South Asia

Accusations fly over Mumbai's new airport

Embankments close to the proposed site of the new airport near Mumbai
Image caption Environmentalists fear swathes of mangroves will be destroyed for the airport

Thousands of residents from 18 villages located near the site of a planned second international airport for the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) are angry and confused.

Unable to comprehend the design and scale of this $2bn (£1.3bn) dollar project, all they know is that they are opposing it until they are assured of jobs and satisfactory compensation.

Developers last month finally won environmental clearance - one of the last stages before final planning approval - to build another airport for the western city that is India's commercial centre.

The Navi Mumbai Airport site - which would be located 40km (25 miles) away from Mumbai's existing air hub - has been under consideration since 2000.

Promises, promises

But the public-private partnership project has stalled because of stiff protests from environmental groups.

Image caption Mumbai's existing Chhatrapati Shivaji International is South Asia's busiest airport

They say the diversion of a river to make room for the runway will also involve destroying mangroves.

Villagers are demanding better compensation and a job guarantee scheme in return for the remaining 20% of land needed if the project is to be successfully completed.

The first phase of the airport is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2014 - with a passenger load of 10 million people a year.

By 2030 the airport would be able to handle 60 million passengers annually, say planners.

But Kamlakar Mhatre, one of the 3,000 families who face being resettled, is not happy.

"We do not trust Cidco," he says, referring to the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra, which is behind the development.

'At our cost'

Mr Mhatre says the corporation reneged on a promise to give his family jobs when they gave up land in the 1980s for another project.

One of the most common challenges for such developments is finding work for the farmers who lose their land and livelihoods.

Because many of these people have limited skills and education, few of them get good jobs and many end up as labourers.

RC Gharat, who is part of the protest group, says they are demanding training for villagers to avoid ending up in unskilled work.

"The nation and state's development cannot be at our cost," he says.

"We want locals to be employed in all possible jobs and the necessary training to be provided."

The initial design involved diverting two rivers to make way for parallel runways, in addition to the destruction of mangroves in more than 90 hectares and the razing of a 95m (311ft) hill.

Legal action

Developers say that plan has been altered to avoid diverting one of the rivers, and to provide for the creation of a mangrove park in the vicinity.

Image caption Villagers are demanding better jobs and compensation before the airport takes off

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has now approved the project.

"Instead of going back to the drawing board and adding at least two to three years more to the assessment/land acquisition process, I decided to accept the proposals in good faith and to ensure that the environmental concerns are fully addressed," he said.

But environmentalists - who have lodged a petition at Bombay High Court to stop the development - reject this claim.

Mangrove expert Vivek Kulkarni described the decision to go ahead as akin to "amputating the hand given by nature and trying to grow it on your back".

"Creating parks is not going create an ecosystem," he said. "Officials talk about the need for an airport and minimising the damage. But this is hypocrisy.

Experts also say the new airport is not well linked to different parts of the over-populated city and will put tremendous pressure on infrastructure.

Saturation point?

One study warns that a combination of population growth and an expected increase in air traffic means the new airport could hit saturation point by 2030.

Image caption Come fly with me: Critics say the local transport infrastructure could not cope with the new airport

But Cidco spokesman Mohan Ninawe says all concerns will be addressed.

"The distance between the two runways has been reduced to avoid diverting one of the rivers," he said.

"We will give a good package to people. Jobs will be given as per skills and knowledge."

He also says road transportation has already been planned, and that the airport will also be well connected to the city by Metro Rail and the Trans Harbour Link.

Mr Ninawe said that several other infrastructure projects are in the pipeline to ease traffic in India's financial capital.

For now, the airport project seems grounded by the standoff between the developers on one side and their opponents on the other.

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