Congress drummed up this project called Ludhiana Aerotropolis prior to 2009. It looked more like it had drummed up an alibi to make money. The project envisaged acquiring 9,000 acres , 6,000 acres of it for the airport. Airports attract the urban middleclass who, because they are built in the interiors are never affected by land acquisitions. It's the farmers' land that is always at risk in the event.

Crash landing in India

Lionel Messias

It is easy to plan a Greenfield airport in India and even easier to turn it into a political debate, political divide if you will, possibly even communal divide when necessary. That is if you are a politician and there’s (no sweat of your back.) It is conversely an extremely difficult task to implement such a project not only because of the King Kong type of funding required, or because it displaces large populations, or the fact that at the end of the day even specialty infrastructure firms show interest only if they are spoon-fed all the way to the finish line. This article is an attempt to explain how (and why) nine in all Greenfield airport projects failed to take in India, all of them in or near giant industrial hubs; in states for example where more cars are produced annually (this being just one example) than Goa’s human population. And remember while the former figure increases 30-60 per cent annually.

This is not an unjustified example because auto manufacturing is the engine that drives the industrial activity to a large extent in Tamil Nadu for example. There are of course other industrial activities like heavy engineering, the pharmaceutical industry etc all of which adds up to the fact that an airport project should logically take off and not crashland in these states. But, let's take Punjab to start with where the manufacture of machine and hand tools, printing and paper cutting machinery, auto parts and electrical switch gear are the engine drivers. It provides more than 75 per cent of India's requirement for bicycles, sewing machines, hosiery and sports goods.

The Ludhiana Aerotropolis that went AWOL

It was the Congress that drummed up this project called Ludhiana Aerotropolis somewhere before 2009. At the time it looked more like it had drummed up an alibi to make money. Here is proof of the pudding. The project envisaged acquiring 9,000 acres (4046.86 sq m). Approximately 6,000 acres was apportioned for the airport. Can you smell the lucre here?  It was a planned aerotropolis modelled on the lines of similar facilities in Singapore and Frankfurt. The ministry of civil aviation quickly gave its formal site clearance and approved the preparation of a techno economic feasibility report, while the ministry of defence gave its green signal. Take note of this because as I detail other failed airports, you will find that the defence services have never objected to civilian aspirations, except in the case of Goa. While you are at it, ask yourself on what basis did the Manorhar Parrikar government determine how much land was required for the planned Mopa Greenfield.

It has been proved time and again that hiring a consultant to tell you exactly what you want, is the easiest to-do in a long list. The preliminary research findings of IMRB Business & Industrial Research Division at the Chandigarh, Amritsar and Delhi airports to determine the passenger potential for the Greenfield project showed a promise of 1.5 million passengers in 2007-08; expected to translate into 2.5 million passengers in the airport's first year of operations in 2012-13.

Cart before the horse

Until 2010 there was so much confusion over the land required (2,700 acres in 2009, 3,000 acres 2010; down from the 9,000 acres) for the Aerotropolis. In 2009 it was also said the airport and a modern township would occupy 500 acres and commercial institutions and recreational infrastructure 320 acres. It seemed every time a politician spoke about the project, the only thing that was on his mind, was to keep the project alive in the minds of the people, no attention was given to the land area required. Punjab's civil aviation minister (Punjab actually has one) Upinderjit Kaur had said: "The Aerotropolis will be built in the private sector by Messrs Bengal Aerotropolis which has Changi International Airport of Singapore as partner. The Aerotopolis is a modern age concept of a township-oriented airport, along the Singapore-Frankfurt model." You could also compare it to putting the cart before the horse.

Now, where do you think ex-chief minister Digambar Kamat and his cohorts got the Mopa idea from and for what purpose? (As Fatorda independent MLA Vijai Sardesai said, Mopa is a real estate hub, not a flying hub. The Aerotropolis was to be developed at a cost of Rs 17,500 crore (1 cr= Rs 1,00,00,000). On cloud nine, Punjab's government said it would become the first in India to set up a maintenance, repair and overhaul hub at Ropar, 45 km from Chandigarh, for the civil aviation sector. The facility would be developed over an area of 50 acres near Ropar and cost Rs 30 crore. The obfuscation continued till the project died a natural death.

Up and until April 2013 Punjab was still in a state of blissful happiness. Its deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal (well endowed with the gift of the gab), finance minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa and revenue minister Bikramjit Singh Majithia, promised an audience of north Indian biz honchos this only recently: The roadmap ahead for us is to have an airport every 100 km and Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s landing here. Ludhiana's Sahnewal airport will soon have its runway length increased from 4,800 feet to 8,000 feet to accommodate the big aircraft."

Lies repeated

If you wonder why I keep going back in the years, this is why. In August 2012, Sukhbir Singh Badal said the state government had given its nod for expansion and modernisation of the Ludhiana airport. "After the expansion, Boeing 320s will be able to land at the airport," he said. "With the installation of VFR and ILFS instrumentation, planes will be able to land at the airport during the night also." Punjab's politicians have been making promises like these for years. This is because airports catch the imagination of the urban middleclass who because the airports are built in interior and isolated locations, are never affected by land acquisitions. Who cares for the farmer, it's his land that is always at risk in the event. At the time of writing this, the website of the Bengal Aerotropolis Projects Ltd, the reported builder of the project, said this: Land for the aerotropolis project including the airport site has also been identified and land purchase/acquisition system, in line with the government of Punjab's 'mega industrial policy' and land acquisition act is being finalized. These words are like an epitaph on a tombstone, they tell it all.

This is the ground reality: A railway crossing at the entrance of the Sahnewal airport (also known as Ludhiana airport) continues to hinder passengers; the dilapidated approach road from national highway-1 to the airport continues to be in the same poor condition; the national highway does not even have a signboard giving directions to the airport; with the state government planning to upgrade the airport, there is a huge need to construct a new building to replace the old one which has limited space for passengers.

This in a state where urban people set off to Macau and Jats zip between Majha and Doaba in their SUVs. When Sukbir Singh Badal said, "Ludhiana's Sahnewal airport will soon have its runway length increased from 4,800 feet to 8,000 feet to accommodate big aircraft." Punjab has been claiming that for long. With politicians like him, which consortium of financiers would want to finance a high-risk Greenfield airport, which means also that they believe in him? But, can they?

There are other factors that come into play. The Central Bank of India cut lending to the aviation sector this fiscal after it recorded the highest slippages in the sector mainly due to the failed Kingfisher Airlines. Its exposure stood at Rs 3,000 crore and NPA (non-performing asset) stood at Rs 455 crore. The Indian banking system had a total exposure of around Rs 40,000 crores in 2012. State Bank of India alone had an exposure of Rs 5,000 crores. According to an RBI report, nearly three-fourths of the top banks' loans to the aviation sector are either impaired or restructured.

(Next: Sriperumbudur)