Thursday, 7 August 2008

Bhutan : Planned airport postpones take-off

7 August, 2008 - The plan for an international airport at Gelephu is not yet finalised with uncertainties over factors like Indian participation, project feasibility and massive funding requirements.

“Though the Airport is on our list of negotiations with India, they will first have to agree to the project and, second, a techno economical viability study is needed,” said the works and human settlement minister, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba.

The minister said that, only if viability studies showed any promise, would the government go ahead with the project. “After all, the investment required is huge and so it has to be a very well considered decision,” he said.

The airport will also require Indian government cooperation because landings and takeoffs will be over Indian airspace because of its proximity to the border. Moreover, the airport will also be competing with the nearby airports of Bagdora in Siliguri and Guwahati in Assam.

The designated Indian government agency for the project, airports authority of India (AAI), since its first visit in May 2006, has still not responded to the department of civil aviation’s enquiries. “AAI was supposed to come back in 2006 September and also prepare a blueprint for the entire project but, despite numerous reminders, we have got no response till date,” said Sithar Dorji, head of policy and planning, ministry of information and communications (MoIC).

Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Nu 100 billion announcement was conspicuously silent on the airport while clearly listing out other projects like the railway connection.

The GNH commission, which put this project in the 10th plan in the first place, has had to do some redrafts of the figures scaling down both budget and land requirements.

“We’re currently looking at only a basic amount with which to make a basic airport (in Gelephu) with a runway where an aircraft can land,” said Sithar Dorji.

This basic airport will mean a runway strip with turn pads and boundary wall at a cost of Nu 2.20 billion. This excludes the land acquisition costs, which amounts to Nu 2.80 billion if paid in cash, or the government may opt for swapping land for land.

Sources say that the cabinet was concerned about the huge original land requirement of 1500 acres, which has now been scaled down to 900 acres.

An MoIC note to the cabinet says that “there is a lot of criticism from the public since a moratorium has been imposed on all development issues; on the other hand, the government has initiated neither land demarcation nor acquisition process”.

“The general public needs to know clearly the future status of their land,” the MoIC note stressed. It also mentions that the method of payment for the land needs to be finalised.

Many people have, in the meantime, bought land in Gelephu, at inflated rates, anticipating an international airport to be in the vicinity.

“The government has never said that an airport will definitely be coming up at Gelephu,” said Lyonpo Zimba. “Even besides the airport project, Gelephu already has economic potential because it is an entry point for many hydro projects and because it’s near the border.”

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