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Making an Indian Airport City

Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport and Andal Aerotropolis

Gopa Samanta (gopasamanta@gmail.com) teaches at the University of Burdwan, West Bengal. 

Several problems threaten India’s first airport city at Andal in West Bengal—land acquisition being the least of them. Dependence on coal and mining industries as well as overestimated passenger traffic are the main bumbling blocks for this new aerotropolis. 

Following the concept of metropolis in the development of urban habitats in the 20th century, aerotropolis has been the latest entrant in urban development discourse in the 21st century along with the enormous increase in the mobility of both goods and passengers in a globalising world. These new development agendas are rooted in the concept that information technology (IT) and aviation sectors are capable of providing tremendous economic growth much like regiopolis was touted to be a growth driver in the 20th century. India is following a similar growth trajectory to build airport cities as well as smart cities to attract investment and propel economic growth.

Entrance of the Airport City at the entrance on Andal- Waria Road. Courtesy: Author. 

Germination of Andal Aerotroplis

Andal Aerotropolis, locally called Andal Airport City, in West Bengal, is the first of its kind in India. Beside 47 metropolitan cities and 100 smart cities, the government has planned such airport cities all across the Indian urban territory. West Bengal, although lagging behind many states of India in generating revenue from industrial growth, is going to receive a new airport (Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport) as part of Andal Aerotropolis project in April this year. 

The Air Traffic Control (ATC)Tower (Left) and the Terminal Building (Right) of the Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport. Courtesy: Author.

Economic activities would be established around the airport, along with large scale real estate development. Although the Trinamool Congress-run state government touted it as a success of governance on their part, it must be remembered that the project was initiated during the rule of the Left Front government itself.

 

The airport was inaugurated in 2014 and is expected to commence operations in the next few months. Negotiations are going on with non-scheduled airlines such as Pinnacle Air and AirCosta, and scheduled airlines like Air India, GoAir and IndiGo for regular operation of passenger flights from Andal airport to Kolkata, Delhi, Bagdogra and Coochbehar. Dialogues are also on to connect this airport to destinations of south India, especially Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Even though the state government has waived off aviation turbine fuel (ATF) surcharge for three years, private airlines are reluctant to operate flights if the profit is not guaranteed through at least threshold-level passenger traffic.

The state government has also given this waiver to other two small airports in the state—Bagdogra and Coochbehar. Bengal Aerotropolis Projects Limited (BAPL), the holding company of the Andal airport, expects that cheaper refuelling, low parking charges and a large passenger base in the industrial and mining belt of West Bengal and Jharkhand will attract many low cost airline operators to this low cost destination. Besides regular operation, this airport would also try to get the “diversion airport” status by which the airport can compete with Bhubaneswar, the only airport in this region to receive flights that are diverted due to bad weather condition.

In choosing the location in between Durgapur (15 km) and Asansol (25 km), in the heart of the mining and industrial belt of West Bengal, Andal Aerotropolis proved to be the best location for such an initiative from the point of view of land acquisition. It is accessible through the national highway as well as the railway—both of which are close to the airport.

Land acquisition for Airport

The total project required 2,182 acres of land. The airport, developed by BAPL in association with Singapore's Changi Airports International (26% equity in the project), has been built occupying 650 acres of land. The rest of the land would be used for industrial houses (distribution & logistics centres, office buildings, light manufacturing firms, convention centres and services industries), institutional and social infrastructure development, and for rehabilitation and common areas. 

People gathered at the gate of the airport city to collect cheques against their land given for shifting electric poles. Courtesy: Author. 

The initial land acquisition in the area did not turn into bloodshed and political turmoil to the tune of Singur and Nandigram, the other two well-known land acquisition cases of West Bengal. The major reason behind this was the difference in the quality of land from an agricultural productivity point of view. The entire area was under rain-fed single crop land without much irrigation support. Only big land holders had small water tanks to supplement the water deficiency from rainfall in monsoon season. Second and third crops would be rare for small farmers. Although many small farmers and share croppers were reluctant to give the land for the airport city, big land holders considered it wise to give the land as it was not very productive. It seemed that the Left Front government could resolve the issue quite peacefully with the help of local political leadership under Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM). Most of the people accepted compensation for land at the rate of Rs 2.5 lakh per bigha[i] in 2009-10.

Major hurdles of land acquisition came from Coal India as there were possible coal blocks under the surface in many places and Coal India wanted to mine the high quality Raniganj Coal from the area.  The issue was resolved after long negotiations with Coal India and they had to close three mines in the area. However, local people were of the opinion that the land is not safe there. Their fears were not unjustified as subsidence due to empty mines left by mining companies without sand filling is a common phenomenon in the region. Although Coal India had left the area, there is a high chance of illegal mining due to easy access to coal bed in the region which might also cause further subsidence in any place around the airport city.

Simmering Tension over Plots

Although land acquisition for the airport has been largely peaceful and there is no record of any dispute on land in the local gram panchayats offices[ii], the total project still had many hitches in land acquisition. In the months of March-April, several share croppers protested at the airport gate on the demand of higher compensation. Even if farmers of the surrounding villages of Dakshin Khanda, Ukhra, Khandra Gram Panchayats accepted the cheques, a few farmers from Andal gram panchayat did not. They demanded higher compensation as they have earlier experience of negotiations with Durgapur Projects Limited (DPL), the thermal power unit, which installed its new unit in Andal area. 

One of those plots (Plot no 238) consisting of 80 bighas of land in Andal mouza located beside the Andal-Waria road connecting National Highway 2, is under dispute as the land owners have filed a court case against the state government. Those land owners are from Bhadur village of Andal Gram Panchayat (GP). One of the owners who have protested is the elected panchayat member from Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Andal gram panchayat.

He said that they were not going to give up the land at the low rate offered by the government, as their plots are in prime location beside the road. “Can you tell me how the lands located far away from the road side and those located on the road can be offered the same compensation?” He further said, “Some of the farmers have taken the lowest compensation from the government thinking that their land is not that productive”. He also said “…while the market price of our land is already Rs 3 lakh per katha[iii], why shall we give the land at the rate of 2.5 lakh per bigha?[iv] We will fight up to the last. We are keeping a watch on the land all the time, so that it cannot be acquired forcefully without our knowledge. If you roam around our land for some time, we shall get the news immediately and we will try to locate who you are.”

Farmers with small landholdings suggested that if they would have held on to their land like the rich farmers, they could have wrangled a better compensation package from the government as well. A survey report from the area[v] pointed out that out of the total acquired land under this project, only 56.53 acres was khas land (vested land remained under government) and rest 2306.31 acres was under agricultural use. According to this report, in the twelve mouzas[vi] coming under the project there were 18,000 farmers of different categories and there was no record on share croppers and non-recorded bargadars whole livelihoods are also at stake because of this aerotropolis project.

Many people we spoke to expressed their unhappiness with the government on land acquisition. Most of them thought that the government had cheated them. The government had promised all land owners one katha of land inside the airport city for business but it was not given as it was not put down in the form of a formal agreement. According to them, the government never delivered on their promise of compensating their loss of agricultural income.

Even if the issue of these plots is resolved, it would be an uphill task to acquire land for the second phase of the project—comprising IT parks, hospitals and residential complex. It is not surprising that with land prices skyrocketing in the area, many people do not want to sell their land now because of land speculation. The local TMC leaders said that the land (Plot 238), that is sub-judice, is actually under the control of land mafia. They also claimed that the farmers opposing the government’s financial package were not original owners of the land.

However, verification at the ground level during field work showed that the farmers demanding a better compensation package were indeed original land owners. Most of them have a copy of the notification of land acquisition from the government addressed to them. However, it is also true that most of these owners are well-off farmers and could hold on to the land for a better compensation package.

Finishing Touches to a City

Although the government had claimed that the airport would be operational by the end of April, it did not seem like that from the field visit. Work is on in full swing to complete the four km access road from NH-2. BAPL and the state government have high hopes on this aerotropolis project and they think that Andal will bring real estate as well as industrial boom making the Asansol-Durgapur region the “second metropolis” of West Bengal.

The signboard indicating the sale of residential plots in Sujalaam Sky City. Courtesy: Author. 

BAPL is already in consultation with several global real-estate majors from Singapore and Japan because the aerotropolis aims to attract top real estate builders and industries in the country for residential, commercial and industrial development at the airport city. The state government has also granted “industrial township” status to this aerotropolis. The 74th constitutional amendment of India under article 243Q makes special provision for the governance of industrial townships and the state government has the right to confer this status to such townships[vii]. In effect, this city does not need a democratic government and everything would be run by the private promoters of the city called SUJALAM—namely, a privately administered city.

Will Andal Airport Take Off?

However doubts are being raised whether manufacturing and mining, which are the backbones of the regional economy, can generate enough traffic to sustain a world class airport. Airports can never be equated to sea ports or railway junctions as the last two can efficiently handle bulk cargo. Aviation sector can carry only light weight manufactured commodity such as electronic equipment.

This is however unlikely in the case of Andal as its hinterland has no such electronic equipment or processing industries. The catchment area of the airport city is dominated by coal mining and metal based manufacturing. Therefore unless the scope of the airport is changed overnight, there is immediate utility for the airport to the industries.

However coal mining as well as the ancillary heavy industries run the risk of derailing the very existence of the township in two ways. One, development of real estate in Andal Aerotropolis is linked to the market position of coal mining and manufacturing industries. Even a marginal shift in the global market economy of minerals and manufactured goods could affect the fate of Andal Aerotropolis—much like the Bellary iron mines of Karnataka. Two, it is unlikely that a world-class city, that aims to attract investment from other parts of India as well as abroad, can coexist with highly polluting industries such as sponge iron plants, thermal power units and metal based manufacturing facilities in its vicinity. More and more such industries are seeing the light of day in areas Asansol-Durgapur and the government is yet to come up with an official policy on environmental pollution.

The issue of governing the city by the private promoter also raises a number of questions. If there would be no democratically elected city government, the citizens would not have any voice in management of the city. This could create further crisis in future as the private city government would always be interested in profit maximisation rather than citizen’s rights, of which Gurgaon is only an extreme example. Cities need to be able to decide and act for themselves—make their own mistakes, celebrate their own success[viii]. The three major pillars of good governance are transparency, accountability and participation. Without citizen’s participation, no model of city governance can be a good and sustainable model.

Finally, even if the Andal aerotropolis has the potential to grow to serve the distant demand than those located nearby, would it be possible for Andal airport to serve the customers in Kolkata? The eastern metropolis already been deserted by major national as well as international flight operators in the recent past citing falling passenger traffic. Therefore an airport at a distance of 200 kms from an already existing international airport may not prove to be the game changer the government hoped for.  Being pioneers, the success or the failure of Andal Aerotropolis will write the future of other aerotropolises in India.

Notes

[i] About 20 kathas of land make one bigha and three bighas make one acre.

[ii] We visited two of those – Dakshinkhanda and Andal.

[iii] katha is lowest unit of land. About 20 kathas of land make one bigha.

[iv] The present market price for a bigha would be Rs. 60 lakh.

[v] Adhikar, Durgapur Biman Nagari ba Aerotropoliser swarup (The nature of Durgapur Airport City), Report prepared by Asansol based NGO called Ahikar.

[vi] Mouza is the revenue village.

[vii] Basak, Prabal (2015): “Industrial township status for new airport city in Bengal”, Business Standard, 9January, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/industrial-township-status-for-new-airport-city-in-bengal-115010801153_1.html, accessed on 20 April 2015.

[viii] Mukhopadhyay, Partha (2015): “The ‘Unsmart’ City”, Seminar, 665: 2-6, January, available at http://www.india-seminar.com/2015/665/665_partha_mukhopadhyay.htm, accessed on 20 April 2015.

 

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