India biggest airline tragedy in Mangalore is largely being attributed to the newly-opened second runway at the Mangalore international airport.
The construction of the second runway was always embroiled in controversy and there have been several legal battles fought over this.
A series of public interest litigations had been filed in Karnataka courts over the past couple of years in which it was stated that the construction of the second runway should be stopped since the design did not conform to the most basic national and international standards of airport design.
The PILs also highlighted that the airport does not conform to most minimum safeguards for emergency situations -- particularly during landings and takeoffs, and that the airport did not have emergency approach roads within a kilometre on all sides of the airport as required.
Vimana Nildana Vistharana Virodhi Samithi (Local Communities Alliance Against Airport Expansion), Bajpe and the Environment Support Group had repeatedly highlighted the high-risk expansion of the Mangalore international airport during the late 1990s.
The expansion was proposed to enable flight movements of wide-bodied aircraft, such as the Airbus A-320.
Authorities were repeatedly informed that the proposal did not at all conform to runway design standards laid down by the Director General of Civil Aviation, National Building Code of India and Ministry of Civil Aviation. Further, considering that the airport was proposed for international flights, a case was also made that the second runway did not conform to International Civil Aviation Organisation standards due to terrain limitations.
The NGOs say that no one in authority cared to listen to their pleas. This even when they demonstrated through a variety of representations that that the site chosen for expansion at Bajpe was surrounded by valleys on three sides of the runway and did not provide for emergency landing areas as required.
When their pleas were not heard, they moved the Karnataka high court in a PIL in 1997 (Arthur Pereira and others vs Union of India and others., WP No. 37681/1997).
The Airports Authority of India filed an affidavit in court dismissing all concerns and stated this, amongst other things:
"It is submitted that as regards the apprehensions of the petitioner that the length and width of the runway is insufficient for a plane making an emergency landing, the same is without any basis. It is submitted that all the requirements as per the ICAO recommendation will be met and that there has been no infringement of any of the recommendation and limitation therein."
On the basis of this affidavit, the high court dismissed the PIL ordering as follows:
"It is stated that the fear of the petitioners that the runway is insufficient for any emergency landing is without basis since before the project is to proceed, the authorities will be meeting the recommendations of the ICAO. It is also stated that there is no basis for the allegations made by the petitioners to the effect that the various safety measures have not been followed. That on the other hand they will be getting all the relevant materials described by the petitioners which will be followed in letter and spirit without which the airport would not have been conceived in the first place. Thus it can be seen that the expansion of Bajpe airport project is at the initial stage and the second respondent has in their objections mentioned above unequivocally stated that all the safety measures etc, stated by the petitioners in their writ petition will be followed during the progress of the project and nothing can be said before the lands are handed over to the second respondent.
"Considering these facts, we are of the view that the petitioners have rushed to this court before commencement of the project itself and the writ petition is premature. It is not, therefore, necessary to consider the various grounds taken by the petitioners in the writ petition to allege that the respondents have been proceeding with the project in a casual manner. There is nothing to doubt about the statement made by the second respondent in their objection statement and we are sure that the respondents will be taking all necessary measures under the different enactments etc before proceeding with the project in question."
Even though alternative sites existed, the authorities proceeded to expand the airport yielding to pressures from business, real estate and hotel lobbies, say activists against the project. They allege that authorities overlooked alternative sites even near Bajpe to expand the airport that conformed with most safety norms, since it would have affected large landholders and influential people.
AAI did not even have a proper feasibility study, and claimed that such critical information detail would only be prepared after the land was acquired, the activists alleged.
The NGOs then appealed to the ICAO to intervene. The ICAO did not respond and so they returned to the high court with a fresh PIL in 2002. In this exhaustively-researched PIL many significant concerns were raised and a case was made that the second runway could not conform to ICAO norms for the following reasons:
"Minimum Area for Stop-way: ICAO norms prescribes standards for providing the minimum area for a stop way and/or a clear way in the event an aircraft undershoots or over-runs the runway. For instance, if an aircraft has initiated take off, and a technical flaw requires emergency stop, the standard prescribes the minimum area that should be kept free to enable such a stop. In the instant case, the runway distance itself is about 2,400 metres, and even if the area left is most cautiously utilised, what is left is only about 300 metres on each end of the runway. By the prescribed standard, this is far below the required distance needed for an emergency stop way.
"Therefore, the chances of an aircraft that has achieved the decision speed forcing an emergency stop are critically minimised, and the inevitable consequence could be that the plane crash down the hillsides from a height of 80-100 metres on either side of the proposed runway."
The high court dismissed this PIL on May 27, 2002 (WP 20905/2002) stating the following:
"No doubt, in an appropriate case, this court can issue directions, if there is gross violation of fundamental rights or if the issue touches the conscience of this court. The construction of second runway and terminal tower at Mangalore Airport will otherwise be in the interest of public. Learned counsel has not been able to show how the construction will be against the public interest.
"On consideration and in the facts of the given case no direction as prayed for can be issued in this PIL. The authorities concerned have to complete all formalities as per law before commencement of the project. Accordingly, this writ petition is dismissed. However, it is made clear that dismissal of this petition will not preclude the concerned Authorities to take all necessary precaution and to complete the formalities as per law before proceeding with the project in question."
In a desperate effort to stop the airport from so expanding, they went on appeal to the Supreme Court. Dismissing the appeal, the apex court ruled on February 7, 2003 in Environment Support Group and others vs Union of India and others. [SLP(C) 1172 OF 2003] as follows:
"We see no reason to interfere with the impugned order. Accordingly, the special leave petition is dismissed. We, however, clarify that in constructing the airport, the government shall comply with all applicable laws and also with environmental norms."
The second runway construction began in 2004 and was commissioned in May 2006. No techno-economic assessment, feasibility study, or even a comprehensive environment impact assessment was ever done for the second runway. Simply put, the runway was built in comprehensive violation of applicable laws, standards and direction of the Supreme Court, alleges Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the ESG.
On March 8, 2004, the NGOs wrote to Dr Naseem Zaidi, chairman and joint secretary, AAI reminding him of the need to comply with the Supreme Court direction. They highlighted that "such action would jeopardise passenger safety, put local communities to risk, needlessly dislocate people by acquiring land on a location that in no way could comply with the said provisions and thereby contributed to gross wastage of public money and resources."
We did not get any response, Saldanha says.