Sucheta Dalal :Goa Seeks a two-airport system
Sucheta Dalal

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Goa Seeks a two-airport system  

February 21, 2008

Goa seeks a two-airport system



Aviation expert, Philip S.Thomas says, that the two-airport proposal is a major policy departure in Indian civil aviation and if executed properly, has the potential for benefiting Goa as well as the country's aviation industry.

Three months after ICAO’s report became public, the Goa government declared its decision to proceed, “in principle”, with a two-airport plan. To recap ICAO’s key findings, there is, first, the acknowledgment that both Dabolim civil enclave and Mopa airport may be needed on “social and economic grounds”. Hence ICAO calls the two-airport plan a “second best solution”, (the ideal one being a single airport). It insists that “going ahead (with Mopa) is necessary despite the importance of the currently planned investment program at the Dabolim airport”. It observes, however, that “only a detailed financial analysis could better quantify the real potential viability of the project while establishing the optimum investment required from the state government to make it a win-win proposition.” Goa’s high-powered committee endorsed these incontrovertible truths and put the ball neatly into the civil aviation ministry’s court, thus subtly putting a mission-critical issue into play.
Some sections of the local media have hailed this as vindication that the Dabolim civil enclave and Mopa airport are practically “made for each other” and that “they will live happily ever after”. Such pie-in the-sky assurances must be taken with a pinch of salt. The profitable co-existence of the two airports is not foreordained or guaranteed by any means. The “win-win” result has to be managed, a challenge that would stretch even the aviation-savvy. Meanwhile, opponents have vowed to continue their fight to “scrap Mopa” for valid existential reasons. But these fears may have now been rendered baseless if Dabolim civil enclave not only continues undisturbed but is also expanded and upgraded.
The official statement has, admittedly, omitted to say some crucial things. There is no word whatsoever about Union Cabinet resolution of 2000 which mandated the closure of Dabolim civil enclave once Mopa is operational. We are only being given a verbal assurance from the Civil Aviation Minister about -- and a word of determination from our honorable Rajya Sabha MP to ensure -- Dabolim’s continuation in perpetuity. What risks are we taking with something which can drop on Dabolim like a bolt from the blue?
It would be prudent to accept that Dabolim civil enclave will always be subject to a sword of Damocles. Its death is certain, if not by deliberate “execution” (courtesy Resolution 2000), then from “natural causes” (specifically due to incompetence). One wrong move over Mopa and Dabolim will disappear down the jaws of the military in a flash. No doubt, doing Mopa without ever losing Dabolim would be a monumental feat. It is only transparency about the design of the new Mopa airport from Day One that will demonstrate if both can co-exist for the long haul. Hence it is vitally important that all concerned be upfront about the plans for Mopa and Dabolim.
Mopa has to be designed and built in a progressively modern way for the next twenty or thirty years. But it must start modestly so that Dabolim civil enclave’s continuation in the same period is not threatened by a prematurely modern Mopa. While earmarking and safeguarding the required airport land at Mopa, the facility must be designed and built modularly to handle (a) the expansion of domestic traffic into non-overlapping (e.g. regional, cargo, night parking etc) markets, incrementally; (b) any significant spill over of charter traffic from Dabolim on a back-up basis; and (c) full fledged “international” traffic eventually. Only at this final stage, two or three decades hence, would Mopa and Dabolim comprise a so-called dual-airport system. Up to that point, Dabolim would be primary and Mopa secondary in a two airport system.
This perspective should assuage the residual anti-competitive fears of business and political interests banking on Dabolim’s sole existence. The design, development, financing and ownership of Mopa will not be a mere cookie-cutter exercise of off-the-shelf solutions but a unique one tailored to the local situation. The civil aviation ministry must be persuaded to adopt this Goa-centric approach. It may be a worthwhile challenge for the agency since it is engaged in transforming this vital sector. In fact, the comments and suggestions of those who have any serious objections should, henceforth, be addressed to the civil aviation ministry (or the defence ministry) instead of to the Goa government.
Many of the required elements can be found in airport projects in Goa’s very neighborhood such as Kochi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, and Navi Mumbai. The implications for the kind of ownership and financing structure of Mopa that will work and how much of the load should be borne by the state government must be assessed so that the “aam aadmi of the air” is not left to the mercy of either the military at Dabolim or a mercenary developer/operator in faraway Mopa. The existing ICAO plan would have to be re-worked completely, just as ICAO itself has envisaged.
But in the meantime the Goa government must carry out in-house studies to enable it to take a unified view of Dabolim and Mopa and champion the pair effectively in all forums. It should immerse itself in the historical evolution of Dabolim civil enclave, right from the airport's genesis, in a comprehensive context i.e. covering both military and civilian aspects, domestic and foreign. Projections must be made for Dabolim and Mopa, keeping in mind long term national economic growth, the disposable income of the Goa populace, the stimulus of low cost aviation, etc. Infrastructure constraints must be identified at both airports and their surface transport links so that proactive steps can be taken to overcome them in a timely way. Goa’s standing in the aviation sweepstakes must be maintained and not allowed to slip. The (remote) possibility of civilian operations at Dabolim being stopped in a national emergency (as warned by ICAO) must not be overlooked by any means, though it would, hopefully, be only temporary. The foregoing intellectual and moral responsibility cannot be completely abdicated.
There is no alternative to the careful and patient work of getting Mopa designed right and built up gradually (as outlined above) to ensure that neither Dabolim is ever jeopardized nor that Mopa ever becomes a white elephant. This approach will require the Goa government and the civil aviation ministry to collaborate in long term efforts they may never have imagined so far. In the end, Goa and the country’s civil aviation industry will be the better for it.
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-- Sucheta Dalal