Recently Goa’s Chief Minister volunteered that the government will bring out a White Paper on the road accidents in the State. It is time it also produces a White Paper about the state’s airport plans so that the public is taken fully into confidence and not left with a fait accompli at a future date. The Chief Minister has announced that, once the high-powered committee on airports meets, it will take a “final decision” about Mopa. But no one knows that a lot of spadework is pending before that can happen. Any tendency to bull doze the project in this way should be resisted.
Meanwhile the Navy has publicly backed the plan for an international airport at Mopa. It is silent, however, about Union Cabinet Resolution 2000, which mandates closure of Dabolim, civil enclave once an international airport is completed at Mopa. Perhaps it can claim that it has nothing to do with such resolutions. But clearly it is aware of the huge benefits it derived in Kochi -- and which other Defence units will secure in Bangalore and Hyderabad -- by the (impending) closure of civil enclaves for the sake of greenfield airports there. The Navy may be hoping that people in Goa do not realize this and Dabolim would fall quietly into its lap in a few years time, whether by design or by default. In any event, it would probably keep Dabolim “open”, in an anachronistic feudal fashion, "for VVIP flights only", as is expected to happen in Bangalore and Hyderabad.
The Civil Aviation Ministry may also have a vested interested in the international airport at Mopa, since it will serve a tri-state region (Goa, southern Maharashtra and north western Karnataka) with the Minister taking a special interest in his home state in the trinity. Besides, the UN agency, ICAO, which came up with the plan is a sort of sinecure for superannuated Indian aviation bureaucrats. So nothing would be done to displease ICAO, as far as possible. Making just these two colluding agencies respond to Goa’s genuine needs will be an uphill task.
The stands of other big local players in the airport stakes are also worth summarizing. Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) believes that “Dabolim is for now, Mopa is for the future”. This suggests a defeatist attitude in the wake of the apparent glacial pace of co-operation of the Navy towards persistent pleas to relax constraints to civil aviation at Dabolim. Perhaps GCCI is ready to back a civilian international airport at Mopa where one obdurate player would be replaced by a hopefully more congenial one, at least vis-à-vis business interests.
However, Hoteliers Association of South Goa (HASG) feels there is no need whatsoever for Mopa as Dabolim civil enclave would suffice with a little re-configuration. Chief among the modifications HASG envisages are: (1) release of 100 acres to AAI in place of 35 acres at present; (2) consolidation of two runway-crossing points (for naval personnel) into one which is away from the terminal; and (3) shift of some (unspecified) naval activities from Dabolim to Seabird Karwar. HASG, which mainly takes a strong anti-Mopa stance, blows hot and cold in a diplomatic way vis-à-vis the Navy. In this connection it has surprisingly given a clean chit to the blocking of morning hours at Dabolim for purposes of military flight training. This may be because HASG is primarily interested in passengers of foreign (charter) flights rather than those of scheduled domestic flights.
In all this, the voice of Goa’s “aam aadmi of the air” is drowned out. They have to make do with arduous, costly and even risky 12-15 hour road/rail journeys to hubs like Mumbai and Bangalore. The high fares on air routes to and from Goa due to a sector-specific supply-demand mismatch take the proverbial cake in an era of low fare aviation. No statistics are available about the use of air travel by Goans. But given a slew of conducive factors, a substantial number of Goans must be travelling by plane nowadays. Such persons can now even foresee the problems, which will crop up one day at Mopa. In Bangalore the new greenfield airport is not only an additional hour or so away by road but there is a real prospect of having to cough up Rs 700 extra per ticket to the private airport operator there as “user development fee” as abjectly agreed to by a feckless civil aviation ministry.
The Goa government needs to clarify the foregoing issues in a White Paper, given its commitment to two airports in the State -- namely the civil enclave at Dabolim and a new airport at Mopa. In particular, it has to show how both airports can co-exist for the long haul instead of for just a few years, initially. If Mopa international airport does get a go-ahead then Dabolim will close, willy-nilly, (if not because of Resolution 2000, then surely in another few years, once airlines find “modern” Mopa more convenient to operate from than Dabolim). The “aam aadmi of the air” will then be left to the mercy of either the military at Dabolim or a mercenary developer/operator in faraway Mopa.
The White Paper must spell out in detail the historical evolution of Dabolim civil enclave in a comprehensive context. A projection must be made for the future and capacity constraints identified. Goa’s standing in the aviation sweepstakes must be maintained and not allowed to slip. While earmarking and safeguarding airport land at Mopa for two or three decades into the future, the airport must be designed and built modularly to handle any significant spill over of charter traffic from Dabolim and possible expansion of domestic traffic into non-overlapping (e.g. regional, cargo etc) markets.
The easy option, of talking about two airports while knowing full well that after a few years there will be only one, at Mopa, must be resisted. The alternative is to do the hard and honest work of designing Mopa right and building it up gradually to ensure that Dabolim is never jeopardized. The latter approach will require dynamic design and financial engineering of Mopa from the outset. Later it will call for active monitoring of both airports’ operations, with remedial steps to be taken (to keep “the balance of power”) by Goa government and the civil aviation ministry. The state government must mean business (at least aviation business) – for Goa’s sake. Almost everything else would follow from getting these “commanding heights” of the socio-political economy right.