Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje
Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje | @VasundharaRaje/Twitter
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Proposal is part of ambitious international airport project in CM’s constituency Jhalrapatan, Jhalawar. Environment ministry panel raises questions

New Delhi: A Rajasthan government proposal to expand a runway in Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s constituency Jhalrapatan in Jhalawar district has raised eyebrows in the Union environment ministry.

Raje has been the MLA for Jhalrapatan since 2003, and there have been reports of an ambitious international airport project in Jhalawar.

The state government wants to increase the length of the runway at the Kolana air strip from the current 1,700 metres to 3,000 metres, to enable bigger commercial aircraft to land. For this, it has requested a diversion of 120 hectares of forest land, with the first phase of the project to be completed and the air strip opened to domestic passengers by August 2018 – just ahead of the state assembly elections.

However, the expansion is proposed on a piece of forest land that lies about 5 km from the Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the environment ministry has raised a number of queries on the proposal.

The Kolana air strip currently only operates small chartered aircraft for VIP flights and sparse corporate movement. The Raje government, however, wants to develop a major terminal at the site. The existing air strip is spread across 49.99 hectares.

Environmental concerns

Incidentally, in 2008, 9.71 hectares of forest land was allegedly diverted illegally for the construction of the airstrip, in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, leading to the lodging of an FIR.

The FAC, in a meeting held last month, asked the state government to explain “why and how the state government allowed the use of forest land for non-forestry purpose i.e. aerial strip construction”. It demanded to know the outcome of the FIR lodged, and for action to be initiated under responsible authorities for the violation of the FC Act, 1980.

It also observed that no action had been taken by the state government against the authority which allowed encroachment over 9.71 hectares of forest land, for which only ‘in principle approval’ was granted, but not a final approval.

The FAC also pointed out that since the Eco Sensitive Zone around the Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve is yet to be notified, there should be no “damaging activity” that violates the Environment Protection Act 1986 within a 10-km radius, as per the norm. The existing air strip is within 5.6 km of the tiger reserve, as per the state government’s proposal.

The reserve, near Kota, is soon to be home to three tigers, which are to be relocated from Ranthambore this quarter.

The FAC further noticed that the state wants to set up a terminal on 21 hectares of forest land with a 79.52 hectare safety zone, which is quite large compared to other such air strips in the country. This has not been justified adequately.

The FAC asked for expeditious notification of the Eco-Sensitive Zone around the tiger reserve, and replies to all the queries it has raised.

Government’s argument

The state government has argued that the Jhalawar-Kota region has emerged as an important centre with huge potential for investment and growth, and there are several infrastructural and industrial projects planned for the area.

The state feels that the absence of an operational airport in the vicinity has become “a barrier to rapid economic growth and social development in the region”. The proposed air strip extension, the state has said, will augment air connectivity in the area that will help create a large multiplier effect in terms of investments, tourism development, and employment generation in the area.

A.K. Singh, additional principal chief conservator of forests for Rajasthan, said that certain concerns were raised around the proposals, and a detailed reply is being prepared to take it up again with the Centre.

“The plan is to expand the air strip, and as per rules, since there is no Air Traffic Control plan at this stage, this does not come under the ambit of environmental or wildlife clearance, hence proximity to tiger reserve may not apply. We will be sending all details and will comply with the decision of the government of India,” Singh said.

State PWD executive engineer in charge for the project, R.K. Soni, said that while traffic demand was not so high at present in the area, it was expected it would grow significantly as the industrial corridors developed, and hence the proposal to expand the air strip to handle larger aircraft.

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