Why the new Chandigarh airport complex still refuses to take off

The state-of-the-art terminal was supposed to be the pride of Punjab and Haryana, but it's mired in controversies.

 |  6-minute read |   31-05-2016
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It's been nearly nine months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the international airport at Chandigarh. The spanking new terminal is a flagship project of the Punjab government and the high court has held numerous hearings and pulled up all concerned over the delay in starting international flights, but to no avail.

The only international flight to land and take off since September 11 last, when the PM inaugurated the new terminal with much fanfare, was that the French President, Francois Hollande, who arrived for a visit to Chandigarh on way to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations his year. The new terminal, built at a total cost of about Rs 1,400 crore, is now being used for operation of over 20 domestic flights daily after the government ordered closure of the old Chandigarh airport complex.

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"You are under a misconception that we are begging you to start international flights from the new complex. Just make a statement that international flights cannot be started and we shall see what needs to be done", a division bench of the Punjab and Haryana high court had told the assistant solicitor general of India, Chetan Mittal, during one of dozens of hearings.

Not just that, the court had been threatening to order return of the land acquired for the construction of the new terminal complex and order a CBI inquiry into the huge waste of public money. It had even summoned the secretary of the civil aviation ministry and chairman of the Airports Authority of India and questioned them. However, no amount of cajoling and threatening government agencies and private airlines, made party to the case, has worked so far.

For the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which is seeking re-election in a few months, the project was supposed to be a feather in its cap. The coalition government had projected it to the game changer for Punjab with international flights not only carrying passengers from the region abroad but it becoming a major hub for export of fresh vegetables and fruit, besides other exports, from Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

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It also became a party in the case before the high court and its Advocate General Ashok Aggarwal did not hesitate at indicating that some powerful vested interests in Delhi were responsible for the inordinate delay in starting international operations from Chandigarh. Alleging "serious nexus" in Delhi, he told the court recently that the "entire issue is being stage managed by some persons from Delhi. We know who is affected. It is a timetable game in airlines industry. A gentleman in Delhi says if you start flights from Chandigarh, XYZ is affected. Everyone knows it", indicating that the interests of those operating Delhi international airport were involved.

Even the counsel for Mohali Industries Association, which had moved the court, told the division bench: "Somebody is taking calls somewhere" to block the international operations and demanded high level inquiry by either the CBI or the Central Vigilance Commission.

chandigarh-airport-e_053116073840.jpg New teriminal at Chandigarh airport. 

At every hearing the onus is shifted for the long delay in starting international flights from one party to another. Some of the airlines say they are willing but either don't have aircraft or there is a problem of commercial viability of the operations. Some other say the length of the runway is not adequate for long haul aircraft while a few have pointed out that the airport lacks CAT III Instrument Landing System for safe landing of aircraft in bad weather and fog. AAI has claimed that customs and immigration staff has not been posted. It has also pointed out that the Indian Air Force, which is in charge of the Air Traffic Control (ATC), does not permit night landing of civilian aircraft.

It is estimated by the Punjab Government and the Mohali Industries Association that 40 per cent or international passengers boarding or landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport are from Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand besides Jammu and Kashmir, who may like to use the facility at Chandigarh.

Also read: Hollande should know making Chandigarh a smart city won't be easy

The airport had earlier remained in the eye of a storm over its construction and name. The idea was initially mooted by the Badal government in 2007. As a part of the airstrip is located in adjoining Mohali district of Punjab, the government acquired land after seeking a nod from the Civil Aviation Ministry. Haryana raised objections on the ground that the part of the airstrip was in the Union Territory of Chandigarh, the disputed capital of both Punjab and Haryana, and any move to shift the terminal to Punjab in Mohali would dilute its claim on Chandigarh. In order to maintain its stake it offered to partly fund the airport complex.

After Punjab said it had no objection to Haryana contributing, the Centre decided to take it up as a joint venture and a Special Purpose Vehicle was created with 51 per cent stake of the Airports Authority of India and 24.5 per cent each of Punjab and Haryana.

Next, there was a dispute over naming the new airport complex. Initially, Punjab insisted that it should be named Shaheed-e-Azam Sardar Bhagat Singh International Airport, Mohali. Haryana objected to the inclusion of word "Mohali". It said that even though the complex was located in adjoining Punjab, the name should retain Chandigarh in its name.

Subsequently after the BJP government led by Manohar Lal Khattar came to power, it suggested that the airport be named after an RSS ideologue and former deputy chief minister Dr Mangal Sein. The suggestion was rejected by Punjab which took up the matter with the PM. However a formal naming of the airport has still not been done and various signboards leading to the airport still refer to it only as an "international airport".

The high court, in its latest hearing on Monday, has now directed that the central government provide all due clearances to IndiGo, which has evinced interest in starting operations, to start international flights from the new terminal by June 10.

All concerned are, however, keeping their fingers crossed whether the international flights would actually start functioning by the time PM is again here on June 21 for the International Yoga Day celebrations.

Writer

Vipin Pubby Vipin Pubby @vipinpubby

The writer is a veteran journalist based in Chandigarh.

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