By Sharmistha Mukherjee
In a strategic move, the NDA government has commenced work to develop six airports in Arunachal Pradesh. The eastern border state, which China does not recognise as part of India, does not have a single operational airport at present and has just a heliport near Itanagar.
In fact, along the 3,488-km border with China, there are no operational airports at present. According to the proposal firmed up in a meeting between Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju Pusapati and chief ministers of northeastern states on January 29-30, the first of these airports at Tezu is to be made operational in January 2016. Raju was on a two-day visit on direction of the Prime Minister’s Office to the North-East to speed up airport development and improve air connectivity in a region considered extremely sensitive because of its international borders with China and internal security issues.
Apart from the airport at Tezu, efforts have also been renewed to resolve a long-standing dispute between the Central and state government over sharing the compensation for rehabilitation of 145 families to develop a second airport at Holangi. “After the new land acquisition act came into force, rehabilitation costs shot up to around Rs 650 crore from an earlier estimate of Rs 145 crore. The ministry is now actively looking to resolve the dispute,” an official said.
Besides, feasibility studies are being commissioned to set up four more airports at Tawang, Daparizo, Anini and Koloriang. The push to improve air connectivity in the region comes close on the heels of the Indian government easing norms to construct 1,800 km of roads and military facilities along its disputed border with China in September last year.
The seven operational airports in the North-Eastern region are Dibrugarh, Lilabari, Guwahati (Assam), Dimapur (Nagaland), Shillong (Meghalaya), Imphal (Manipur) and Agartala (Tripura).
A senior government official told The Indian Express, “China has vastly improved roads and is building or extending air strips on its side of the Line of Actual Control. India does not have a single operational airport in Arunachal Pradesh. The Civil Aviation Ministry, in a recent meeting with chief ministers of Northeastern states, has decided to set up six airports and several helipads in Arunachal Pradesh.”
Sources said growing Chinese influence has been hindering execution of several developmental projects in the region over the last few months. At Tezu, for one, an airport engineer was allegedly put behind bars for three months on trumped up charges by local authorities and the previous contractor was roughed up, delaying construction work. Moreover, according to reports, construction equipment was not permitted to be carried to the project site.
“The Tezu airport would have been commissioned by now but for protests by locals. One of the key issues on the minister’s agenda this time was to resolve problems so that work can resume at Tezu,” the official said. The minister has assured locals that wherever permissible, local labour would be engaged and local people employed at the airport. With a breakthrough achieved last week, Tezu, which is being built at a cost of Rs 80 crore, can now become operational in a year.
India’s current approach to territorial disputes with neighbouring countries marks a departure from its traditional non-aligned approach to foreign power blocs. Since assuming office in May 2013, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Nepal twice, becoming the first Indian PM to travel to the buffer state with China in 17 years. He has improved ties with Vietnam and Japan, both locked in territorial disputes with Beijing. India has also contested an $8 billion port project in Bangladesh, taking on another bidder, China Harbour Engineering Company, which was previously the frontrunner. The new government in Sri Lanka led by President Maithripala Sirisena has said India is the “main concern” of his foreign policy and that he will review all projects awarded to Chinese firms, including a sea reclamation development in Colombo that would give Beijing a strategic hold near India.
Only last week, China had expressed concern about US president Barack Obama’s second visit to India as chief guest during the Republic Day parade. The Daily, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party of China, had carried several articles in the past few days with assertions by Chinese analysts that it is aimed at denting improving China-India relations. “The US is looking toward India as a regional partner in South Asia and the Indian Ocean to coordinate with its ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy and as a counterweight to a rising China. It also needs India’s cooperation in international affairs given New Delhi’s increasing sway in the international community,” it had said.