New Mumbai airport plan: environment Vs business

Govt is expected to make a decision on the 90-bn-rupee project on the outskirts of Navi Mumbai soon.

Chinchpada: Lush green mangrove trees and shrubs stretch into the distance on the muddy outskirts of Navi Mumbai in western India, the low-lying land swollen with heavy monsoon rains.

Nearby, the people of Chinchpada are starting their day: women wash and dry clothes in the open, children walk barefoot to school along a dirt track and men sip tea at a stall.

But the village, nearly a dozen others like it nearby, and 160 hectares (395 acres) of the steaming mangroves are under threat.

A blue sign on the roadside indicates why: "Site For International Airport," it says in large white letters.

Government is expected to make a decision on whether to give the go-ahead for the 90-billion-rupee (1.9-billion-dollar) project within weeks, after a battle between developers and opponents lasting more than a decade.

The fight sums up the dilemma facing modern India: what gets sacrificed in the quest for better infrastructure to cater for a rapidly expanding population -- and how to deal with those who happen to be in the way.

Environmentalists have taken heart at the concerns expressed by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh about upsetting the delicate ecological balance in what is officially a protected tidal wetland area.

"The environment will be destroyed if they get rid of the entire mangrove," Pandharinath Keni, a local farmer and fisherman, told a news wire. "If they fill it in, there will be knock-on problems. The water has to go somewhere."

Activists like Stalin Dayanand, manager at the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust charity, are unconvinced by the developers` promise to replant mangroves elsewhere on the coast.

Thousands of hectares of mangrove trees and shrubs, which act as a natural buffer against the sea and coastal erosion, have been removed from around Mumbai in recent years, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Dayanand said their destruction contributed to the deaths of more than 400 people during devastating monsoon flooding in the city in July 2005.

"Nature has given you a barrier. Why remove it?" he said. "It`s not going to be good in the long term. The mangroves don`t need to be replaced. They need to be protected wherever they are."

Dayanand wants other sites for the airport to be considered and he has vowed to fight any building approval through the courts.

But there are signs that he could be waging a losing battle: the developers have powerful allies.

Aviation Minister Praful Patel and business leaders have indicated their support for the new airport, the first phase of which has been scheduled to open in 2012 to handle up to 10 million passengers a year.

They warn that investment in India`s wider economy could be hit if there are further delays for an airport that would service Mumbai, the country`s financial capital.

Passenger numbers at Mumbai International Airport about 30 kilometres (20 miles) away have increased three-fold since 2005, reflecting an overall increase in demand for air travel among the country`s emerging middle classes.

The airport is nearing full capacity but can not expand further as it is hemmed in on three sides by slums.

The proposed new Navi Mumbai International Airport is designed to absorb some of the increase, handling up to 40 million passengers by the time it is fully operational in 2030.

Kapil Kaul, from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation research group, said he expected a decision "by the highest authority" within weeks and said any call for further assessment of the environmental concerns could be disastrous.

"In the next 15 to 20 years, we might even need a third airport (in Mumbai)," he said. "The more Navi Mumbai is delayed, the more it will have an impact and handicap the city."

Keni seems resigned to his village becoming a victim of India`s insatiable hunger for development.

He said he wasn`t opposed to the airport in principle but was concerned that the thousands of people who would be forced to move would not get adequate compensation.

So far the villagers -- most of whom scrape a living in farming or fishing -- have only had verbal assurances from the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO), he explained.

Instead, they want a proper, written agreement.

"It`s like a lot of big projects," he said. "They promise many things but they don`t fulfil their promises. When you`re moved from one place to another, you have to make sure that you get everything you had before."


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