Fourteen kilometres from Shirdi, a 70-strong team is at work on an airport that is set to transform the temple town. Contractors and labourers, along with security personnel, have been on the site daily for almost a year and are now trying to put everything in place in time for the inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expected at the end of July.
The domestic and international airport will cut down travel time to Shirdi from Mumbai, 238 km and a five-hour road trip away, to just 40 minutes. Funded in part by the Saibaba Sansthan Trust, the airport will bring the temple town closer to pilgrims from all over the world.
Rania Nihalani says he visits Shirdi from Dubai at least once a year. “After reaching Mumbai, five hours by road is arduous. The airport will save us time and effort,” he said.
Airport officials, who hope to get at least two slots from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, said various airlines have visited the site, including Alliance Air, Trujet and Indigo. Fares will follow market rates, they said.
“We expect four flights a day in the beginning. Aircraft ranging from ATRs to an Airbus 320 could land here,” said Suresh Kakani, vice-chairman and managing director of the Maharashtra Airport Development Company (MADC), which will own and operate the airport.
“Based on a study, we expect passenger traffic of 700-800 daily. In addition to Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, Visakhapatnam and Hyderabad will be among the first cities connected,” said C S Gupta, general manager of MADC. “More than 80 per cent of the passenger traffic will be devotees to the temple.”
Sanctioned in 2010 as an effort to promote religious tourism, the airport is being inaugurated at a time to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of Saibaba in October 2018. It is being built at a cost of Rs 340 crore, with Rs 45 crore funded by the Saibaba Sansthan Trust and the rest by the state government. Authorities said Rs 240 crore has been utilised on the first phase.
“We are awaiting early inauguration as it will be a great boon for devotees,” said Rubal Agrawal, CEO, Saibaba Sansthan Trust.
Targets & progress
In the last seven years, a terminal building, a 2,500-metre runway, an Air Traffic Control tower, four watchtowers and a single wide-gate manned by four officials of the Maharashtra Security Force (MSF) have come up on the 350-hectare site.
The second phase will include a new terminal building and ATC tower, four hangars that will be rented out to private jets, and commercial exploitation of vacant land through amenities such as five-star resorts and shopping complexes.
“We also plan to extend the runway by 700 metres so that it can handle wide-body international aircraft,” said Kakani, the MD.
Much, however, remains to be done. The operating licence from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is yet to come in, which MD Kakani said would be in by the end of June. A permanent water connection, a regular source of power, a public address system, signage, strengthening of security and resources for food supply, too, remain to be put in place.
In the absence of no food stall in the vicinity of the site, staff who have worked there for a year have been bringing food to work. Water is stored in bottles or supplied by tankers, while four wells feed the toilets.
“Each thing has been planned and will be done in time,” said Gupta, the GM. “We plan to obtain full-time connection up to 33 kV from the power station installed by Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company, in addition to power that will be generated after the installation of solar panels. As the airport is not yet fully functional, we are consuming very little electricity from diesel generators sets. For water, we have tied up with the state irrigation department and will soon float tenders for a 14 km pipeline from West Godavari right bank canal.”
“We will put up the public address system and signage in another 15 days,” Kakani added. “Body-check machines will be in place soon. We have asked the state government to help us with air-conditioned buses for shuttle services between the temple and the airport. Other facilities such as a cloakroom and a counter for availing passes and prasad for the temple are also being planned for the terminal building.”
For Kakadi village, the airport has brought a road, a school with classes until X and a promise to build a second one. A third of Kakadi’s population is Dalit. Most of them sell farm produce for a living, or do odd jobs at construction and retail shops.
Tatya Sonawane of Kakadi grumbles about the “low” compensation he received for the six hectares he gave up for the project. His grandson Chandrakant, who helps in the airport construction, complains of low wages when, he claims, he had been promised a monthly salary. Some other locals say airport officials send them back when they approach them for work.
“What use is all this development to me?” said Asha Sonawane. “I cannot afford a flight. Road connectivity is not going to feed my children or me. Their promises of giving water to our houses have not come true. Not many of our children have been employed at the airport as promised.”
The authorities, for their part, stress the inclusive nature fof the project. “Rs 40 crore has been utilised to remunerate villagers for land acquired, as per land rates. Also, 41 relatives of project-affected persons have been absorbed. We can only employ those who are qualified or suitable for the job,” said airport manager Dhiren Bhosale.
Kakani said, “We plan to introduce self-help groups that could accommodate locals in running shuttle bus services. They could take loans, manage a business.”
“Locals cannot afford to invest in any of these amenities,” said villager Arun Bhalerao. “We have also approached the high court to ensure the promises get fulfilled,”
Kopargaon block development officer Tapil Kalode claimed that those complaining about remuneration had failed to invest properly. “While some invested the remuneration for land, others spent it on building concrete houses and were left with no regular income. This has created the divide,” Kalode said.
Agrawal, the CEO of the Saibaba Sansthan Trust said, “Apart from contributing to religious tourism, the airport will benefit the local economy. We plan more initiatives with the airport authorities to ensure locals become self-sufficient.”