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Giving wings to Baljek airport

Baljek airport near Tura in Meghalaya lying unutilized for the past 13 years ever since its inauguration speaks volumes about poor air connectivity in the northeast region.

Tura

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  4 Sep 2021 6:00 AM GMT

Baljek airport near Tura in Meghalaya lying unutilized for the past 13 years ever since its inauguration speaks volumes about poor air connectivity in the northeast region. It also reminds us of the paradox that even though Northeast is at the centre of India's Act East and Neighbourhood First policies, key infrastructure projects move at a snail's pace in the region. A 19-seater aircraft, in which the then President Pratibha Patil came in 2008 for the inauguration of the airport, was the first and last aircraft to land and take-off from this airport. Meghalaya government's decision to hand over the airport to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) for expansion of the runway of the airport has triggered hope for its operationalization. The AAI sent the draft Memorandum of Understanding for taking over the airport to the Meghalaya government in 2013. The airport, a dream project of former Lok Sabha Speaker late PA Sangma, was built at Rs 12.52 crore for the operation of 20-seater aircraft to boost tourism and agriculture apart from facilitating air travel to and from landlocked Garo Hills districts. Even after completion of the airport, it remained non-functional as it was constructed as short take-off and landing airport with a runway length of 3000 feet which is capable of handling 20-seater small aircraft. As no scheduled airliner operates such aircraft, commercial services connecting Baljek airport could not be started. This is a classic example of the mismatch between planning and executive key infrastructure projects and the actual requirement of the northeast region. The runway needs to be expanded to at least 4700 feet to handle 50-seater aircraft. The estimated cost of expansion in 2012-13 was Rs 111.23 crore. Delay led to cost escalation and the AAI submitted the Detailed Project Report with an estimated cost of developing the airport of Rs 183.64 crore to the Meghalaya government in 2017. Meghalaya government sent the proposal for an airport in Garo Hills in 1983 which was sanctioned in 1995 after 12 years. It took another 13 years to complete the project for inauguration in 2008. Twenty-five years taken from submission of the proposal to inauguration of the project reflect apathy and negligence of successive governments at the Centre towards air connectivity in the region. The airport lying unserved for the subsequent 13 years says a lot about priorities for the region getting stuck in catchlines of seminars and meetings. These seminars are held frequently to highlight the growth potential of the Northeast region because of its proximity to ASEAN and neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal and often end with an appeal to the region to leverage Act East and Neighbourhood First Policy for trade, commerce, tourism, and other people to people exchange with neighbouring countries under these policies. The Central government requesting Meghalaya government earlier this month to hand over Baljek airport to AAI at the earliest for undertaking the runway expansion work implies that the process is yet to be completed from the state government's end. The MoU requires the State Government to acquire and hand over 125 acres for phase-I of development work and the actual time of expansion work of the airport will depend on the completion and acquisition of the remaining portion of land. The Meghalaya government hopes that the revival of the airport will coincide with the celebration of 50 years of Meghalaya's statehood next year. While giving its consent for inclusion in the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) of the Civil Aviation Ministry in 2016, the Meghalaya government expressed hope that after expansion, Baljek airport would also be benefitted from RCS. The AAI has told the Meghalaya government that if the airport is handed over to them then they can first develop it for helicopter services and subsequently for 50-seater aircraft under RCS. Why the helicopter services could not be operated all these years even after the implementation of RCS is baffling. The RCS under UDAAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik) entails sharing of viability gap funding to schedule airliners at an 80:20 ratio between the Central government and the state government which has attracted some airliners to operate in the region. The scheme keeps the flight fare on RCS routes lower than normal routes for operational cost-effectiveness by subsiding it through VGF while airliners are required to keep 50% seats as RCS seats of subsidised fares. Expansion work of Baljek airport will put the Central government as well as the Meghalaya government to test if years of neglect to the aviation sector in the state is poised to witness a radical change through expeditious completion of key infrastructure projects. Operation of freighter service, air ambulance services in airports in the Northeast can help boost trade, commerce, tourism and medical tourism with neighbouring countries. Exports from the region, more particularly of low volume high-value horticultural fruits, vegetables and processed food can also grow to benefit the farmers. Thirty years is too long a period to operationalize an air connectivity project.

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