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  • Shrinivas Badri

Indian Airports and Their Environmental Impacts – The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

The Indian aviation market is galloping at a frenetic pace – India is now the fastest growing aviation market in the world according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). India has now become the third largest domestic aviation market in the world, according to Sydney-based aviation think-tank CAPA Centre for Aviation.

Fig. A "green" terminal expansion at the Changi Airport

Though such news and statistics seem to paint a pretty optimistic picture, in reality, the industry is facing strong headwinds. Airlines in the country have been struggling to reduce costs and increase yields, but in vain. Sky-high taxes on Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF), combined with the extremely price-sensitive nature of the Indian market have given the already ailing industry a double whammy.

Growing Passenger Numbers, Crumbling Infrastructure

With the industry booming, and passenger numbers soaring, one would expect the same pace of growth when it comes to the development and expansion of airports. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. In fact, the divide between passenger growth and infrastructural growth is quite jarring, to put it at the least. India’s top airports such as Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai are particularly bearing the brunt, having almost no room for any expansion or upgradation to cater to the steadily growing passenger numbers.

Fig. Several aircraft queueing up for departure

Airport expansion projects typically require few thousands of hectares of land. However, the physical space needed for such undertakings is becoming increasingly scarce. This issue gets exacerbated in India’s top metro cities which are expanding leaps and bounds, thus reducing the possibility of constructing airports near the city centres. For example, the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru is located at a distance of a whopping 35 km from the city centre! Couple that with Bengaluru’s infamous traffic, and that means a two-hour commute to the airport!

Compromising on the Environment?

The endless quest to find land suitable to build airports has now taken a turn for the worse – we are now razing down huge tracts of forests, destroying fertile agricultural lands, diverting rivers, blasting hills, and damaging wetlands. This has far reaching repercussions and implications for all the concerned stakeholders. The recurrent flooding of airports built on rivers, such as Kochi and Chennai, stands testament to the above statement.

Fig. The flooded airside of Chennai Airport during the 2015 floods

There are a few airport projects that have made headlines and stood out in recent times, for reasons both good and bad. Let us now dwell deep into these cases and try to gain some insights into what went right and what went wrong.

The Good: Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru

The Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru has been a torchbearer for eco-friendly and sustainable development. The airport operator, Bengaluru International Airport Limited (BIAL), commenced terminal and airside expansion works in 2019, with plans to construct a brand-new terminal building, as well as a second runway parallel to the existing runway. At this juncture, the operator was faced with a conundrum – such massive development works required cutting thousands of trees and clearing vast tracts of forests.

Fig. Translocation of trees underway at Bengaluru Airport

There were two choices: either cut all the trees and build the terminal and runway, or find a better and sustainable alternative. The former was easy and cheap, but would have proven to be detrimental to the environment. Fortunately, BIAL went with the latter, in an effort to lead the way in sustainable development.

It is taking painstaking and expensive efforts to translocate around seven thousand trees and plants instead of simply chopping them down. BIAL has partnered with the Institute of Wood Science and Technology and Volvo to carry out this mammoth tree translocation project. The areas surrounding the new runway will be covered with lush greenery, making Bengaluru Airport the first airport in India to have green corridors abutting the runway.

The Bad: Kochi International Airport

The Kochi International Airport was constructed on a floodplain close to the Periyar river at Nedumbassery, at a distance of 40 km from the city centre. In August 2018, unprecedented floods affected Kerala due to unusually high rainfall during the monsoon season. On August 15, the airport was completely shut down for 14 days as floodwaters had inundated the terminal buildings and the airside facilities. The floodwaters reached as high as 8.8 metres, damaging the first level of the airport’s international terminal.

Fig. The flooded airside of Kochi Airport during the 2018 floods

Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), the airport operator, claims that the said area was selected because of its proximity to the city and seamless rail and road connectivity. However, locals of the area allege that the area was chosen for its low price, without taking into account potential flooding during times of extreme weather events. They also feel that the floods were a direct consequence of altering the natural course of the river.

Looking ahead, CIAL has chalked out an array of mitigation measures to prevent such incidents of flooding in the future. A canal cutting through the airport premises is being widened and deepened, and several bridges and connectors are being constructed to make the airport fool-proof to such incidents of flooding. CIAL is also teaming up with leading industry experts from India and around the world to make the airport less susceptible to floods.

The Ugly: Navi Mumbai International Airport

Fig. An airport in the middle of a lush mangrove

Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) is currently the world’s busiest single runway airport, handling more than 900 flight movements per day. The airport was getting increasingly congested with no room for further expansion, and the maximum city needed a second airport at the earliest. Thus, a piece of land covering around 1,000 hectares near Ulwe in Navi Mumbai was chosen for the second airport project in 2010. Fast forward 10 years to the present, and the airport is still yet to take off.

There are a number of reasons that can explain why the airport project is getting nowhere – and the choice of the area and allied environmental concerns top the list. The new airport site encompasses mangroves and mudflats in addition to a large number of villages and farms. The sheer damage caused to the native flora and fauna is unimaginable. The area was also home to around 3,5000 families belonging to the indigenous community, who have now lost their homes, lands and livelihoods and are looking at a point of no return. Around 400 acres of mangroves, 1,000 acres of mudflats and 300 acres of forests have been destroyed completely to give way for the airport. The Ulwe river that flows right through the centre of the site has been diverted by 90 degrees, and the Ulwe hill was blasted for levelling the area.

Fig. The before and after images of the Ulwe River

Environmentalists have stated that an alternative site for the airport would have been a much better option, considering the fact that the existing site is a breeding site for several migratory birds and other species. Thus, the airport would be extremely unsafe to operate particularly during the winter months, when migratory birds frequent the area. The risk of bird strikes is extremely high in such a scenario. The airport developer has now run into financial issues, and the project is yet to see the light of the day.

Conclusion

As cliched as it might sound, sustainable development is the one single solution to all the above stated problems. Development has to go hand-in-hand with ecological conservation – simply destroying the environment in the name of infrastructural development can have disastrous consequences. Therefore, our best bet for a bright future lies in sustainable and inclusive development.

Udaan Aviation Academy in association with TreePassers EcoSolutions is organizing a three-day course on Aviation and the Environment. The aviation industry and the environment are two aspects that go hand-in-hand. In this course, you’ll gain insights into sustainability, the environmental impact of the industry and how airlines and airports across the world are striving to reduce their carbon footprint. This course stands testament to Udaan’s commitment to bringing diverse courses to students that are not available on mainstream learning platforms.


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