NEWS
17/01/2020 4:13 PM IST

Jharkhand Puts Off Building Airport To Save Vital Elephant Corridor

An expert panel noted that the project could lead to an increase in human-elephant conflict in the area.

Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Representative image.

A proposal for an airport in Jharkhand has been pushed back with concerns over disturbing an elephant habitat.

The habitat of the elephant, an endangered species and India’s national heritage animal, are regularly threatened by developmental projects. In this latest case, the Dhalbhumgarh airport sought nearly 100 hectares of land from forests in Jharkhand that serve as corridors for elephants migrating between Jharkhand and the neighbouring state of West Bengal. 

An expert panel of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has deferred the project while noting that the project could lead to an increase in human-elephant conflict in the area. It has sought further information for reconsidering the proposal. 

The proposal regarding the development of Dhalbhumgarh airport in Jharkhand for “fair weather operations of ATR-72 types of aircraft” by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) was considered by the MoEFCC expert appraisal committee (EAC) on infrastructure during its meeting on December 26-27, 2019. The project had sought Terms of Reference (ToR) from the committee. ToRs are guidelines for conducting environmental studies of projects after which the project is considered for clearance by the committee. 

During the meeting, the EAC was informed that Dhalbhumgarh airport site is an abandoned World War II airfield situated 60 kilometres from the industrial city of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. Presently the surface of the runway is not suitable for operations and no other facility is available at the airport. 

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“New runway dimensions suitable for ATR 72 type of aircraft will be constructed along with the provision of turning pad at both the ends. Terminal building to handle 75 arrival and 75 departure passengers at any point of time will be constructed,” revealed the minutes of the EAC’s meeting.  

As per the information submitted to the committee, the total land requirement for the development of Dhalbhumgarh airport is 97.166 hectares and of that 96.761 hectares is reserve forest land. There are 79,332 trees in the forest area sought. The estimated cost for the development of the airport is about Rs. one billion (Rs. 100 crores) 

As justification of the project, the EAC was informed that the new airport would result in better infrastructure facilities for air passengers, employment opportunity to the local people, more business and industrial opportunities, increase in economy as it will boost tourism, trade and commercial activities in the region and generation of more revenue to the state, thus increasing development of the region. 

During deliberations, the EAC noted Jamshedpur is the headquarters of the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. 

“Jamshedpur is home to the first private iron and steel company of India. The areas surrounding Jamshedpur are rich in minerals, including iron ore, coal, manganese, bauxite and lime. Ranchi (capital of Jharkhand) airport is located 130 kilometres from Jamshedpur. In view of population and industrial activities at Jamshedpur, there is a need for an airport for Jamshedpur city and region,” noted the committee. 

While talking about the land required for the airport, the EAC observed that “all around the proposed site the only land available is reserved forest.” 

“Any kind of ancillary development which is bound to come and further phase-2 development will also require land which will be only for forest land. The roads from national highway-33 to the airport will be built by the state government, which again will have to be built by acquiring forest land,” the panel said. 

The project could lead to an increase in human-elephant interaction

The expert committee said that the “proposed site falls in the forests which are habitat of a large number of elephants.” 

“Dalma Wildlife sanctuary is very near to the site. Elephants travel from Dalma to West Bengal through this forest. Every year there are a number of man-elephant conflict cases in these areas. The compensation paid to the people of these areas is authentic evidence of the presence of a large scale elephant population in this area. The disturbance to the elephant habitat by way of building an airport on their habitat and also by the sound of aeroplanes in the area and traffic movements will result in disturbance in the behaviour of elephants resulting in increased human-elephant conflict,” warned the committee.

In 2010, elephants were declared as a national heritage animal and, at present, the total elephant population in India (as per the last elephant estimation in 2017) is 29,964. However, the loss of elephant habitat is resulting in human-elephant interaction leading to deaths of both elephants and humans. It is estimated that around 100 elephants and more than 400 humans die in such interactions every year.  

As per government’s own estimates, between 2016-17 and 2018-19 (till March 31, 2019), at least 1474 humans have lost their lives during such interactions. In 2018-19, the highest number of such deaths (87 of 452) were in Jharkhand alone. 

The documents submitted by AAI to the EAC noted that there is no wildlife sanctuary, national park, eco-sensitive area and critically polluted area within 10 km distance from the Dhalbhumgarh Airport. 

The information provided to EAC states that there is no protected area under international conventions, national or local legislation for their ecological, landscape, cultural or other related value within 15 km distance from the airport site. It even stresses that “there is no protected, important or sensitive species found within 15 km radius.”

Jharkhand and West Bengal State Boundary is located within 15 km radius area at a distance of 10.6 km in North East Direction.

The project also requires forest clearance. In the information provided (by local forest department officials) to the forest advisory committee of the MoEFCC regarding details of wildlife present in and around the forest land proposed for diversion, it is observed that there are “Asiatic elephant, indigenous and migratory birds, fox, wild Cat, etc.” in the area.

“The proposed airport and resultant developmental activities around the airport will majorly impact the elephant movement between Mosabani and Chakuliya ranges in Jamshedpur (forest division). This will further degrade and fragment the already degraded wildlife habitat in the region, hindering elephant movement between Jharkhand and West Bengal and increase human-elephant interaction,” Sandeep Kumar Tiwari of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) told Mongabay-India.

“There can be no mitigation measure that can compensate for the loss of such a forest area which is a vital elephant corridor,” said Tiwari.

Is there an alternative? 

The EAC also stressed that the proposed airport is supposed to cater to Jamshedpur, which is 60 km away. 

“There is an airport at nearby location, at Sonari, is already existing. On the other side of Jamshedpur is Ranchi which is 120 km away and has a major airport. Jamshedpur is also well connected to Kolkata, which has a major airport facility. It takes only four hours to travel from Jamshedpur to Kolkata by train. In the past Kingfisher, MDLR, and Air Deccan started their flights from Jamshedpur airport at Sonari but could not sustain their operations,” noted the expert panel. 

It suggested that the creation of an airport at a site which is nearer to Jamshedpur town will be better for the people of Jamshedpur. “For that, a site near the Jamshedpur town may be considered with its pros and cons for building an airport,” it said.  

However, the EAC after detailed deliberation upon the proposal asked the project proponent to submit revised pre-feasibility study including “proper justification for the proposed site as a fair-weather airport situated at 60 Km from Jamshedpur city” and details of “forest/ecological sensitive areas/wildlife sanctuary/elephant corridor around the proposed site.” It also sought a groundwater study of the area. 

In the documents submitted to the FAC, which considers proposals seeking diversion of forest land, the AAI justified the project on grounds that Sonari aerodrome at Jamshedpur is “not suitable for commercial flights of ATR-72 and above categories” due to its “short runway length and non-feasibility  of its proper extension.” It emphasised that the “fast-growing and established industrial town Jamshedpur immediately needs an airport to increase its contribution in the economic development of state and country.” 

“The Airports Authority of India and the government of Jharkhand tried hard to find a suitable place to construct an airport but due to huge urbanisation and geographical reasons, no suitable place is available near the town. The most and only suitable place is Dhalbhumgarh (around 55 km from Jamshedpur). This place already has a defunct structure of runway as it was used as an airport at the time of second world war,” said AAI in its justification to the FAC.

AAI further said that people travel to Jamshedpur only through Ranchi airport, which is the only airport of the state right now, and people leave Jamshedpur at least six hours before the time of flight to reach the airport which is a waste of precious time to them.

This was first published in Mongabay-India.