Planned desert in offing

Jewar Airport

By Shivaji Sarkar
It couldn’t be more ironical. As India played host to the 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, less than 45 km away from the venue, a huge step is underway towards desertification of western UP’s fertile horn. The project, setting up an international airport in Jewar, is more of a promotion to boost the sagging real estate, instead of protecting farming land, lakes, aquifers, swamps and ecology of the critical northern plains.
The Rs 16,000-crore project, likely to increase to over Rs 24,000 crore, and is within 70 km from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, has triggered protests by farmers, as it is primarily agricultural in nature, with over 6,000 big trees — mainly arjun and babool — and plenty of wetlands. Since townships and activity areas are to spring up all around it is obvious that many more thousand trees would be felled and about 1000-odd known water bodies may disappear.
The country doesn’t need a second international airport and that too so close to the Delhi airport. It will be a massive economic waste and at a time when the country is grappling with a severe slowdown. The real estate all around this project in another 40 sq km area is gasping. Hundreds of projects remain incomplete and the Yamuna Expressway built through the stretch is itself in crisis. Its propounder Jaypee group is going through problems amid heavy debt and NPA.
Hindon Air Force base airport, which has been opened to civilian traffic, a stone’s throw from Jewar, hardly finds an airline to host. Another 100 km west is Agra’s airport with international facilities. Still, under pressure of the real estate lobby and unscrupulous political parties, a massive effort has started in acquiring 2000-hectare land for the airport. But as larger areas would come up for development, the risk is higher to ecology in almost 100 km area.
So while climate change is a cyclic phenomenon, human activities only worsen it. Minister for Environment and Climate Change Prakash Javedkar stated at the Conference: “If human actions have created the problems of climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss, it is the strong intent, technology and intellect that will make a difference. It is human efforts that will undo the damage.” He also announced reclamation of 50-lakh hectare barren land by 2030. And though it sounds encouraging, is it really so?
Unfortunately, announcements and realities are different. More such announcements are made, more land is found to be getting degraded around the national capital as water use increases. It is just not around Noida or Greater Noida, even Gurugram is being subjected to large degradation by a hungry real estate lobby. The boom around all these places has transformed thousands of hectares of arable land into plots for high rise buildings, at least half of these incomplete and leading to not just an environmental but also an economic disaster. What is not discussed is that more the land for real estate, more it dehydrates the country, writes even the UP Assembly Speaker HN Dixit.
Over the years, Delhi and its neighbourhood are getting devoid of natural water sources and there is more water pollution despite the Yamuna cleaning up rituals. The area around Jewar is now being subjected to similar drying up of aqua sources. The region has also the highest number of brick kilns, an ecological hazard in terms of heat, dust and smoke. By having an airport it is to worsen the ecology in about a 100-km periphery from Noida to Mathura. Unauthorised colonies are being planned in an area which is the bread basket!
Close to the region in Aligarh-Kasganj, Alipur-Barwara and Kasganj-Farrukhabad, again due to the construction of Ganga Expressway, and other human encroachment of aquifers, acute shortage of water for irrigation is being faced. While the administration is trying hard to revive old river channels, it’s anybody’s guess whether it would succeed. But it has certainly become a money spinner.
Interestingly enough, the UPA government was in a mood to keep the airport project in limbo as in its view the Samajwadi Party leaders would reap the benefits. The then government had also sounded ecological concern and questioned the necessity of having an airport so close to Delhi airport on the one side and Agra on the other, along with upgradation of the Aligarh air strip.
Further, the airport project goes against the move to rejuvenate 281 ponds in Jewar itself. About 800 other ponds and water body rejuvenation plans in Noida, Dadri, Greater Noida, Dankaur and Bisrakh may too get affected. District Magistrate BN Singh in adjoining Gautam Buddha Nagar has admitted encroachments of ponds and other water bodies as construction activities are increasing. He also says ponds in many places, including Bilaspur and Surajpur were encroached by the administration for dumping growing waste. Dadri, on way to Jewar, declared ‘semi-critical for water scarcity’, built its municipality office on 1140 square metre pond and close by Tugalpur, a college was built on a water body.
According to the groundwater department, aquifers in Jewar have an over-exploitation rate of 108.81 per cent. As the area is getting more populated with the impending airport, more ponds and aquifers despite efforts at conservation are becoming victims of “development”. This “development” includes construction of the airport, industries, large hotels, warehouses, roads and other facilities. Each of these is to gobble up many water bodies. Consequently, the critical region may end up dry and vehicular traffic and industrial activities, which will surge, are bound to increase air pollution.
According to an official study, land degradation has led to roughly 2.5 per cent loss of the country’s economic output between 2014 and 2015. The region around Jewar airport is fragile. Being close to Delhi, it is to degrade large tract and even heat up the national capital. The massive investment will lead to desertification of the National Capital Region (NCR), already hit by a chain of high rise buildings and expressways. This only means that huge finances involved are posing challenges to the world leadership between conserving or devastating environment. Undoubtedly, the Jewar airport project needs reconsideration and restoration of land back to the farmers to save the bread basket from becoming arid.—INFA