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Not up in the air any longer

india Updated: Nov 23, 2010 21:04 IST

The country's financial capital is a wee bit closer to getting its second airport. Jairam Ramesh, India's overworked environment minister, has after much wrangling shown the Navi Mumbai airport the green signal. The minister has been in the news fairly consistently since he took office for laying well-laid industrial plans low. The Congress government was, understandably, keeping its fingers crossed that the energetic minister would see reason and not put the mangroves before man. In the event, he didn't, but it did tax the considerable negotiating skills of Praful Patel, the civil aviation minister, and Prithviraj Chavan, Maharashtra's chief minister who till recently served in the prime minister's office. Mr Ramesh eventually saw the merits of a cabinet decision taken in 2007.

Mumbai and Delhi were initially slated to get spanking new airports almost simultaneously. But while the new Delhi airport is up and running, Mumbai is still struggling. To begin with, Santa Cruz did not have as much land as Palam to build a modern airport. And half of what little there was has been squatted upon. So Mumbai desperately needs another airport: passenger planes circling over Santa Cruz waiting to land burn up to a third of the cost of a new airport in fuel every year. This fact alone swings the debate away from the green crusaders. Mumbai's airport handles fewer passengers than Delhi's 28 million in a year, a telltale sign in an industry that lives off business travel. Airlines are moving out of the city because Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is bursting at the seams with 25 million flyers. Finally, even with the new airport that can take 40 million, Mumbai's capacity to fly people in and out will probably be a fifth less than Delhi's 100 million in 20 years' time. Not good for a city that sees itself as a rival to Dubai as well as Shanghai.

Mr Ramesh has in the space of months transformed his ministry from the sleepy government outpost it used to be. Commendable, but our Green Tsar needs to be conscious of the unintended consequences of his zeal. First, India's crying need for infrastructure development will need natural resources on a scale never before dealt with. The urgency is, and will be, New Delhi's stated objective for the foreseeable future. Second, by shaping a new environment conscience within his scandal-tainted government, Mr Ramesh may be opening a new window of opportunity for regulatory manipulation.