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Chennai airport in a STRAIT JACKET

ONE OF THE glaring instances of non-involvement of TNs leadership in the joint development of infrastructure is provided by the poor record of expanding the airport facilities of Chennai metro.

Chennai airport in a  STRAIT JACKET

An instance of apathy... 

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa would not give a date for the formal dedication of the airport. She slighted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh often and was antagonistic to the Centre due to the DMK being part of the UPA. At last, after cost and time over runs, the airport was dedicated on 31 January 2013 by vice president Hamid Ansari with Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh, Tamil Nadu Governor K Rosaiah, Minister of State for Civil Aviation K C Venugopal and participating state ministers were conspicuous by their absence.


Shift the defence unit

Chennai airport suffers the strait- jacket of defence property surrounding it coming in the way of expansion. Decades ago when the defence cantonment took shape at St. Thomas Mount, it was a distant suburb of Chennai. With the city walking in all directions, this area has become the centre of the metro. A long term plan is needed to shift the entire Defence establishment away from the metro and release the vast expanse of land for airport development. This can help construct parallel runways.

A stitch in time..

Four decades ago in the 1980s, Chennai introduced the first elevated mass rapid rail transit system in the country. As in several other areas, the political leadership treated this Central project as alien and neglected speedy development of this important project. A small stretch of Chennai Beach-Mylapore over a distance of 9.5 km was initially constructed. MGR as CM refused to share the cost for extending this facility that would be a boon to city commuters. This resulted in delays and huge spurt in costs. Belated, the state agreed and, over time, the MRTS was extended up to Velachery. 


The original idea of linking it with St. Thomas Mount that would have facilitated ease of travel by train around the city, was neglected. Even today land acquisition issues have come in the way of linking Velachery and St. Thomas Mount over a distance of less than 3 km. A lot of construction work had progressed even in this stretch but has stopped. Costs have been rising by the day due to the resistance of a few land owners  pitching for higher prices. Look at the denial of the ease of travel to a commuter from Pallavaram or Shenoy Nagar  travelling to Indira Nagar or Mylapore by transferring to the MRTS line at St Thomas Mount! 

THE CENTRE AND the state did not bother to foresee the trends emerging out of a massive increase in air travel post 2000. Other alert state leader had the vision to look ahead and opt for handsome expansion of airport infrastructure. Hyderabad and Bengaluru provided excellent instances in opting for new greenfield sites. These were soon followed by massive expansion of the Delhi and Mumbai airports, again through private enterprises.



When Karunanidhi and Chidambaram 
failed to help...
Karunanidhi, heading the DMK government, reinforced his leftist alignment and, along with Kolkata, opted to leave airport expansion to the public sector Airport Authority of 
India. Such enthusiasm and faith were not continued by him in fulfilling his commitments in regard to land acquisition required for the expansion. Sizeable areas surrounding the airport were thickly populated or were owned by the defence. A large contingent of  13 ministers from Tamil Nadu, including P Chidambaram as finance minister, formed part of the UPA government: these exerted  little to help AAI to execute the project in time. The state government failed to acquire and provide the  promised land for expansion of facilities.


Just look at the several constraints that come in the way of expanding Chennai’s air travel facilities:

•              In 2013, domestic air traffic stood at 121 million and foreign travel at 41 million.  It was estimated that these will expand to 336 million and 84 million respectively over the next 10 years.

  • The facilities were expanded at a cost of Rs 2325 crore. It was decided to add the domestic terminal to the north and the international terminal to the south of the existing terminal by acquiring additional land. From the north-south main runway, a second runway was constructed, not in parallel, but at an angle moving towards Kolapakkam on the south-west from east.

•             The Tamil Nadu government initially promised to acquire needed land for expansion but did not fulfill it. It encountered stiff opposition from crowded habitats in the south and the west and just resiled on its commitment.

•             There was a problem of Adyar River coming across the second runway; with great efforts and high cost, a huge concrete bridge was constructed over the Adyar River near Kolapakkam. Due to resistance from the local population, the original plan of extending the runway to take care of larger aircraft could not be done. Space was not made available for installation of runway lights, radar equipment... The state government just didn’t bother.

•             There was the added problem of acquiring property from the adjoining Defence territory. It took time and huge efforts to convince Defence to part with even a modest 20 acres of land. Work was also impeded by shifting a large Defence communication facility.

•             Chennai airport has great potential to be developed as a vibrant and active regional hub like Singapore or Dubai as it lies on the route connecting Europe/Gulf with the prosperous south-east Asia and beyond. Lack of concern of the state and the unconcern of the Centre deny Chennai the attention it deserved.

•             After the IT boom the south witnessed a phenomenal growth in air travel. Large numbers of IT professionals travel from Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad to American cities. Thousands of these have also settled down in these countries. Travel to the US by southern families has literally exploded. Ideally it should have made sense to develop Chennai as a hub for direct, non-stop flights to the US. Disappointingly, political leadership of TN, despite being a part of the Centre continuously for two decades, failed to leverage this strength.

•             Over a decade ago in the early 2000s, a green field airport was contemplated at Sriperumbudur 40 km away. At that point of time it could have been possible to acquire over 4000 acres of land needed for this purpose  at a modest cost. After all, SIPCOT acquired large area of land for industrial development that made Sriperumbudur the fastest growing industrial town for a couple of decades. In the decade that followed, land prices in Tamil Nadu had soared making it unviable today. Acquiring 4000 acres of land at today’s cost would exceed the cost of creating the entire airport infrastructure.

•             Alternate sites in the north around Gummidipundi or in the south around Madurantakam are suggested but with a high population density and scarce land areas, acquisition is not going to be much cheaper.

•             Involvement of the private sector helped in relatively quicker construction of the Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai airports. A GMR or a GVK had the capability to wade through the regulations, the bureaucracy and political leaders and deliver the project in quick time. In the case of Chennai AAI could not deal effectively with an uninvolved Karunanidhi or inaccessible Jayalalithaa and the Defence overlords.

•             Look at the present pathetic plight of going through the problems: of demolishing the old airport buildings sandwiched between the two new terminals; dealing with the constraints of the national highways and the elevated rail lines on the east; acquisition of lands in the west at high cost; Defence stone-walling attempts of acquisition of land on the north or the east across the highway.

•             The expansion requires 200 acres of land to install lights for the second runway, a hangar and a linear taxi way.  The high cost of land in the city, at current costs, would involve over Rs 400 crore; but delays in acquisition can result in affected land owners demanding high prices and the cost can exceed even Rs 600 crore.

•             With the parallel second runway plan dropped due to land acquisition problems, fuller use of the second runway will help handle just a few more flights per hour.

•             With the present plan to give priority to connect smaller towns under the regional connectivity scheme – Puducherry,Salem and Neyveli-there is the potential for an explosive growth. 

•             In the earlier expansion several major facilities had to be dropped due to cost and time overruns. eg. multi level car parking facility; a walkalator connecting the domestic and international terminals; an easy link of the metro rail with the terminal…

Can one hope at least now the state would act pro actively and take the lead? 

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