The Supreme Court of India has recently ruled on the proposed expansion of the Mangalore airport. In its order of February 7, the Court has held that "the Government shall comply with all applicable laws and also with environmental norms, with regard to the proposed second runway and terminal tower. Justices S. N. Variava and B. N. Agrawal made this order whilst dismissing a Special Leave Petition filed by Environment Support Group and Arthur Pereira.
The Airports Authority of India originally proposed to expand the Mangalore Airport at the behest of the Mangalore Chamber of Commerce and Industry during 1987. For various reasons the project remained without progress for long, even though land acquisition proceedings were initiated. A total area of 190 acres abutting the existing Mangalore Airport was identified to build a 2nd Runway and Terminal Tower to enable landings of Airbus 320 class of aircraft, and also for international flight movements.
The land identified for building the second runway involved a southward direction from the existing short runway that allowed only flight movements of Boeing 737 and smaller aircraft. This land was along a cliff, with a drop of about 100 metres on all sides except where there was interconnection with the old terminal building. Such topography was inherently unsuitable for the building of such an airport, as it would never allow compliance with any national and international standard for airport construction and design.
A more appropriate location for the expansion of the airport would have been towards north from the existing runway. However, this option was not even considered as the acquisition of such lands would displace about 70 large landholding families, most being highly connected politically. Instead the Government of Karnataka decided to acquire for expansion land that would displace 208 families, mostly from a Dalit background, several of whom were settled here from bonded labour immediately after independence. A decade long resistance by the project affected communities has been ignored by the Government. The resistance has been organized under the banner of the Vimana Nildhana Vistharana Virodhi Samithi (Airport Expansion Opposition Committee).
It has also been highlighted for some time now that the project if built as proposed will be in fundamental violation of Aircraft Act of India, the binding standards prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the National Building Code of India, Environment Protection Act, and the Town and Country Planning Act.
1. The minimum required width of the basic strip for an instrument runway has to be 300 metres. The proposed second runway has a total physical width of only 200 metres. This stringent standard has to be complied with per the Aircraft Act of India (vide Notification of Ministry of Civil Aviation No. SO988 dated 5th January 1988) and Annex 14 of the ICAO standards which is binding as India is a signatory to the Treaty. This standard is fundamental is because in the case of an instrument runway, the pilot should be able to land or take off merely on the strength of instrument support and without sighting the runway. To provide for instrument or human error, this minimum width is mandatory. This standard also provides eminently for emergency evacuations measures. In the proposed project, there is a 100 metres drop all around the 200 metres available for the basic strip of the runway. This is highly constraining in the occurrence of an error, and provides for absolutely no emergency evacuation measure.
2. Techno-Economic feasibility report should be the basis for acquisition of land, but no such report exists till date. Land acquisition and compensation process was instead initiated without any such basis, resulting in the displacement of 208 families.
3. An Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project is mandatory according to the Environment Impact Assessment Notification issued per the Environment Protection Act. Such a study is yet to be initiated! Following this there is the mandatory requirement to hold a Public Hearing, which has not and cannot be held except on the basis of the EIA. It may be pertinent to point out here that the municipal waste disposal facility of Mangalore is within four kilometers of the proposed runway, when Rule 81B of the Aircraft Rules explicitly state that such facilities should not be within 10 kms of an airport.
4. Further, the Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Refinery is situated within 4 kms, and the 220 KVA high tension transmission lines run within 1.5 kms of the approach funnel of the proposed second runway. Standards prescribe that the refinery should be at least 8 kms away, and the transmission line at least 3 kms away from the runway as it may interfere electronically with aircraft instruments.
5. A proposal detailing the scheme should be made available to the public for comment per the Town and Country Planning Act for a period of sixty days. This has not been made available.
History of litigation
Subsequently, a special leave petition challenging this order of the High Court was filed with the Supreme Court. It was dismissed last month by the Hon'ble Supreme Court with the explicit clarification that:
We see no reason to interfere with the impugned
order. Accordingly, the special leave petition is
dismissed. We, however, clarify that in constructing
the Airport, the Government shall comply with all
applicable laws and also with environmental norms.
--JUSTICE S.N. VARIAVA & JUSTICE B.N. AGRAWAL
Comes as it does from the highest court in the land, the Court has deemed it fit to issue this particular clarification on a case where the petitioners have already pointed out that the authorities are already in violation of several regulations. The reader might wonder why the Supreme Court dismissed the petition, and merely stated what is already in the law. Whatever be those reasons, one thing stands out. By reiterating that the government must comply with all norms, the Court has issued a clear warning to the government as well. Given that, if due diligence is still given the go-by for this project, there is the possibility that the Government will find itself in Court again, further delaying this already prolonged project.
In their response to this verdict, the petitioners point out that the operative word in the SC order is 'shall', for unless the project is developed per the requisite standards, the second runway and terminal tower 'shall' not be built at all.