Himachal Pradesh’s poorly planned Mandi airport risks limited fertile farmland

In July, farmers in the Balh Valley in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh saw drones fly overhead. These drones were surveying their land for an international airport that is supposed to be built over their villages. The state government has been planning to build an international airport in Himachal Pradesh since the early 2000s, but that plan has largely stalled. Following the funding by the Union government of such an airport under the UDAN program in 2016 – which aims to expand and develop new regional airports – and its Greenfield airport policy in 2017, the government of the state has started formulating a plan to build the Balh Valley Airport. The state government announced the first estimates in 2020 that 2,936 bighas – about 237 hectares in Himachal Pradesh – would be acquired for the project, but the airport land is still being surveyed. The constant changes to the plans of several governments over the past four years have meant that no land acquisitions have yet taken place.

One of the many concerns with the airport is the amount of land to acquire. Farmers in the valley I spoke to said the planned airport would take away the state’s limited fertile land. They feared that the growth of tourism – which the airport is ostensibly intended for – would not give them a stable livelihood. Environmental researchers have told me that the state government has yet to clarify the cumulative environmental impact of the airport and other supporting infrastructure on the state. Even members of Himachal Pradesh’s tourism industry and aviation experts have said Mandi Airport is likely to have minimal effect on tourism and less destructive solutions, such as the encouragement of small planes, to give a boost to the industry, has been neglected. The government appears to have ignored alternative locations for the airport despite the apparent technical inadequacy for the Balh Valley Airport. Despite these shortcomings, the state government appears determined to continue with the project.

Politicians and professionals in Himachal Pradesh have been clamoring for an international airport in the state for at least two decades now. A 2003 Union Tourism Ministry document said one of the government’s main goals should be the expansion of Shimla Airport so that it can serve international travel. However, in 2007, Virbhadra Singh of the Indian National Congress, who was then chief minister of state, proposed that an international airport be built instead in the town of Sundernagar, in the district of Mandi. This site fell into the Balh Valley, about two kilometers from the currently planned location. His successor, Prem Kumar Dhumal of the Bhartiya Janata party, also called on the Union government to speed up the authorization of the construction of the airport.

However, successive governments seemed to have ignored this for about a decade. In 2017, Jai Ram Thakur, the current chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, also from BJP, lobbied for the project to start in earnest in the Balh Valley. But other disagreements between politicians and state bureaucrats over the choice of site delayed the process. In April 2018, Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur announced that the Union government and the Indian Airport Authority were considering the Jahu area, around 50 kilometers from the current site. Jahu village is located in the Bhoranj block of Hamirpur district, at the intersection of Mandi, Hamirpur and Bilaspur districts, making it a central site for the proposed airport. Anurag is the current trade union minister for Sports, Youth and Information and Broadcasting.

The Jahu site enjoyed local political support. Several local officials, including the region’s panchayat leaders, supported the construction. The 50 kilometer stretch suggested for the airport flanks both sides of the Jahu Bridge above Seer Khad. It starts at Jahu village in Hamirpur district and ends at Dali and Bhambla villages in Sarkaghat sub-division, Mandi district. In 2018, Inder Singh, the representative of Sarkaghat in the State Legislature, which is from the BJP, and Rajendar Jar, the chairman of the Hamirpur district congressional committee, supported the Jahu site. “Most of the land they have suggested for the airport here is government land and is not being used,” Munish Sharma, a member of the Sarkaghat district council, told me. “The people here are ready to give up their private land for the international airport. Cash crops are not grown here. Only subsistence farming is practiced and this too has greatly diminished due to the problem of stray cattle. “

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