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State's Failure to Compensate Landowners Has Put Sikkim Airport on Brink of Closure

Landowners have refused to allow reconstruction work.

New Delhi: Barely four months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Pakyong Airport that put Sikkim on the civil aviation map, the airstrip is on the brink of closure. According to the Airports Authority of India (AAI), flight services might have to soon be suspended due to the absence of a safe runway.

Spread across 990 acres at an altitude of more than 4,500 feet, Pakyong – the first greenfield airport in the northeast – has been termed an engineering marvel. Cleared by the Central government over a decade ago, Pakyong took many years to complete due to a controversy over land acquisition from villagers and the challenges posed by a rugged terrain. The inordinate delay also escalated its cost from Rs 254 crore in 2008 to Rs 605 crore in 2018. The Modi government was appreciated for having expedited the work and making the airport functional.

Situated about 30 kilometres from the capital Gangtok, and about 60 kilometres from the India-China border, the airport – with a weekly flight by SpiceJet under the Civil Aviation Ministry’s UDAN scheme – is to boost Sikkim’s tourism sector, give the defence forces an advantage besides providing an option to the people of the state to land closer to Gangtok. Till now, those who wanted to fly to Sikkim had to de-board at Bagdogra in West Bengal, located about 125 kilometres from Gangtok.

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However, since the first commercial flight began landing at Pakyong from Kolkata on October 4, the service has not been smooth sailing. Flights have been regularly cancelled citing bad weather conditions. Ramatanu Saha, the AAI director, told reporters last month that the flight could be operated only for 20 days in October and 15 days in November.

From December 1-17, the flight landed only for 11 days. In January, too, flights have been cancelled intermittently due to bad weather conditions, leaving customers high and dry. Saha said, with no Instrumental Landing System in place, the airport would see more flight cancellations due to bad weather.

But what might land the airport in trouble and result in the protracted suspension of flights is the unresolved issue of land acquisition. The boundary wall erected – particularly on the hilly side of the runway to protect it from frequent landslides – had come down due to heavy rains a few months ago. The wall must be rebuilt to guard the runway. Saha said the runway needs at least 70 metres of plain ground on either side for safe landing. However, the hilly side of it has already come down to 39 metres and may decrease further if the rains come.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the New Greenfield Airport at Pakyong, in Gangtok on September 24, 2018. Credit: PTI

Sources at the AAI, Pakyong, told The Wire that the contractor assigned to complete the job has been stationed at the airport premises but has not been able to start the work due to opposition from the landowners.

“The landowners have refused to allow the reconstruction work, demanding that those of them who gave land to the airport and also those whose farmland and property got damaged due to the construction, but were not included in the compensation list, must be recompensed before the work on the boundary wall begins. They also approached the East Sikkim deputy commissioner in that regard and were assured of some action. The SDM at Pakyong thereafter asked the contractor not to begin the work until the issue is resolved,” sources said.

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Saha said the AAI had already paid Rs 65 crore to the state government as the first instalment for land acquisition. “It is now on the part of the state government to pay the remaining compensation to the victims,” he told Sikkim Express.

Villagers had come together to file a petition in the Sikkim high court seeking compensation from the government. Some of those residing near the airport whose farmland and property were not requisitioned by the government but were damaged due to the construction of the airport had also filed petitions in the court.

The state government, last June, passed the Sikkim Greenfield Airport, Pakyong (Settlement of Claims for Loss and Damages) Act, 2018 in order to resolve the issue. However, the government is yet to pay the compensation to the affected families. The villagers have since resorted to dharnas and demonstrations. They have given time to the state authorities till February 25 to pay the remaining compensation to them before intensifying their protest.

The Wire tried to contact the Pakyong SDM for an update on the issue but has so far failed to get a response.