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The Passions of Mopa

The airport may be inevitable, but the fight heats up

Even by the standards of emotion-inflamed Goa, the recent public hearing on the environmental impact of the proposed Mopa airport in North Goa stood out as one of the most stormy in the state’s history.  The shouting matches threatened to spill over into a violent free-for-all. That supporters of the proposed airport outnumbered the opponents at the hearing was not necessarily a reflection of majority opinion; many if not most Mopa opponents reside in the south and the meeting was held in the far north.

The controversy that has ignited so many Goan passions is a captivating, wholly Indian saga pitting the powerful against the weak, environmentalists against developers, farmers against politicians. With the pro-development forces of the BJP in power both at the state and national levels, with powerful politicians (including the current chief minister) possessing personal interests in the Mopa project, and with the central government now stepping in with an offer to build and operate the facility, the Mopa International Airport is starting to look inevitable. But India being India, and Goa being Goa, past experience has shown that when citizens band together and fight for their cause, even the mightiest must beware.

Each side, to be sure, has valid arguments.

Why shouldn’t Goa have a second airport, considering that the first one is run by the Indian Navy and is not available to commercial flights during peak morning hours? The project will bring thousands of jobs, much needed commerce and a robust boost to not just the proposed site at Pernem but also the entire Goan economy, proponents argue. So many things that can’t happen now at the Navy-controlled airport at Dabolim – from installing hangars to increasing cargo transport to raising the number of flights – would now be possible, they add. And compared to other sites in Goa, this one’s ecosystem is not particularly diverse or sensitive, the proponents insist.

“The airport will have no adverse impact. It is being constructed on a plateau that is by and large barren and is miles away from any protected forest,” said Devendra Prabhudesai, a teacher from Pernem.

No, scream the airport’s opponents. The whole affair smells of crookedness, with politicians supporting the project to promote their own land investments, and a second airport making no financial sense in a state of Goa’s size  (not to mention a THIRD international airport now going up an hour’s drive north at Chipi in Maharashtra). Mopa’s location is at the far tip of the state rather than in the centre, as Dabolim is now, the opponents argue, and therefore would likely serve Maharashtra as much as or more than Goa. Farmers and other land owners were not compensated fairly when the site was acquired, they say, and now they point to new evidence of rich aluminium bauxite reserves at the site constituting a bounteous public resource that could never be exploited if a runway and terminals were built atop it. All that’s in addition to rich water resources discovered beneath the land.

“MOPA Greenfield International Civil Airport (MOGICA) will be the first such airport in the world to be built on one of world’s richest high-grade bauxite ore deposits and one of world’s richest ancient tropical sub-coastal groundwater aquifers,” said Goa University researcher Nandakumar Kamat, who made the explosive revelations about the site’s natural resources.

The reports of last week’s hearing on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report – held at Simeche Advan in Varconda village of Pernem – will now be sent to the centre’s ministry of Environment and Forests, which will rule on the Goa government’s application for environmental clearance.

“We are not against the Mopa airport,” said the Sarpanch of the Mopa panchayat, Vinayak Mahale, who was joined by politicians in neighbouring villages in support of the airport. The proposed airport will improve the financial position of the state and help ensure Goa’s rightful place on the international map, the supporters said.

Those with opposing views chimed in quickly, bringing up issues including inadequate compensation, destruction of groundwater springs, and discrepancies in the EIA report.

“The EIA study report is misleading,” said Sandip Kambli a long-time opponent of the Mopa airport. “There is no mention of the farming land in the report. On the contrary, it is mentioned that the villages have no plantation at all.”

He found support among farmers who lost their land to the airport.

However, one such farmer, Rupesh Parab, said he did not oppose the airport as long as compensation to farmers is increased.

“The compensation of Rs 20 to Rs 40 per square metre provided towards land was not adequate. It has to be increased.  It is better to have an airport than having a mining site at the location,” Parab said.

Questions remain on whether the Goa government will be able to meet its deadline of having the airport in place by Jan. 1, 2018, as promised.

Despite issuing repeated ‘Requests for Qualification’ from private parties, asking them to build and operate the new airport, the government has found no takers. There have been several deadline extensions to no avail, until the Airports Authority of India, a central government-owned company, decided to throw its hat in the ring.

Fatorda legislator Vijai Sardesai smelled a rat. His theory is that the central government arm-twisted the AAI into bidding for an airport, which no private player thought fit to bid for due to viability issues.

“From this development, it is obvious that all the bidders have ‘privately’ indicated to the government that the Mopa airport is not commercially viable and that they are not interested in the bidding,” Sardesai said, predicting that the government’s push will force the AAI into a loss making venture.

“It appears that the central government has forced the AAI to take this step to save face and to ensure that the Mopa airport is bulldozed against the wishes of the Goan people and by neglecting environmental and safety concerns,” Sardesai said.

Meanwhile, in the background attracting little attention is the work currently taking place at the Sindhudurg Airport at Chipi-Parule in Maharashtra. Just over an hour’s drive from the north Goa border, bulldozers are fast at work completing the runway and shells of the terminal buildings are up. The government plans to make it an international airport, and if it’s completed within 18 months, as some predict, the debate in Goa may become moot. If a single airport is enough to service huge cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore, it’s hard to see why tiny Goa would need three.