Political controversy erupts over greenfield airport in Assam's Barak Valley
Political controversy erupts over greenfield airport in Assam's Barak Valley Credit: Representational image

Guwahati: The Centre’s statement made earlier this month that no proposal has yet been received for a greenfield airport in Assam’s Cachar district, despite large-scale land acquisition by the state government for a second airport in the Barak valley, has sparked off a political controversy.

However, the fact remains that the Airports Authority of India (AAI) way back in 2019 had sought land for the construction of the proposed facility, and even conducted a pre-feasibility study in 2020 for the same, documents reveal.

Analysis of a set of documents, such as minutes of meetings, survey reports, and letters exchanged between the Assam government and AAI –all of which is available with PTI — clearly show that the state is acquiring 2,500 bighas (826.45 acres) of land in Cachar district on the request of the central PSU.

In a reply to queries by TMC Rajya Sabha MP Sushmita Dev, if sanction had been granted, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia mentioned in a letter dated June 8, “no proposal as per GFA Policy, 2008 to construct a Greenfield airport in Cachar District of Assam has been received”.

“However, if any such proposal from any Airport Developer or the State Government is received, the same would be considered as per the Greenfield airports Policy, 2008.”

During a meeting between the then Transport Department Principal Secretary Biswa Ranjan Samal and AAI Regional Executive Director (RED) D K Kamra on April 6, 2019, the PSU sought 116.5 acres of additional land to expand the existing airport at Kumbhirgram in Silchar.

As suitable land for expansion was not available, the AAI requested the state government to provide land to set up a greenfield airport keeping in mind the “future potential of trade and commerce in the region” and accordingly the government asked the Cachar DC to identify the land.

The current airport is a defence airport and hence there are limitations to its expansion.

After scouting for land for several months and receiving a report from the Cachar district administration, the Assam government on January 2, 2020, wrote to the AAI Regional Executive Director (North Eastern Region) about three identified land parcels in three tea gardens — Khoreel, Doloo, and Silcoorie.

The wind pattern and flood level data of the three sites were also attached with the letter, which requested the AAI to conduct a “field survey…to explore the suitability of constructing a Greenfield Airport at Silchar”.

Following this communication, a multi-disciplinary team from AAI headquarters, with support from the Assam government and district administration, conducted a “pre-feasibility study” at the three identified sites from January 20 to 22 in 2020.

Though details of site contour maps, geo-coordinates, the wind rose diagram, highest flood level, and extent of the land area were not supplied by the state government, the AAI team prepared a “pre-feasibility report” based on a “visual survey and preliminary data” provided during the site visit.

The present AAI RED (NE Region) Ravi Kant, confirmed that a study was carried out to check the suitability of the proposed sites, and a report was also prepared accordingly.

“A preliminary study is done to check if a suitable site is available in a particular location to build an airport. So, a visit took place only for that purpose. People from AAI headquarters and state government were there,” he told PTI.

The 21-page report ‘Development of New Greenfield Airport at Silchar, Assam’, prepared by a five-member technical team, preferred Doloo tea estate after the site analysis of the three locations on parameters like connectivity, physical features, and planning aspects.

“For the development of Airport for Code 4C Category type of Aircraft operations, the quantum of land requirement works out to be 870 Acre as per Draft Master Plan,” the report added. So the Assam government is now acquiring 2,500 bighas (826.45 acres) of the land of Doloo tea estate.

The ‘pre-feasibility report’ also pointed out that the developer has to carry out an Obstacle Limitation Surface (OLS) survey and obtain ‘Site Clearance’ and ‘In-Principle’ approvals as well as permissions from the Defence and Forest and Environment ministries.

“Site for the proposed Airport may require earth cutting and filling to get sufficient level surface for constructing runway strip and associated infrastructure. Land to be acquired shall be free from all the encumbrances,” it added.

Development of the greenfield airport at Doloo tea garden was even discussed during a virtual meeting between Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Scindia on October 19 last year, and it was decided that the Assam government will transfer the land by December 20, 2021.

The state government, thereafter, had initiated the land acquisition process in Doloo, but it could not proceed properly till April this year.

In May this year, the land acquisition exercise witnessed protests by the tea garden workers, but the government assured them that the proposed airport would not impact their jobs or place of residence.

On April 23, the state government wrote to the AAI RED (NER) informing about the ongoing exercise of acquiring 2,500 bighas of land and proposed to hand over the same to the airport developer immediately for “further needful action”.

Replying to this letter, Kant, the AAI RED (NE Region), informed the Assam government that the Airport Director of the existing Silchar Airport has been authorised to “take over the said land on behalf of Airports Authority of India”.

Despite all these communications between the Assam government and AAI along with Scindia himself over the last several years, the Union Minister as well as his ministry in an RTI reply on May 31 this year stated that neither ‘Site Clearance’ nor ‘In-Principle Approval’ proposals has been received.

A senior Assam government official, who is directly involved with the process, told PTI on condition of anonymity that “AAI has goofed up ” in the process and because of them, the Union Minister also got dragged into the controversy.

“Technically speaking, no proposal has been sent from our side. That is the job of the developer, which is AAI in this case. However, it will be totally wrong to say that we are acquiring land on our own without any study or views from experts,” he added.

A senior aviation industry expert, who was a member of the ‘Site Selection Team’ of the upcoming Mopa International Airport in Goa, said a full-scale feasibility report is prepared before acquiring any land for developing an airport.

“The report consists of several studies like wind study, topographical study, aeronautical study, and Obstacle Limitation Surface (OLS) survey. If there is any issue, then that land will not be acquired,” he told PTI.

However, in the proposed greenfield airport case, though a comprehensive feasibility study has not yet been done, a ‘pre-feasibility report’ has been prepared by the experts of the AAI, meaning that the rules were not flouted in totality.

When contacted, Kant said: “They (Assam government) had informed us that they were acquiring the land. They intimated to us that we would be offered that land. They wrote to me, not our headquarters.”

He, however, said that the AAI has not got possession of the land yet and the state government had just informed about it.

Asked if AAI had sought land to build the airport, Kant said: “We have not sought any land. First, the Ministry has to come into the picture. We get directions from the Ministry only.”

Whether any site selection study was carried out by the AAI, the RED replied in negative and said: “I am not aware of this. AAI has not done any such study. We are not involved in it.”

If the proposed greenfield airport will be developed by the AAI or any private player, Kant said: “This decision is not with the AAI, so I cannot comment on it.”

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