By Arpan Pradhan
Pakyong, a quaint little town in the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim was stirring up on September 24 last year when India received yet another airport. After being formally announced by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as functional, it not only put the locals’ and tourists’ travel at ease but also opened business avenues for the people of the surrounding area despite the disputes over the compensation and rehabilitation of the locals.
The scenic Greenfield airport, spread over 400 ha (990 acres), located about 35km from the capital, is the state’s first airport. Sitting at 4500 ft above sea level, it is considered as one of the five highest situated airports of the country. In the list of many firsts, Sikkim boasted about it being the first greenfield airport to be constructed first in the northeastern region of India. Major media giants reported about it terming it as a ‘breathtaking’ piece of engineering on the roof of the world which offers passengers one of the most dramatic airport approaches on the planet.
The first commercial flight operations initiated soon in October carrying highly excited and curious passengers. However, the excitement soon turned into dismay when the flight operations were hampered due to poor weather conditions, lack of an instrument landing system (ILS) and inadequate runway space.
Meanwhile, the airport had also been garnering protests from the local villagers over the compensation and rehabilitation.
It is informed that due to these issues, the airport’s only commercial passenger airline, SpiceJet has stopped their flight operations in June 2019 until further notice.
The historic opening is now being followed by a historic ‘verge’ of a shutdown of the airport within eights months of its first flight operation. As of now, all the commercial flights are suspended and the airport now remains non-operational.
As per the notice given by the SpiceJet Authority which has also been put up the notice board at Pakyong Airport, it reads, “Flight Operation from Pakyong Airport is suspended from 1st June 2019 to 31st September 2019. For any queries please contact our call centre.”
When contacted, the officials of the SpiceJet refused to come on record and give an official record. As per the sources the flights have been cancelled as there has been a lack of various technical machinery and equipment pertaining to visibility which needs more additional land space and additional investment.
The Airport Director also refused to deliver any on record official statement.
As per the information, a total number of 125 SpiceJet commercial flights took off in 240 days since October 2018 to the airport from Kolkata. March 2019 saw the minimum number of flights which comes down to a total of only six.
The SpiceJet Authority has written a letter to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) on May 31 regarding the decision to stop their commercial flights, it is informed. The letter also mentions that due to the bad weather conditions the SpiceJet decided to stop the operation from Pakyong Airport until further notice.
The Sikkim High Court as per the PIL has asked for clarification to the AAI regarding the non-operation and suspension of the flights.
An important meeting regarding the same has been conducted by the Chief Secretary, Government of Sikkim regarding the same.
When asked about the present situation of the Pakyong Airport, the Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang (Golay) mentioned that the Government of Sikkim is trying to understand the problem and various other issues pertaining to it and the government is in constant touch with the concerned authorities.
He also said that with the state government being concerned about the operation of the only airport, the government will see and understand all aspects and try to restart the commercial flights.
The Chief Minister has assured that he will take up the matter to the Government of India and the concerned authorities and will bring regain the flight operations.
He also added that the flights have been suspended due to the bad weather conditions and other technical issues and the state government will intervene and work on understanding the actual problem and resolve the matter.
There have been a lot of technical problems as per the experts, but at the same time, people are questioning that why the various technical aspects were not discussed or taken up seriously before and during the construction of the airport.
Sikkim Government had been placing its demand to the Central Government for the construction of an airport in the state. The demand did take many years to get fulfilled but only to get shut down abruptly.
Sikkim has no other connectivity except the only National Highway 10 which connects her to the rest of the country. Before the construction of the airport, the locals travelling outside and people traveling to Sikkim had to travel till Bagdogra which is almost a 5 hours drive from Gangtok.
As per the data available, the Pakyong Airport Development or the Construction project was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in October 2008. The Punj Lloyd Group was awarded the ₹2,640 million contract to construct a runway, taxiway, apron drainage system, and electrical work for the Pakyong Greenfield airport in January 2009. The foundation stone for the airport was laid by the then Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel, in February 2009.
The construction of the Pakyong Greenfield airport has been facing a lot of difficulties and problems since then. Sometimes the construction faced problems of the hilly terrain where it was difficult to construct the runways. Landslides being one of the problems due to which the construction was stopped for quite a long time. Also, the people affected by the construction had been protesting against demanding proper compensation and rehabilitation.
The project was initially slated to be completed by 2012, but protests by local villagers had resulted in the suspension of work in January 2014. The AAI intervened and held discussions with the agitating villagers and paid part compensation allowing work to resume on October 2014. However, in January 2015, work came to a halt once again as villagers took to protests. In July 2015, AAI and the State Government signed an MoU with AAI, promising to shift the affected households by August 15 so that AAI could resume work from October 2015.
These protest-related delays and landslides upslope of the runway resulted in the suspension of work twice, escalating costs from ₹3,090 million to ₹6,050 million. Maximally, ecological slope-stabilization techniques were used to remedy the landslide situation of the Area.
Another historic event was on 5 March 2018 when an IAF Dornier 228 landed on the completed airstrip, becoming the first aircraft to land at the first airport of the State, Pakyong Airport.
The SpiceJet had been awarded the Pakyong to Kolkata and Guwahati sectors under the second round of bidding for the Government’s Udhe Desh Ke Aam Nagrik (UDAN) Regional Connectivity Scheme in January 2018. And it conducted a trial landing of its Q400 aircraft at Pakyong on 10 March 2018.
The airport received its commercial operating license from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on 5 May 2018.
The Pakyong airport was built by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) at an estimated cost of 605 crore featuring a 1,700 m × 30 m (5,577 ft × 98 ft) runway and a 116 m (381 ft) long taxiway connecting it to an apron measuring 106 by 76 metres (348 ft × 249 ft) that can accommodate two ATR 72 aircraft at a time.
A terminal building measuring 2,380 m2 (25,600 sq ft) with a capacity of 100 passengers, a car park for 80 vehicles and a fire station cum Air Traffic Control Tower was constructed by Ms PABSCON. Navigation facilities include NDB, DVOR, High-Intensity Runway Lights (HIRL), airport beacon, and a PAPI.
The Pakyong Airport project in Sikkim is one of the tallest reinforced soil structures in the world. The land for the airport was carved from the mountainside using massive geotechnical ‘cut and fill’ engineering works. These state-of-the-art geogrid soil reinforcement and slope stabilisation techniques were employed as traditional retaining structures and embankments were ruled out as being unfeasible.
As of June 1, 2019, SpiceJet, the airport’s sole airline providing commercial passenger service, ceased its once-daily Kolkata-Pakyong-Kolkata flight due to “unpredictable weather in Pakyong which results in very low visibility.” Airline officials also cited the approaching monsoon season’s aggravating effect on flight operations when announcing the service suspension. SpiceJet did not give a date for resumption of its schedule.
An official in the Sikkim government cited issues that took place during the airport’s construction when landslides damaged large tracts of agricultural land affecting over 60 households of a nearby village. Now, these same residents are fighting the navigation system’s required lights and equipment.
A local commission has been formed, headed by a judge, to review the situation.
In addition to fluctuating weather and the ILS equipment factor, radar and adequate runway area issues have also hampered commercial flight operations. The runway, which is mandated to be a minimum of 150m wide, is only 80m wide by 2km long.
As Pakyong Airport sits approximately 60 km from the India-China border, it is considered strategically important. Border disputes have gripped this Himalayan region for decades. The 2017 China–India border standoff took place over the Doklam pass on the tri-junction between China, India and Bhutan, situated roughly 54 km west of Pakyong Airport.
The High Court of Sikkim pulled up the State authorities for failing to follow its directions regarding compensation for those affected by the construction of the airport. After hearing the state and petitioners, whose landed property was damaged by the construction of the airport, the single bench of Acting Chief Justice Meenakshi Madan Rai pulled up the state authorities and directed them to strictly comply with the order passed by the High Court on 30 April 2018.
66 affected families had approached the High Court in 2016 stating that the affected families had not been properly compensated. According to the petitioners, their landed and standing properties were damaged due to heavy construction of airport works, earth cutting on the western side of the airport and vibration due to blasting and use of other heavy machinery in the construction site. The villagers were not happy with the amount of compensation for their agriculture and horticultural products for a year as they say that they have lost their productivity since 2009.
As per the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, the agricultural land is calculated four times of actual price in a rural area along with cent per cent solatium of houses and standing properties of the land. The Act also said that the affected families have to be rehabilitated and resettled in a proper way and also have to be provided one-time assistance grant and employment in the said project, which is yet to be provided.
As per the information provided by the State Authority, the Airport has been built in a total area of 201 acres at an altitude of 4500ft at an estimated cost Rs.605 crore. The length of the runway is 1700 meters (1.7 km), while the width is 30 meters. The Terminal building is in the area of 3000 square meters with a capacity of 100 passengers (50 incomings and 50 outgoings).
Foundation stone of Airport was laid in February 2002. Acquisition of land was gradually taken up and an MoU was signed with Airports Authority of India AAI for construction of an airport on March 2002. The actual proposed date of completion of the airport was fixed in 2012. Negotiations continued between Airports Authority of India and the concerned departments, Roads & Bridges initially and Transport later. The initial estimate of RS.309.46 crore was approved. The Bhumi Pujan of the Airport was done in February 2009 and the construction was initiated by MIS Punj Lloyd, a reputed Construction Agency in April-May 2009.
Despite the best efforts of AAI and the contractors, the airport took much more time than expected. It included the whole of 2014 when no construction took place. As it happens in such mega projects, both cost and time overrun took place. The total estimate reached the figure of Rs.605.59 crore and the expected time of completion of the project was fixed at February-March 2018. The first trial run by an Air force Dornier plane took place on 5th March 2018 while the first trial run by a commercial plane (SpiceJet) took place on 10th March 2018.
State Government Officials shared that it was initially a difficult proposition because of the terrain, and it was an engineering challenge to convert a hill into flat land. He shared that one side of the hill was excavated and the other side of the land was filled with the same materials. The hill cutting and landfilling was done for a long stretch of 2 km. It is informed that the runway is roughly about 1700 mts long, and can handle an 80-seater aircraft. The aircraft pilots have been specifically trained for take-off and landing procedures in these conditions. It is also informed that eco-friendly methods and technology like Geo-Grid was used to build the Airport.
The opening of the Pakyong Airport has also given way to scamsters finding their way to Sikkim with fraud job offers. A few instances have come to light wherein jobseekers are being offered jobs in the Pakyong Airport on payment of a certain amount of money.
The Governor of Sikkim Ganga Prasad on October 2018 took a flight from Kolkata to Pakyong Greenfield Airport in East Sikkim on his return from New Delhi. This was the Governor’s first flight on this new service.
A memento of the first flight ticket and boarding pass was presented to the then Chief Minister Pawan Chamling by representatives of SpiceJet airlines at Mintokgang on September 8, 2018. Regional Manager [East], Bhaskar Borgohain, and his team handed over the ticket for the first commercial flight from Pakyong Greenfield Airport.
When contacted with one of the officials from the Tourism Department, Government of Sikkim expressed his sadness over the suspension of the commercial flights from the Pakyong Airport and has said that this will definitely have a bad impact on the growing number of National and International Tourists in the state and tourism at large.
Tourism Department is the concerned department so the matter has been discussed with the higher authority and the State Government and hoping for the best to happen. The official said that the department is optimistic that Pakyong airport will be functional again soon.
- Inputs from the Government of Sikkim and officials.
- Airports Authority of India
- Tourism Department, Government of Sikkim
- Government of Sikkim sites and reports.