Sucheta Dalal :Plane Fraud on Goa
Sucheta Dalal

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Plane Fraud on Goa  

November 14, 2007

By Philip S. Thomas

A conspiracy is being perpetrated in “plane” view and the intelligentsia is either oblivious or confused and “mum’s the word” all around. I am referring to the recent reports in the media about the Montreal-based ICAO’s conclusion that two airports in Goa are not viable. Hence it is implied that Goa has to opt for Mopa. The whole argument is based on the idea that the minimum traffic required for a “totally private airport” is 12 million. Since Dabolim civil enclave currently handles only about 2.2 million it is claimed that the figure of 12 million is unlikely to be reached any time soon in Goa. At best it might touch 6 million by 2010. Does that end the discussion? Not really.

Delving a little into the history of the Mopa project, one finds that it was identified for purposes of a greenfield airport as much as a decade ago. It is puzzling as to what the tearing hurry was then. There were well-known pressures for greenfield airports at the time only at Kochi and Bangalore (both due to Dabolim-type civil enclave problems) and possibly Mumbai (where unbridled urban sprawl was taking its toll). Kochi got the country’s first private airport, CIAL, a PPP project in the late 1990s. After prolonged negotiations, Bangalore signed a deal for a PPP airport project in mid 2000 (now nearing completion in 5 months). Parenthetically the latter was even hastily expanded in mid-stream to nearly 12 million, a figure which not only matches fast-follower Hyderabad’s but is also echoed in the minimum size being touted for Mopa now.

Strangely the Bangalore deal and the fast-tracked one for Hyderabad were inked after March 2000 when the Union Cabinet had passed a resolution declaring that Dabolim civil enclave would close once Mopa was ready. This move was along the lines of the Kochi precedent and the Bangalore negotiations -- even though no private party had emerged to build Mopa! It was a pre-emptive strike. Why? Perhaps the surge in charter traffic was the excuse. But Bangalore and Hyderabad (involving closure of two civil enclaves at full stretch) overtook Mopa in the actual PPP queue.

Many monsoons later, Mopa is still stuck on the drawing boards. But now, goaded once again by the Sindhudurg card, there may be some forward movement. This ploy, of playing one state off against another, was not only used at the very inception of the Mopa idea, it is still being used today! The perennial argument is that if Goa doesn’t opt for Mopa then Maharashtra will clear Sindhudurg and the people of Goa will have to catch their flights from there. It is a flagrant attempt to stampede Goa into abandoning Dabolim civil enclave and relocating the airport at Mopa.

The threat has to be confronted head-on. If Sindhudurg international airport does get the go-ahead, it will be against the rule of maintaining a 150 km separation with Dabolim international airport. So, if a private party takes up the project and it demands the closure of Dabolim civil enclave, on the grounds of ensuring viability of the project, the Civil Aviation Ministry will have to meekly sign on the dotted line. After all, this is what it did in Bangalore and Hyderabad. What would the Goa government have to say about being bypassed like this? It had better be prepared with a credible response.

On the other hand, if two airports are allowed to co-exist in spite of the prevailing separation rule, then why not stick with Mopa instead of switching to Sindhudurg? Here is where the next misstep occurred. The ICAO mechanically evaluated the two-airport issue to arrive at its conclusion. The only changes from its original feasibility study of Mopa were to make things a bit stiffer instead of easier viz (a) fully private airport (shades of the new “merchant airport” idea being floated), instead of PPP, (b) $325 million project (up from $225 million), (c) 12 million-passenger capacity (up from 10 million) etc.

So the ICAO conclusion of non-viability of Mopa was inevitable. To add insult to injury, the finding has arrived a full year after the issue was first posed to ICAO by the high-powered committee (which, in turn, had followed an 18 month impasse in Goa). If this is all this UN agency could do then it should have clearly said so last year instead of going through a virtual charade. This is a plane fraud in the offing.

The burning issue from Goa’s standpoint is how to get the two airports to co-exist. Practically, all of Goa wants Dabolim civil enclave to continue. An estimated 400,000 Goans depend on tourism, facilitated by Dabolim and other transportation and hospitality infrastructure, for their livelihood. The Civil Aviation Ministry seems to overlook all this in its determination to force the Mopa international project on the state and to return Dabolim civil enclave to Defence, potentially disrupting Goa’s tourism economy and travel patterns severely for the sake of two or three squadrons.

It follows that the problem is how to re-configure Mopa for co-existence instead of replacement. Intuitively, it is apparent that, subject to safety considerations, a big airport can co-exist with a small one, (sometimes even cheek-by-jowl as in the case of Juhu, India’s oldest civilian airport, and Sahar/Santa Cruz, now the most congested one, both in Mumbai).

This required going back to the drawing boards on the Mopa project. Instead of a full-fledged international airport, Mopa should have been recast as a regional airport (with a strong cargo component) to start with. Its main advantage would have been to let Goa bypass nasty Resolution 2000. It would have brought down the project cost drastically and might have even put it within the range of the Goa government’s own bulging coffers. Viability would have been enhanced in this process (provided the Goa government became serious about governance in general and civil aviation matters in particular).

The bottom line is that Dabolim civil enclave must never close and, it should be continuously modernized and upgraded, challenging as this no doubt is from painful past experience. Simultaneously, a right sized Mopa should be developed over the long haul. Both airports are needed and both would have to be planned and managed in tandem as an integrated, Goa-centric unit for the long term even if nominal control is separate.
-- Sucheta Dalal