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Runways on Roads: Modi’s Plan to Connect India’s Remote Villages

  • Transport minister floats proposal to use roads as airstrips
  • Border areas with sparse traffic ideal, official says

India is proposing to convert some of its remote rural roads into runways, both for defense and commercial planes, as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to connect the nation’s 1.3 billion people.

“We can close road traffic when a plane lands and open once the plane has taken off,” Nitin Gadkari, the transport minister in Modi’s cabinet, told reporters in Mumbai on Friday. “Airport investment costs would come down as the road will also be used as an airstrip.”

Modi has long advocated the need to make flying accessible and affordable for the poor in a country where aviation is still largely viewed as a luxury only the elite can enjoy. Under a new aviation policy Modi’s cabinet cleared this week, the government said it will offer tax incentives and compensate for losses incurred by carriers flying routes that currently have no services.

The road-and-runway project, for which preliminary talks have already started with the country’s defense ministry, will be undertaken in border areas with no airports, Gadkari said. Regions with sparse traffic, like the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China, would be ideal for such projects, Gadkari said. China lays claim to most part of the province, and the two nations have fought a war over it.

Mirage 2000

“It is going to be very, very difficult to get regulatory clearances for this,” Mark Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting LLC, said by phone. “They will have to ensure the road can take the landing weight of an aircraft, the approach path is clear, and they need to have a mechanism to provide weather information accurately.”

After test landing a Mirage 2000 aircraft on an expressway near New Delhi last year, the Indian Air Force sent a plan to the transport ministry to use national highways as landing strips during emergencies, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar told lawmakers in parliament in December 2015.

India has a mixed history with ambitious infrastructure and airport projects, with regular cost over-runs and missed deadlines. A river still meanders across the marshy land where as many as 60 million passengers were supposed to fly in and out from a new airport planned for Mumbai 19 years back, although Modi has seen success in bringing down the number of stalled plans since taking office in 2014.

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