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A view to a kill

Most of the bird-hits happen at the Mumbai airport. But with slums encircling it, making the airport safer or modern is a big challenge.

T V Mahalingam | Print Edition: Nov 18, 2007

October 23, 2007
Jari Mari slum, perimeter of Mumbai International Airport

Twelve-year-old Aslam steps out into the oppressive October heat with a pail of water to answer nature’s call.

Unlike most Mumbaikars who settle down with their daily newspapers in enclosed quarters during such a time, Aslam has a far more interesting view. Parked less than 200 metres away is a billion-dollar worth of flying equipment—Boeings 737s, Airbus A320s. He watches blissfully as these big birds land and take off with almost monotonous regularity at India’s busiest airport.

Above him, a flock of kites swirls patiently waiting for rats and other small prey to emerge from the mountainous dumps of garbage that line the borders of the airport. I wonder if they are waiting for me and my photographer to drop dead because of the soaring temperature and the nauseating stench. I also worry about them flying across the airfield as one of the aircraft is about to take off.

Sceptics might ask what damage can a small bird do to a 30,000-plus kilo Boeing 737? A bird-hit or a bird-strike, as it is called in aviation circles, can be pretty catastrophic.

The impact of a five kg bird at 240 km/h is equal to that of a 1,000-pound weight dropped from a height of 10 feet. Imagine that kind of force on a windshield or on an engine. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US estimates the problem costs US aviation $600 million annually and has resulted in 195 worldwide deaths since 1988. In India, bird-hits cost the aviation industry in excess of Rs 300 crore per year during the 1990s, according to Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL).

Mumbai is the worst-hit. Of the 536 cases of bird-hits reported in the country between January 2004 and December 2006, 86 were reported in Mumbai. The reason? Other than the tons of garbage emptied in the open from the slums, there are nearly 250 butcher shops and slaughter houses around the airport.

The discarded offal attracts birds. Not that there are no laws against this. The Aircraft Act of 1934 prevents the slaughtering and disposing of filth in a 10 km radius. “Why, there might even be an older Act,” scoffs Debi Goenka of Bombay Environmental Action Group. “Obviously Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (the municipal body governing Mumbai) has not heard of it,” says Goenka.

Slum dwellers point out that bird-hits have not caused any major accident at the Mumbai airport. But Mumbai International Airport (P) Ltd (MIAL) officials stress it is definitely a huge problem. “From an air safety point of view, the slums are a big problem. The more the garbage dumped by the slums in the vicinity of the airport, more the number of birds and higher the chances of bird-hits,” says G.V. Sanjay Reddy, MD of the GVK-backed MIAL.

More crucially, the slum land is critical for the development of the land-locked airport. “Of the 2,000 or so acres of the airport, 1,700 acres are already under use with the offices of airlines, hangars, maintenance facilities etc. Around 276 acres have been encroached by the slums. That leaves us with less than 100 acres of land to redevelop the airport,” says Reddy. “For us, every square inch of land is precious to redevelop Mumbai airport as a truly international hub,” he adds.

For now, MIAL has contracted property developer Housing Development and Infrastructure Ltd (HDIL) to redevelop the slums around the airport. Reddy hopes that the process of redevelopement would be completed over a period of four years.

For the 100,000 families in the slums, these are uncertain times. The slum dwellers say that they do not want to “stand in the way of progress” but ask for a fair deal. Most of them pay electricity bills, have ration cards and some even paid land taxes until the early eighties.

Like 42-year-old Surendra Pandit, who has lived all his life in the airport slum, says: “We have been associated with the growth of the airport. In fact, almost 60 per cent of the people who live in the slums work for the airport as contractual or full-time employees. Our kids study in schools nearby. How can we continue with our lives if we are relocated to some place 25 kms from the city?” Pandit is also the secretary of the Central Committee of the Mumbai Airport Slum Dwellers Federation.

In fact, that is the main objection that the slum dwellers and their leaders have with the redevelopment process. “Till date, no land has been specified or allocated by either MIAL or the government (for the slum dwellers). There has been no proper survey of the slums—about the number of people living there or the families there. How do you expect anybody to cooperate?” asks Jockin Arputham, Magsaysay Award winner and President of National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF).

Reddy says that MIAL has mandated HDIL to do exactly that — conduct a survey that will map the number of tenements, families, identifying locations for resettlement of the slums among others. But till these tedious processes get complete, Aslam will continue to get that billion-dollar view.

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