back, “Mopa is just one among many such cases where there has been no cost-benefit analysis, and no consideration for environmental fall-outs. Do I dare hope? I don’t know. This judgement says conserving the environment is not a luxury, but the paramount concern. It should be a wake up call."

That’s exactly how the ruling is being treated in Goa, even if the current elections barely featured the airport as an issue. In recent years, this tiny slice of the Konkan coastline has spilled over with anxieties about environmental collapse and the destructive onslaught of low-budget tourism. For years, the spectre of Mopa had loomed menacingly large, always threatening incipient doom. But now, all of a sudden, there’s hope.

Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer.

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