UP international airport projects fail to take off

Akhilesh Yadav

Even as Akhilesh Yadav government is keen to leverage the tourism potential in Uttar Pradesh for boosting services sector growth, the proposed international airports in the state have utterly failed to take wings.

These airport projects had been proposed under different regimes to boost tourism and provide direct air connectivity from the major tourist hinterlands.

Much headway had been made in at least two proposed projects at Kushinagar and Jewar, yet the ambitious plans have only come a cropper.

Over the past decade, the regimes of both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have proposed to develop international airport/aviation hubs at Kushinagar, Jewar near Greater Noida (Gautam Budh Nagar district) and Agra.

Kushinagar airport

The much awaited Kushingar international airport was projected to cost about Rs 354 crore under public private partnership (PPP). In January 2014, the Akhilesh cabinet had cleared the project to be built under Design Build Finance Operate Transfer (DBFOT) basis and approved the final bid document.

The bidders, who had previously qualified the technical bid stage in March 2013 included GMR, Essel, Gammon India etc. Besides, the state had acquired the land spanning 550 acres.

The airport with a runway of 3,200 metres was estimated to serve about 2,50,000 tourists annually. It was touted to be India's first airport wherein the Centre had given in-principle approval for viability gap funding (VGF) of 20 per cent. Additional 20 per cent grant had been committed from the state government. Hence, the total permissible VGF grant of 40 percent came to about Rs 170 crore.

Kushinagar has an old airstrip spanning 97 acres to handle small aircraft. According to a study, over 3,00,000 international tourists come to Kushinagar annually to visit Buddhist sites.

In the absence of interest from private developers, the project hangs in balance, although the state government has yet not shelved it.

Jewar airport

The Jewar airport was proposed in 2001 as an aviation hub to rival New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. The project was approved by AAI in 2003, when Mayawati was at helm (2007-12) in UP.

Mayawati had vigorously pushed for it, although it fell within the 150 km radius of the international airport in the national capital. The existing rules had prohibited another airport within such radius unless approved exclusively.

Her regime had even planned to get the airport operational before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but it never take off pending other central clearances. The project was estimated to cost nearly Rs 3,500 crore spanning about 3,700 acres and handle 4 million passengers annually.

Even the techno-feasibility study had been conducted and submitted to the Centre for action and bidding document prepared.

Agra airport

Soon after coming to power in March 2012, the Akhilesh government had virtually scrapped the Jewar international airport project and pitched for an airport in Agra to cater the Taj Mahal-Braj tourist circuit.

The government had even identified land near Etmadpur, about 16 km from Agra City, for the mega project. However, the defence ministry raised objections over the proposed site.

In a letter written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2015, the state government, however, had expressed willingness to revive the proposed Jewar airport while also pitching for an airport in Agra.

Owing to the defence ministry objection, the state has now proposed an alternative site in Agra apart from proposing to develop Saifai airstrip (Etawah district) into an international airport. Saifai is the native place of Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Former union civil aviation minister Ajit Singh during the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime at the Centre had also urged the Akhilesh government to hand over Meerut and Agra airport to AAI to unlock tourism potential in the region.

Meanwhile, the state government has engaged AAI as consultant for conducting the pre-feasibility of the proposed airport sites at Agra and Saifai.

"We have identified about 5,000 acres of land in Agra region for the proposed project, which would further boost tourism in the area," UP tourism department principal secretary Navneet Sehgal told Business Standard.

"The state government should be more aggressive in pushing such projects. The issues of land acquisition and clearances are important, but if there is strong political will at the highest level, such issues can be taken care of easily," an official previously involved with the Kushinagar project spoke on condition of anonymity.

Airports/airstrips in UP

Currently, there are over two dozen airports/airstrips in UP owned either by AAI or the state government. These are located at Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi, Bareilly, Meerut, Saifai (Etawah), Sultanpur, Ghaziabad, Aligarh, Farrukhabad, Faizabad, Kushinagar, Sonbhadra, Moradabad, Azamgarh etc.

UP civil aviation department owns 18 airstrips of which the Jhansi airstrip has been under the control of the Indian Army. Lucknow and Varanasi operate commercial flights.

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