Five international airports within 500 km: Has Kerala got its priorities right?

What if Kerala doesn’t have a four-lane National Highway stretching across the state or a double-track railway line covering even half the state, it already has four international airports. And the fifth one will become a reality near Sabarimala if the state government has its way. Till the end of 2018, Kerala had three international airports–Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Calicut. Kannur international airport commenced operations in December 2018.

The state government has now given the nod to acquire 2,263.18 acres of private land in Cheruvally estate near Erumeli, near Sabarimala, for the proposed Sabarimala Greenfield Airport. The Cabinet has already given the in-principle approval for the new airport which is envisioned as an international airport.

A boon to pilgrims

The Sabarimala temple attracts nearly 5 crore visitors per season, much more than the state’s total population. Presently, the only way to reach the hill shrine is by road. The increase in the number of pilgrims visiting the temple had prompted the government to look at a new airport as an option to reduce traffic congestion during the pilgrimage season. The airport is also expected to benefit expatriates from Pathanamthitta, Idukki and Kottayam districts, and domestic as well as international tourists to Munnar, Thekkady and Kumarakom.

As and when the new airport comes into being, the state will have five international airports within a distance of 475 km by road and within an aerial distance of 410 km between the state capital and Kannur. The distance from Thiruvananthapuram to proposed Sabarimala airport will be 136 km, Sabarimala airport to Kochi airport 113 km, Kochi to Calicut airport 168 km and Calicut to Kannur airport 115 km.

It may baffle people why a tiny state with 3.48 crore population needs five international airports. No other Indian state has four international airports. Even the top two most industrialised states in India –Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra – have only three international airports each; Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have two each and all other states have only one international airport. India as a whole doesn’t have more than 30 international airports.

Is airport the right priority?

Is a fifth international airport the right priority for Kerala when many ambitious road, rail and water transport projects beneficial to the entire state are craving for the attention of the government?

The 111-km long Sabarimala railway line from Angamali to Erumeli was sanctioned by Indian Railways way back in 1998. But the execution of the project remains bogged down due to lack of funding from the Railway Ministry and dispute between the Railways and the state government over cost-sharing.

The Sabari rail line could carry hundred times the number of pilgrims that could be handled by the proposed airport. Besides, the railway line will help the wood–based and rice–based industries concentrated in the Perumbavoor–Kalady area, and the tourist destinations of Ernakulam, Idukki and Kottayam districts. Idukki district with no railway station will also get railway connectivity.

There are many other railway projects in Kerala which remain incomplete or are yet to be taken up. The doubling of Ernakulam-Kayamkulam lines via Kottayam and Alappuzha are moving at snail’s pace. Expansion of Kochi Metro and the proposed Ligh Metro projects for Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode too remain in limbo.

Deplorable road infrastructure

Kerala’s road infrastructure is in a deplorable state compared to that of the neighbouring states. Kerala has 11 National Highways passing through the state together constituting 1811.52 km length in the State. Four-laning is undertaken only on limited stretches of National Highways because of the hassles associated with land acquisition. While other states are upgrading their National Highways into 6/8-lane highways with a minimum width of 60 meters, Kerala government requested the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to reduce the width of National Highways in the state to 30 meters. Following the objections raised by NHAI, Kerala has since agreed to a width of 45 meters for its 4/6-lane highways. Experts point out that even the proposed 4/6-lane highways with 45 meter Right of Way can’t have wide medians to help the trucks and large vehicles to take U-Turn without blocking the high-speed traffic. Even after agreeing to a 45-meter width, the state government has not shown the political will to expeditiously acquire land for the development of National Highways in the state.

The delay in land acquisition has hit the development of state highways too. A case in point is the ambitious Seaport-Airport road in Kochi designed to boost the cargo traffic between the port and the airport and connect the Cochin Special Economic Zone and major industrial units in Kochi. The work on this road which commenced in the year 2000 is not halfway through even after a lapse of 20 years.

Unutilised waterways

The picture is no different with regard to water transport. The inland navigation system in Kerala consists of 41 west-flowing rivers and backwaters and the total length of navigable route in the state is estimated to be 1,900 km. Kerala’s National Waterway No 3 is a 168 km stretch of inland navigational route running from Kollam to Kottappuram (extended to Kozhikode in 2016) which provides a vital link to connect the industrial centers of Kochi to Kochi port.

But Kerala has not developed most of its waterways, including National Waterway No 3, for commercial and passenger traffic. Kerala can do wonders for its economy if it develops its extensive network of waterways. Apart from offering a fuel-efficient and pollution-free mode of transport, development of waterways entails far less investment and land acquisition than road and rail networks.

Pertinent questions

While Kerala does very little to exploit its vast potential of road, rail and water connectivity, why so much emphasis on air connectivity? What attracts international fliers to a state is business and tourism. Kerala lags behind in both the sectors. Even two years after commissioning, only five airlines operate services from Kannur airport, that too mainly to Gulf countries, and it may take long for the airport to break even.

Sabarimala temple attracts pilgrims mainly during the two-month festival season from mid-November to mid-January. Will the proposed Sabarimala international airport have sufficient passenger patronage for the remaining ten months?

Do the expected returns from the new airport justify the huge investment it entails? Would the state have got higher returns in terms of revenue and job/business opportunities had it made the same investment in expansion of rail, road and water transport networks? Well, it’s for the planners who are infatuated with building airports to answer these moot questions.

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