What’s the government doing to Delhi’s Safdarjung airport?

Building new offices for aviation agencies for starters, at a cost of over Rs 300 crore.

BySashikala VP
What’s the government doing to Delhi’s Safdarjung airport?
The construction site at Safdarjung airport.
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The central government is in the eye of a storm for its decision to go ahead with the construction of the Rs 20,000-crore Central Vista project during the Covid pandemic.

There’s another construction project quietly in the works in the capital that’s far removed from public outcry: the civil aviation ministry’s “combined operational offices” at Safdarjung airport.

These new offices will house the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, the Bureau of Civil Aviation and Security, and the Airports Authority of India, in one building, in a built-up area of 70,940 sq metres. The project is estimated to cost Rs 302 crore.

Safdarjung airport, located 11.6 km from the Indira Gandhi International Airport, currently houses several offices, like that of the AAI in Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan, and operates its runway primarily for VVIPs. Its view has been blocked off from the flyover on Aurobindo Marg, with fencing covering construction activities on the grounds.

The construction of the new offices is currently underway, according to the website of the builder, NKG Infrastructure. At least 150 workers are employed on site, the project notes state.

The workers, hired from surrounding areas, are provided “temporary shelters”, in accordance with the project clearance document. Much like the Central Vista, the project was categorised as essential work during the pandemic lockdown, and construction work continued.

The proposal for “operational buildings” at Safdarjung airport was first introduced under the Manmohan Singh government in 2010. The plan was for the project to span a plot area of 25,947 sq metres with a built-up area of 37,756.14 sq metres. It received environmental clearance in 2012.

In April 2018, the Narendra Modi government filed a request for environmental clearance to expand the original 2012 plan to a built-up area of 70,940 sq metres.

The new project received clearance in January 2020. A letter from Dr Subrata Bose, a scientist at the environment ministry, was sent to the deputy general manager of engineering, civil, at AAI on January 7. The letter stated that “part construction of basement” had been done at the site in accordance with the clearance granted in 2012.

The project is listed under category “B” of the Environmental Impact Assessment notification. The application noted that the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary lies 9.08 km southeast of the project and the Okhla Bird Sanctuary 8.41 km in the same direction. While they are eco-sensitive areas, commercial activity is permitted outside their buffer zones. The project also did not require wildlife clearance.

Google Earth images of the area showed no change in topography from 2012 until around December 2017, when boundary lines for the project became visible. Google Earth images in April 2018 and December 2019 indicated further construction.

“B” category projects also require an appraisal by the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority. But the SEIAA in Delhi has been defunct for three years. So, according to the environment clearance letter from last January, the project was “appraised at central level” by a sectoral expert committee, as permitted by the 2006 EIA notification. The project was considered when the committee met for its 38th meeting in February 2019 and again for its 46th meeting in November 2019.

The cleared project, according to its plans, will have two basements, a ground floor, and three upper floors reaching a maximum height of 21.6 metres. The floor area ratio will be 32,010 sq metres while the non-floor area ratio will be 4,000 sq metres. The project’s total basement area will be 31,720 sq metres, while the built-up area after expansion will be 70,940 sq metres, and the green area 6,486.75 sq metres, calculated as 25 percent of the total plot area.

In 2012, the project was proposed with a total floor area ratio of 20,454 sq metres and a basement area of 15,818.27 sq metres.

Conflict with flying club

Safdarjung airport housed the Delhi Flying Club until 2001, when it was grounded due to security concerns. But its ouster from the premises was led by AAI which in 1996 had begun demanding Rs 65,511 per month as rent from the club. Before AAI’s arrival – the authority was formed in 1995 – the DFC paid only a nominal rate of Rs 1 per year with ancillary payments amounting to a monthly licence fee of Rs 1,079.

The flying club and AAI went back and forth on this argument. By 2018, the AAI claimed that the club owed Rs 8.3 crore. It took the club to court and won. The club was then evicted.

Three years later, however, the club has a new management that plans to take the AAI to court, as confirmed by a source at the club on the condition of anonymity. A civil suit application is now pending before the Delhi High Court, delayed due to the pandemic. The grounds for the case, according to DFC management, is that the AAI does not have authority over the land where the club is located.

Instead, a member of the management explained, the land on which the club office is located is controlled by the Land and Development Office under the ministry of housing and urban affairs. This was confirmed, he said, by a response to an RTI application. In fact, as this 2011 report reveals, the civil aviation ministry and the housing ministry have bickered over the Safdarjung airport land for a while though it presently falls under the housing ministry.

Meanwhile, plans to use the land for “recreational” purposes for the public seem to have fallen by the wayside and find no mention in the Delhi Master Plan for 2021.

Update: This piece is updated with more information on the tussle between the flying club and AAI.

Also Read : Bit by bit, trick by trick: How Central Vista became a reality
Also Read : Central Vista is an illegitimate monument to deceit
Also Read : Government responds to Newslaundry article on Central Vista
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