Pune international airport project: Covid-19 lends sharp edge to city’s need

With the state government announcing yet another change in the project site, Pune residents’ wait for an international airport has grown longer

This means aircraft carrying Covishield vaccines will be forced to take circuitous routes with the most precious cargo in the world.
This means aircraft carrying Covishield vaccines will be forced to take circuitous routes with the most precious cargo in the world.

That Pune needs an international airport to stamp its arrival as a global destination has been long known. What the pandemic has done, thanks to the Serum Institute of India that manufactures coronavirus vaccines being located in the city, is to highlight this need with poignancy. Unfortunately, yet another change in the proposed airport’s site has dimmed the prospects of the city offering global connectivity any time soon.

While the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has done its best by providing dedicated infrastructure and slots for transport of the vaccines, a disruption is expected between April 26 and May 9, when the airport will suspend flight operations for runway resurfacing and extension works. This was necessary to allow the airport to operate wide-bodied aircraft.

This means aircraft carrying Covishield vaccines will be forced to take circuitous routes with the most precious cargo in the world. The Serum Institute of India has already approached the government to change the Air Operations Routine (AOR) policy at the airport to ensure smoother operation of non-scheduled aircraft and movement of people and cargo.

It is through upgrades of the sort being carried out at present that the airport has catered to growing traffic in recent years – passenger movement has nearly doubled in the last four years to 10 million and cargo movement has grown in double digits – even as work on the international airport project has failed to take off. The fact that the Lohegaon Airforce Station is an important base for the Indian Air Force’s Sukhoi jets permits limited civil operations at the airport as it is.

Since a greenfield international airport in Pune was first mooted by the Maharashtra government in 2001, the proposed project site has been changed several times – Chakan, Khed and Rajgurunagar are among the names selected in the past. With the latest shift announced in February ‘21, the airport will now be built 15 km away from the site at Purandar taluka chosen earlier. The earlier plan, for which all approvals had been secured, was to see the airport being built over 2,000 hectares at the site chosen by the BJP-Sena government in 2015. Things had moved fast after Maharashtra’s Deputy CM Ajit Pawar declared it a high-priority project in August 2020, asking the district administration to expedite land acquisition at Purandar, around 50 km from Pune. Unfortunately, stiff opposition to land acquisition saw the plan being dropped.

Commenting on the delay, Sudhir Mehta, CMD of Pinnacle Industries and president of the Mahratta Chambers of Commerce and Industries says it is disastrous for Pune’s positioning as an international city. “There has been a clear lack of political will over the decades. It seems Mars missions take less time than Pune’s quest for a new airport,” he quips, adding the chamber and industry representatives have regularly urged the government to end the impasse.

A new site entails starting from scratch on the project and getting dozens of central and state approvals afresh, including the most important clearance from the defence ministry. The proposed Rs 10,000-crore Chhatrapati Sambhajiraje International Airport, to be built by the Maharashtra Airport Development Company, will come up over 2,832 hectares. It is slated to have two parallel runways and will meet annual traffic demand of 20 million passengers over the next 30 years.

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First published on: 29-03-2021 at 04:00 IST