by Elton Gomes
Government-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI) is set to prepare a detailed project report for the development of Palaly airport in Sri Lanka. This would be the first project for the AAI in the island nation, and the government body is “trying to get engaged with our neighbours”, an AAI official said, PTI reported.
In an official statement released on Monday, the AAI said it has signed an agreement with the External Affairs Ministry for “preparation of a Detailed Project Report for development of Palaly airport in Sri Lanka”.
An AAI official said that it wants to test its expertise outside India: “Considering AAI’s expertise and capabilities in airport development and operation management, the authority wants to go global. AAI has developed more than 60 airports in metros and non metros in India and now wants to leverage its expertise to other countries on a bigger scale,” the official said, as reported by the Times of India.
Why developing the Palaly airport is important?
Along with the Palaly airport, India is also looking to develop other airports in the island nation. “Palaly is in Jaffna in the north — Tamil territory. India had earlier promised to develop Palaly airport which has been a demand by the northern province for some time. The airport will be Sri Lanka’s first in the north, give the northern people direct connectivity with places like south India, Malaysia and Thailand. India has also offered to develop the Kankesanthurai airport also in the north, as well as the Mattala international airport in south Sri Lanka, abutting the Chinese developed Hambantota port,” a person knowledgeable of the matter told the Times of India.
“After the Sri Lankan war was over in 2009, India has been involved in the reconstruction and redevelopment of the northern province. However, as China became one of the largest developers of critical infrastructure in Sri Lanka, it forced India to speed up its own development assistance.
Palaly is important due to the fact that it is in the sensitive Tamil-dominated northern province, traditionally closer to India. By developing critical infrastructure here, India is also keeping a foothold in this part of Sri Lanka,” the aforementioned person said.
India takes control of Hambantota airport
In July 2018, India took control of Sri Lanka’s loss-making Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota. The $210 million facility has been known as the “world’s emptiest airport” due to a lack of flights. India would operate the airport as a joint venture between Sri Lanka-India. India seems to have an ulterior motive in operating airports in Sri Lanka. An expert in Indian Ocean strategies explained why this deal could be important for India.
David Brewster, an expert in Indian Ocean strategies at the Australian National University, said, “India’s future plans for the airport are hazy. Maybe a flight school? A new destination for Indian weddings? There seems little chance that it will turn a profit. That is not the point of the deal,” as per a Business Insider report.
Brewster said that India purchased the airport due to its proximity with a shipping port in Hambantota, which is run by China.
As China seeks to expand its presence via the One Belt, One Road initiative, India, the US, and Japan are concerned that China wants to use the Hambantota port as a naval base. But Beijing’s ability to do so will be hindered without access to an airport.
India, China compete for airports in Sri Lanka
Since 2010, China has been investing heavily in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, and it is already operating a seaport on a 99-year lease.
“It’s clearly strategic, otherwise we would have seen participation from private operators like GMR, GVK or Reliance Airport Developers,” says an expert from the aviation sector adding that “since the days of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao India has been trying to build a military base in Sri Lanka. India also has a maritime cooperation pact with Sri Lanka under which they do anti-piracy patrolling. Having an airport is an extension of India’s efforts to build some base in that country,” Business Today reported.
It remained unclear as to how the AAI would utilize the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. Sources in the AAI said that the matter is directly dealt by the top brass in coordination with ministry of external affairs.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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