The Uttar Pradesh government is eyeing a record of sorts by developing two new international airports and upgrading a bunch of World War II vintage airstrips into functional airports in different parts of the state. Sixteen such airstrips, now used for elections campaigns and as flying clubs, are on the radar of the state and central governments for development now, especially since the elections are just a couple of years away.
The Indian Express looks at these projects, how the state’s expressways could potentially reshape the local economy and be a political showcase for the 2022 Assembly elections. Here is a status check.
Kushinagar International Airport
Though over a decade old, the Kushinagar International Airport has now become the pet project of not just the Uttar Pradesh Government but also the Centre with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri personally reviewing the project and announcing the start of operations by end of the year.
Always aimed at the Buddhist circuit potential, the airport’s newfound interest is however more to do with its political significance also. When operations start, this will become the fourth international airport in the state after Lucknow, Varanasi and the under construction airport at Jewar.
Situated near the Nepal border and close of Bihar, Kushinagar would be the only international airport project in 150 km radius — Gorakhpur airport, about 51 km away, at best caters to a small number of domestic flights. The other airports in the area at at Patna in Bihar, Kathmandu in Nepal and Varanasi in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. This means the airport can also cater to domestic passengers, including the thousands of migrant workers from the area who work in the rest of India and the Middle East. So now Lucknow and Delhi airports cater to this region.
This could also be a showcase project for the Bihar Assembly elections which are expected in a couple of months given the project’s possible impact on Siwan, Gopalkunj, Champaran and Saran districts.
Given cabinet clearance during Mayawati’s reign in 2010, the project was supposed to come up along with the now abandoned Maitreya Buddha statue project. Legend has it that Buddha attained “Mahaparinirvana” in Kushinagar and this brings in tourists from countries like Thailand, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and Singapore as well.
The existing 2100-meter airstrip at Kasia was chosen for the project and it was decided to extend the tarmac to 3200 meters as per international standards. In the feasibility surveys conducted in 2010 and 2013, it was found that the site would be less than 2 km from the East-West corridor (NH-28) connecting Porbandar in Gujarat to Silchar in Assam. It also noted the cargo potential given the fact that Nepal was a land locked country.
Despite all this, the Public Private Partnership model failed to attract investment because companies were not sure about its feasibility. Several attempts were made to revive the bidding process and even the project size was reduced, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, the farmers started demanding higher compensation for the land acquired as they saw similar demands in western Uttar Pradesh were being met. Amidst protests, the BSP government was finally able to acquire about 550 acre of land for the project in 2011-2012.
Despite the entire land parcel being available, the Samajwadi Party took time to reconsider the project. With the 2013 bidding process too not finding must takes, the Akhilesh Yadav-led UP government approached the Centre for viability gap funding — aimed at making a project feasible for private players. The Centre gave in principal approval for 20 per cent viability gap funding, with land on lease and other concessions being offered to the private players. Then government claimed it was the first airport project in the country to get this approved.
But with private players still not playing ball, the state approached Airports Authority of India in 2015. In March 2019, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between AAI and UP government for “taking over the development and operationalisation of existing Kushinagar Airport belonging to State Government of Uttar Pradesh”. In its official communiqué, AAI said this included the 589 acres along with the existing infrastructure like runway and apron. It also called for bids to operate flights to Lucknow and Gaya from Kushinagar under the UDAN-3 scheme.
This June, amidst the lockdown, the Union Cabinet gave its nod for international status for the project citing its strategic location and importance from the point of view of being a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Mayawati was quick to point out that it her government thathad started the process to develop the airport under PPP as part of Buddhist Circuit. Akhilesh Yadav claimed the work on the project was started during his rule.
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With both the Central and UP governments hoping to make Ayodhya an international tourism hub after the work on the Ram Temple was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, the state has started work on a detailed development plan for the town with an International Airport at the top of its agenda. The state has already approved Rs 525 crore for the construction of the airport, likely to be named after Ram. Though in 2014 an MOU was signed with the Airports Authority of India for upgradation of the existing airport, the project could not take off. Last year, the state got a feasibility study conducted on the 178 acre area used for flying club activities and non-scheduled fights by small aircraft. The target is to start the first phase of what will be an International Airport project by end of 2021.
Jewar International Airport
Being developed in Gautam Budh Nagar district of the National Capital Region, the long-pending project was first proposed during the Rajnath Singh-led BJP government in the state in 2001. In 2007, when the BSP came to power in the state, chief minister Mayawati tried to pursue the project. She even got the centre to form a Group of Ministers to study the project. But this was never an easy project given that there was the Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi within a 150-km radius. When the Samajwadi Party was in power, Akhilesh Yadav was in favour of ditching this project for an International Airport in Agra and even allocated land for the same. When the BJP returned to power in 2017, the project was expedited, a company was formed and funds allocated for land acquisition. The contract for development and operation of the project was given to Zurich Airport in November 2019 with a completion date of 2023.
The latest airport announced by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, this project will come in the underdeveloped Sonebhadra district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. One of the aspirational districts identified by NITI Ayog, Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had adopted it as a Rajya Sabha member and routed MP funds too. There is an existing airstrip in Myorpur area which the government now plans to develop under the UDAN scheme of the Government of India.
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