By Pradeep Kumar
Beyond the Horizon
With terrain restriction for expansion of existing Tawang helipad under Army control, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) had conducted a pre-feasibility study for Tawang and Lumla Greenfield airport. The Lumla site was found more suitable for operating fixed wing aircrafts for defence and civilian purposes as there is no sufficient land at Tawang for expansion. The report was submitted to Planning Commission through the NEC/DoNER for approving the project. It however required the MoD’s clearance.
According to site selection report, a high level team including AAI consultant D P Chakravarti, GDM (eng-civil) L N Padhi and AAI SM (ATC) N K Talukdar with senior GoAP officers and then CM Khandu had conducted an aerial survey by a Jagson helicopter during Nov 21-22, 2007. The team while flying from Guwahati to Tawang via Bhutan saw a ridge along north-south direction appeared to be 2000Mx150M at Lumla.
“After the aerial survey, the matter was discussed with the pilot. Out of these locations, the Lumla site can be primarily recommended for Greenfield airport. The other site at Mibra (Mebra) may be suitable for STOL airport. The site of Lumla is recommended for Greenfield airport subject to fulfillment of various criteria”, the 27.03.08 report had concluded.
The Lumla ridge about a km long referred in the report is Jamkhar Tse located at an altitude of 7,000 feet and connected by a blacktopped road now. Lumla – originally Lung La means atop the windy pass – criss-crossed by perennial Nyamjang Chu and Tawang Chu (River), is very windy for which the area remains mostly free from fogs and snowfalls throughout the year with greater visibility for aircraft operations.
The MoD has rejected a proposal for Tawang airport as it is located close to the Sino-India border, the GoAP had said on 09.08.10, as reported by DNA. “They have rejected the proposal but I have taken up the issue with Defence Minister AK Antony and he has assured me to relook into the demand,” CM Khandu had told reporters.
Tawang & Lumla Greenfield airports and Lumla STOL airport were rejected for their close proximity to China’s border. Tawang is located 20-km from china border while Luma is much closer. The rejection was intriguing as the MoD had overlooked the operational Kailasahar Airport in Tripura located in the border with Bangladesh. Tawang is linked now by a daily helicopter service from Guwahati through Bhutan.
The Chinese believe in dual-use for infrastructure facilities in the border areas and elsewhere. Tibet airport, much closer to the border (McMahon Line) than Tawang, is the best example. It is used every year by several lakhs of tourists visiting Nyingtri area and the gorges of the Brahmaputra. It does not pose a problem for the PLA or the defense authorities in Tibet. In case of conflict, it would be used for military purpose.
Lhasa Gonggar Airport, about 45-km south-southwest of Lhasa, on the right bank of Yarlung Zangbo River and located more than 3500 metres above sea level makes it one of the highest airports in the world. Its 4000-metre runway is designed to handle wide-body aircraft in the thin Tibetan air. The airport began operation in March 1956 with flights to Beijing and Chengdu. Its existing terminal was expanded in 2004. It is connected to Chinese cities of Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Chongqing, Xian, Xining, Kunming, Diqing and Chamdo Region besides Kathmandu and Lhasa. Why can’t India take a cue from China?
Sridhar Kumaraswami, wrote in The Asian Age on 30.05.10: I know, the objection from Delhi will be: in case of an invasion, the Chinese can use our facilities, therefore it is better to have no facilities. Is not this argument a bit out-fashioned?
Two years ago, AAI had conducted a detailed feasibility study for Tawang airport. “It was found that the construction of an airport there was feasible. It would have been a viable proposition as it is a popular tourist destination”. However, it is going ahead with its move to construct another Greenfield civilian airport at Itanagar, the state capital.
Tawang has often proven to be a flashpoint in Sino-Indian relations. The PLA had overrun Tawang in the 1962 border war with India but withdrew after the military victory over India. China covets 90,000 sqkm of Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, and does not recognise it as Indian Territory. In fact, China refers to Arunachal as “south Tibet” and covets Tawang since the Buddhist monastery at Tawang historically paid tribute to Tibet for centuries. China protests whenever GoI leader visit Arunachal.