A Ghaziabad village’s flight of dreams
On a humid July afternoon, a group of men in Sikandarpur village in Ghaziabad are sitting under a Pilkhan tree, some playing cards and others, interestingly, engaged in an animated conversation about air travel, flight routes, and airlines. “I think soon my visiting relatives can get off the plane and simply walk home. The IGI airport, which they presently use, is about 40 km away, but our new airport is only 700 metres from my house,” says Harish Kumar, 35, a villager.
The ‘village airport’ Kumar is referring to is the Hindon Airport, whose civil terminal at his village was inaugurated by the Prime Minister in March. Flight operations at the airport, developed under the regional air connectivity scheme UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik), are likely to begin next month. But it has already given wings to the dreams of these villagers, including Harish Kumar, who now talk like experts on the transformative powers of airports for a community.
Many of these villagers who have sold or leased land for the development of the terminal and the approach road to it, now dream of becoming entrepreneurs. Kumar, for example, wishes to be a hotelier. And curiously, he has what he calls the ‘Mahipalpur model’ for inspiration. For the uninitiated, in the past decade, Mahipalpur, a village in Delhi bordering Gurugram, has emerged as a major hotel hub. The Jat-dominated village, which once had warehouses, factory outlets, and car workshops, boasts over 150 hotels, many deriving their names from themes related to aviation and the nearby IGI airport — Aero View, Aerodome, Runway, Airport Inn, Aerofly, Aeroporto. Half of these hotels are owned by farmers-turned-hoteliers.
“I have sold my land for the approach road to this new airport in our village. The government should now change the land use in the area to enable economic activity in and around Sikandarpur,” says Harish Kumar. “I have been a manager at a farmhouse and know how to handle customers. I have already asked my nephew, who has a degree in hotel management, to explore the possibility of starting a hotel.”
But why does he think a hotel will be viable in a place with a small domestic airport? Kumar, who works as an insurance advisor, comes up with an expansive explanation: “Hotels are not meant only for tourists, they are also meant for business travellers. I am sure in the years to come the airport will bring new businesses and offices in the area. The government should develop the area around the airport as a business hub.” While Kumar has not heard the word, he seems to be propagating the idea of an Aerotropolis, a much-talked-about concept of developing a transport-focused business around airports.
Brahm Singh, 79, a villager, seconds his idea. “The village is in dire need of economic activity. A lot of our youngsters are highly educated, but unemployed. The government should support them in setting up businesses in the area,” says Singh.
In fact, this is not Sikandarpur’s first tryst with aviation -- they have had previous exposure to defence aviation. In the 1960s, the village had given land for the development of the Hindon Air Force Station, said to be the largest in Asia. “We did not get adequate compensation for the land we had given up for the air force base. Most farmers were left unemployed. Besides, we had to learn to live with deafening sounds of fighter jets taking off and landing in our vicinity,” says 68-year-old Sukhbir Singh. “During the 1965 and 1971 wars, it was like living in the middle of a war zone. Many houses developed cracks because of the sound. The air force station brought us no benefits,” he adds.
Shifting the subject of entrepreneurship for a while, the villagers recount many tales of how they caught several ‘foreign spies’ lurking in and around the village during the wars. “Even now we keep an eye on suspicious characters and do not let outsiders get near the wall of the airbase that passes through our village. The runway is only a few hundred metres from where we are sitting,” says Amit Dagar, another villager, adding. “We have never shied away from our responsibilities. Now the government should return the favour by providing employment to us at the airport terminal”.
In Sikandarpur, most people are in private jobs, some have leased their land to various godowns and warehouses on the periphery of the village, and a large number of youngsters—many of them have degrees in engineering and management from private institutes in Ghaziabad —are unemployed. But Anuj Sharma, who works with a financial services company, is quick to tell you that not everyone looks at the new airport from the point of view of employment opportunities. The village, he says, also have some frequent fliers, including Sharma himself, who are happy that they can now board the plane from the airport in their village.
“I spend hours on the road in traffic jams on my way to IGI airport. Now I can just pick up my bag and walk to the airport. No fear of getting caught in the traffic jams and missing the flight,” says Sharma. While everyone in the village is happy about the airport, they have one big grouse — Hindon Airport has not been named ‘Sikandarpur Airport’. “The terminal is constructed on the village’s land, so why did the government shy away from naming it after our village. Look how another Sikandarpur in Gurgaon has been made so famous by a mere Metro station. And what is a Metro station compared to an airport? We feel cheated,” says 20-year-old Ashish Chaudhury. Most villagers believe that the civil terminal, which is as of now ‘a temporary arrangement’ till the expansion work at IGI is complete, will become permanent.
Nagender Singh, 47, another villager, says the civil terminal had come as a big surprise to most villagers. They first heard about the plan in 2017, construction started in 2018 and it was ready within a year. The civil terminal, which will connect Ghaziabad to cities such as Jamnagar, Shimla, Kalaburgi, Kannur, Faizabad, Nasik Hubli and Pithoragarh, has been constructed on an area of 5,425sqm at a cost of 40 crore. It has eight check-in counters and can handle 300 passengers during peak hours.
“While we had been hearing talks of an airport at Jewar for many years, there was no talk of an airport here. The civil terminal, which came up in less than a year, is an example of how political will can help meet the country’s infrastructural needs,” says Nagender Singh. “There is something about airports, big or small, that bring glamour to even most backward places. It can change a place overnight.”
Harish Kumar feels the airport will have a better outcome for them than what Inland Container Depot in Loni, (ICD Loni), a dry port about eight km away, which started in 2007, had for some neighbouring villages such as Jawli and Banthala, among others. “The container depot led to the development of road infrastructure in that area but unlike an airport, a container depot always comes with pollution concerns, what with increased movement of trucks in the area,” says Harish.
Meanwhile, these days, at the gate of the new airport terminal, Surendra Tripathi, a guard, often goes beyond the call of duty, answering questions from people who gather outside the gate. “These people are not just from Sikandarpur, but from places such as Saharanpur, Meerut, and they ask me questions about when flight operations will commence, which airlines will operate, what the airfare will be,” says Tripathi. “A lot of poor people also ask these questions. Looks like everyone wants to take the flight of their life from here.”