‘Don’t clip the wings of Punekars’ dreams, give the city a fully functional airport’

🔴 Despite its economic, industrial, educational, and cultural significance, Pune has to endure this ignominy of not having a dedicated civilian airport.

Written by Sudhir Mehta

“All roads lead to Rome” is an ancient idiom based on the fact that Rome was the focal point of all the roads in ancient Roman Empire. It was not just indicative of religious powers but also the symbol of political and economic development. For a modern city to make an equivalent claim, it would have to be “all major global airlines land here”. A well-developed and all-weather operational airport is a catalyst for economic growth and key to a city’s national and international trade relations. Unfortunately, Pune’s economic growth and development is hindered by lack of a fully operational airport.

Pune is the ninth largest city in India which has emerged as a software and industrial hub in the last three decades. It has a strong presence of automobile and engineering industries. Pune is one of the top five preferred FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) destination in India. As start-up culture is strengthening, Pune hosts more than 400 such firms. Pune contributes 2.92 lakh crore to Maharashtra’s GSDP while its per capita income at district level is Rs. 1.27 lakh (2019). Pune has more than 800 colleges, which attract not just Indian students across the states but also international students. Despite its economic, industrial, educational, and cultural significance, Pune has to endure this ignominy of not having a dedicated civilian airport. As many as 62 airports have been built in the country in the last seven years, but expansion of Pune airport is still caught in red tape.

An airport is one of the long-standing and basic demands of citizens of Pune. The existing airport is mainly a civil enclave operating within a station of the Indian Air Force (IAF). However, being part of Air Force station, the current airport faces many hurdles, the foremost being infrastructure development and expansion of existing facilities.

The existing runway is 2,535 meters long, which prohibits cargo and larger airplanes to operate. Airport Authority of India (AAI) had proposed extension of runway by 1,000 meters to facilitate takeoff and landing of large aircraft. However, this proposal is pending for last 18 years due to legal issues between IAF and AAI.

Similarly, development of a full-fledged cargo terminal is pending mainly due to unavailability of land. It is estimated that the proposed terminal requires 18 acres of land to be transferred from the Ministry of Defense to the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Recently, a small step towards this was initiated by announcing transfer of 2.5 acres of land, but both the ministries are at loggerheads over the annual lease rent.

Next hurdle is accessibility to airport. Given the sharp rise in passengers and increasing footfall, Pune airport needs alternative access roads for transport of cargo and passengers. Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) has started the work on the alternate approach road, but it needs to speed up the construction. Besides development of these access roads, regular maintenance and cleanliness should also be pre-planned. Beautification project should be undertaken by the PMC on existing and future approach roads.

As a result of inadequate infrastructure, Pune airport lacks the status of ‘international airport’ and is currently categorised as a ‘customs airport’. Consequently, none of the international carriers operate from Pune airport. Territorial and administrative overlap between IAF and AAI often gives rise to friction and impedes smooth functioning of airport. For example: IAF and AAI find themselves at conflict over slot availability, scheduling, runway maintenance and night landing, which ultimately affects Punekars and Pune’s economy at large.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Pune airport has played an instrumental role. At the very beginning of the pandemic, the only testing facility for the infection was at National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. Samples were flown in from across the country. In a few weeks’ time, NIV and another Pune-based company developed testing kits that were distributed nationally. In the latter phase of the pandemic, Covishield, a vaccine developed by the Serum Institute of India, made its way to every nook and corner of the country via airways. The airport also transported the vaccines internationally by chartered flights.

Unfortunately, due to poor air connectivity, Pune is losing out on major projects and investments opportunities.

Underlining the importance of UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik [let’s get the common man of the country flying]) scheme, PM Narendra Modi had mentioned, “… better connectivity in far-flung area is giving wings to people’s dream”. It is important that all the stakeholders responsible for the development of Pune airport come together and act in harmony to give wings to Punekars’ dream.

(Sudhir Mehta, Chairman & Managing Director of Pinnacle Industries Limited, is president of Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), Pune. Views expressed are his own.)

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