Op-Ed: Sea aerodrome in Chilka: Shelve the Idea Now

Trust the Modi government to come up with one crazy idea after another. As if the ambitious – but foolish – decision to go for a bullet train, costing upwards of Rs. One lakh crore, wasn’t bad enough, it has now given ‘in-principle’ consent to the proposal for setting up a ‘sea aerodrome’ at Chilika Lake of all places, a Ramsar site and a highly fragile and eco-sensitive wetland. All because the Prime Minister wants to keep his good friend Shinzo Abe in good humour!

One can argue that it is only a proposal now and there is a long way to go before it sees the light of day. For all knows, it may never materialize if the feasibility report currently under preparation finds it technically and ecologically unviable. But the very fact that such an idea was conceived at all – and promptly given in-principle clearance by the Union Civil Aviation ministry – gives a fair idea about the government’s thinking.

It is not clear what are the benefits from the sea aerodrome that have outweighed considerations of ecology and the livelihoods of lakhs of fishermen dependent on the Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon. Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan talks vaguely about the ‘employment opportunities’ that the sea aerodrome would supposedly open up. But for the life if me, I cannot understand where exactly will the jobs come from. Would the amphibian aero planes that would fly in and out of Chilka have Odias as pilots and crew members? The tourists with deep pockets who land in Chilka are certainly not going to stay or dine at the road side eateries there. They would put up at a star hotel and visit Chilka for a few hours of fun and frolic before returning to the capital.

The other ‘benefit’ that the proposed sea aerodrome would supposedly bring is a spurt in tourist footfall. But how many tourists can really afford a fun trip on an amphibian plane that could well cost a lakh of rupees or even more? In any case, Chilka, just 90 kms from Bhubanswar, is just a two-hour drive on an excellent road connecting the two places, a national highway at that. The budget tourists, who are the mainstay of the tourism industry, would definitely prefer road to air given the costs involved. It is thus clear that the sea plane ride would attract only those with money to burn.

It is clear that the ‘benefits’ that the proponents of the crazy idea talk about to make their case are a misnomer. Now, let us now consider the ‘costs’. The reason tourists come to Chilka is to see the exhilarating spectacle of lakhs of migratory birds that come on their annual winter sojourn from thousands of miles away and the Irrawady Dolphins, an endangered species who frolic in its brackish water. Conservationists warn that sea planes flying in and out could well mark the end of the phenomenon of migratory birds coming to Chilka. As for the Irrawady Dolphins, already under threat from the motor boats and fishing activities, the sea aerodrome would certainly sound the death knell for the last known habitat of this endangered species.

And that is not all. Rich in bio-diversity because of its unique combination of sweet and saline water, Chilka is home to countless aquatic species, both plants and animals, including over 350 varieties of fish. The sea aerodrome will pose a grave threat to all of them and could even mark the end of Chilka as we know it.

Last but not the least, there are nearly two lakh fishermen families who are completely dependent on Chilka for their livelihood. With the lake having shrunk from about 1100 acres to just about 900 acres due to both natural and man-made reasons, the cache has already come down significantly. For the small fisherman, already under threat due to the numerous illegal gheries put up by the prawn mafia, the sea aerodrome would prove to be the last nail in the coffin because the area open to them for fishing would shrink even further.

Though the Odisha government is yet to comment on the development officially, BJD leaders, including two ministers, are already up in arms over the Centre’s proposal invoking ‘bio-diversity’. But curiously, one of the two ministers who are now opposing the plan, Tourism minister Ashok Panda, had ‘welcomed’ the idea of a sea aerodrome as recently as in June this year when a joint team of Airports Authority of India (AAI) and Spicejet visited Chilka for a preliminary assessment. BJD leaders would have us believe that they were opposed to the idea from the word go. But the fact that officials of the Chilka Development Authority (CDA) and Water Resources department were part of the team that visited Chilka in June and that the General Administration department wrote to the Tourism department asking for a report soon after the visit suggests that the state government was fully aware of and complicit in the plans.

The state government’s new found concern for ecology would have been praiseworthy but for its past record in such matters. When was the last time considerations of environment and ecology mattered so much for the present government? It brushed aside all objections on these grounds by conservationists when it rode roughshod over the people in pushing the Posco project in Paradip. Such considerations did not prevent it from batting aggressively for the coastal highway (which, by the way, would split Chilka down the middle), that has been dubbed an ecological disaster by environmentalists. Nor did concern for local fishermen stop it from giving the go-ahead to the river port proposed to be built in Kendrapara.

If the government is really concerned about the environment, it must stop hedging its bet and come out clearly, loudly and emphatically against the plan for a sea aerodrome in Chilka. The idea must be given a quiet and unceremonious burial here and now.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).

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