As tourism in India evolves and as travellers demand more diverse and experiential products, seaplane operations present a unique opportunity and the potential is large. They provide tourists with stunning views of remote scenery and connect distant island communities in a fast, safe and environmentally sensitive mode of transport. With approximately 4 lakh ponds, plenty of dams, 2,000 river ports, 200 small ports and 12 major ports there is significant potential for seaplane operations in India. Add to that several islands, resorts and backwater destinations. However, ecologically such operations are not really hailed. What are the challenges and must development always come at the cost of nature, we try to find out…
The anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the man who integrated the diverse states to build present-day India, falls on 31 October. To celebrate this glorious legacy of Patel — the first deputy prime minister of India — this year, the country witnessed the launch of commercial seaplane operations between the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad and the Statue of Unity (in honour of Sardar Patel) in Kevadia. The country’s first water aerodrome was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was a moment several had been eagerly waiting for as it paved the way for seaplane operations in India. The journey of 200 kilometres was covered in 45 minutes! However, the ceremony came to be vocally criticized by the local as well as national environmentalists as the inauguration took place without receiving the mandatory environmental clearances by the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment. Sources claimed the process required for water aerodrome had also not been completed yet.
What exactly went wrong?
Due to the short distance between the water aerodrome and the Pirana dumping site, there is a high chance of birds being hit with the seaplane. On the day of inauguration, attempts were made to keep the birds away from the seaplane site by setting off firecrackers continuously from 9 am to 1.40 pm to prevent any untoward incident during the arrival of PM Modi. Airport personnel had been placed at different places to detonate fireworks. Zone guns were also used for explosions. Along with the zone guns, 3 bombs were used extensively. It did not go down well with the nature lovers, who insisted that it would become a practice with the service providers. It will wreak havoc on the local flora and fauna and drive them away from their own territory. As the world is brought to a halt by corona virus, many also did not understand the haste shown in its inauguration without the clearances that they feel the project must never get! Prof C.P. Rajendran, professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, says: “I understand the seaplane service from Ahmedabad and Kevadia and the landing sites were inaugurated without environmental ministry clearance. This is a gross violation of the rules. Here the government itself breaks the rule. The question whether seaplanes are environment friendly is something that has to be understood taking the vulnerabilities of the region. This requires understanding of the local issues and the possible impact of these activities on biodiversity and forests in the sites where the landing sites are located. Landing in dams is another issue especially during summer when water level is low. Environmental impact study is a must before such project is activated.” But, former GSI chief, VK Joshi, points out: “Any vehicle operating on hydrocarbon fuel is bound to pollute the waterbody. Plus the impact on the fauna and flora living in the shallower depths would be tremendous. But, on the contrary, the problem is that whatever we may do to develop/prosper is bound to leave adverse impact on the environment. Therefore, we have to evaluate which devil is better. As far as exotic plants are concerned, this has been happening since ages. 5000 years ago there were thousands of varieties of rice growing in India alone. Now the number has dwindled to 100s. When Botanical Gardens were established in India, the British government brought many exotic species. One of them is the weed Lantana. But one can’t help it. Whether this or that government, a govt’s decision is always final.” The recent push by the government towards seaplane operations was fueled by a growing population base coupled with rising income levels and the propensity to travel. However, COVID-19 has deflated these parameters. Still, the government has decided to go ahead.
Seaplanes are forgotten treasures of the aviation industry
There hasn’t been this much interest in water-based flight in India for over 80 years. Back in 1930s, seaplanes had their own visual appeal, beautifully described by Gerald Durrell in his best-selling memoir ‘My Family and Other Animals’ where he recalled watching seaplanes land near their home on the island of Corfu: “The plane like a cumbersome overweight goose, flew over the olive groves, sinking lower and lower: Suddenly it would be over the water, racing its own reflection over the blue surface… Lower and lower and then it suddenly touched the surface briefly, left a widening petal of foam, flew on, and then settled on the surface and surged across the bay, leaving a spreading fan of white foam behind it.” Seaplanes are the historical heart of aviation. Pilots have flown off-the-water since the beginning of flying itself. Yet, seaplanes sometimes meet resistance, even strong opposition, from concerned citizens and elected officials. A seaplane is a fixed-winged aeroplane designed for taking off and landing on water. It offers the public the speed of an aeroplane with the utility of a boat. There are two main types of seaplane: flying boats (often called hull seaplanes) and floatplanes. The bottom of a flying boat’s fuselage is its main landing gear. This is usually supplemented with smaller floats near the wingtips, called wing or tip floats. The hull of a flying boat holds the crew, passengers, and cargo; it has many features in common with the hull of a ship or a boat. The first seaplane project of the country is part of a directive of the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation. As per the directive, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) requested state governments of Gujarat, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the administration of Andaman & Nicobar to propose potential locations for setting up water aerodromes to boost the tourism sector. Destinations like Shirdi can be easily accessed this way. According to wildlife & conservation filmmaker Shekar Dattatri: “Small seaplanes are used in many parts of the world, either to ferry tourists and passengers to remote areas, or for recreational, sightseeing purposes. If they are to be used, such flights must be deployed judiciously, after a thorough, scientific assessment of the ecological sensitivity of an area. For instance, if landing or takeoff is permitted from water bodies that harbour large congregations of waterfowl, the stress and disturbance caused to them is likely to be detrimental. Besides, the birds themselves could pose a grave danger to the aircraft and its passengers.” According to wildlife expert and retired IFS, Dr HS Pabla: “It should be done only after studying the impact on important wildlife species of the area. If there is little danger of injury/death or disturbance leading to impairment of breeding of important (endangered or threatened) species, there is no harm in cautiously introducing the activity as it may create a lot of jobs.”
Ecological challenges galore
As seaplane operations are integrated with existing natural water bodies, ecological challenges come to the forefront. In the past, there have been concerns on fishing communities that can be impacted. There is also the challenge of biodiversity. Noise levels and disturbance of existing natural habitats is also a case made by some. The Kerala government has already faced challenges on this front and initially set up and then dismantled aerodromes at Punnamada, Kumarakom, Ashtamudi and Bakel. The assets in these locations were redeployed for the promotion of adventure tourism. Recent protests and decisions with regards to the Aarey forest in Mumbai also bring up several parallels. In Gujarat, however, the government has cemented its position by enacting the Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Act. The Act proposes to create a Tourism Development Authority for the area, and overrides local gram sabhas that will have no say in the development of the area. The entire area is being developed as a tourism hub. Once a pristine wilderness, this site now has hotels, malls, a “tent city” and recreational activities such as boating, jungle safaris, ecotourism, adventure sports and so on. Fields and scrubland have been replaced by artificial gardens with exotic plants. A park housing exotic animal and plant species, a butterfly park and more such recreational ‘haunts’ are being developed. As per retired IAS & former principal secretary, forest and environment, UP, VN Garg: “Sea plane service does have ecological implications. The authorities should insist on environmental clearance in this and other similar cases. Environmental Impact assessment study itself will bring out whether such services should be operated in environmentally fragile regions. As a general observation, only eco friendly tourism should be promoted and allowed. As for creating parks of exotic plant and animal species, we should prefer native/local species over exotic species, as advocated by PM in slogan ‘Vocal for local’. As per Deepak Kumar: “Exotic species should not be more than 15% of the total fauna kept in a zoo. Regarding their maintenance cost, it depends on the type of species. Some adjust in our climate, others need more pampering. Expense almost same as native ones, some need air conditioning & other special facility and hence costly.” “Speaking generally, it has been seen all over the world that the introduction of non-native species of plants and animals into an area can have very adverse, and often irreversible, long-term consequences. For instance, Lantana was introduced into India during colonial times as an ornamental plant. Today its spread is rampant and uncontrollable in many of our National Parks and Sanctuaries, and its negative ecological consequences are many,” says Shekar Dattatri.
In Narmada, the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary is located at an approximate aerial distance of 2.1 km from the project site in south-west direction while the nearest reserve forest is situated at a distance of 4.7 meters in east direction, which serves local sensitive species of fauna. The bathymetric and hydrographic survey was conducted by Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) before finalising Dyke 3, which is a rock-filled pond and popularly called the ‘Magar Talav’ as it is infested with crocodiles. Work on evacuating crocodiles from the lake had been on since January 2019, after which mesh fencing of the boundary was also completed to prevent crocodiles from re-entering from the connecting Dyke 1 and 2. The site was finalised for the terminal as its dimensions suit the requirements of landing the seaplane, which requires a minimum width of 900 metres in a water body with a depth of at least six feet. Senior engineers of SSNNL added that while a seaplane does not require any construction of a runway, rubber buoys have been lined up to indicate the landing path for the seaplane. In its proposal seeking environmental clearance, the Director of Aviation, Government of Gujarat, has allayed fears of environmental impact during the stage of construction. In terms of the long-term effects of the seaplane service, the government has said, “During seaplane operations, there will be turbulence created in the water while takeoff and landing of seaplanes. This will lead to more operation process i.e. mixing of oxygen in the water. This will have a positive impact on the aquatic ecosystem near seaplane operations increasing oxygen content and decreasing carbon content in this system.”
Feasibility of seaplane operations
The success of this operation may indeed pave way for other projects, where the Indian government has made a strong push. This includes development of inland waterways towards the viability of seaplane operations. Policy initiatives include the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issuing licensing norms for setting up water aerodromes. This was followed by the Airports Authority of India assessing up to 20 sites last year and inclusion of seaplane operations in the regional connectivity scheme (UDAN) making these eligible for subsidies and waivers. Other policy initiatives are also likely to emerge. Going forward, additional sites that may see seaplane operations include the Shatrunjay Dam in Gujarat, Umrangso Reservoir and the riverfront in Guwahati, the Tehri Dam in Uttarakhand, the Erai and Khindi Dam in Maharashtra, in addition to the Mumbai waterfront, Nagarjuna Sagar in Telangana and various sites in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. And if a majority prove to be successful, other states are almost certain to follow.
For operators looking to enter this segment in India, assessment of profitability prospects remains challenging. Part of the reason is that there is extremely limited historical data to inform analyses. In looking to other countries, the evolution of Seaplane operations is very different. For instance, in Maldives, these are a primary source of transportation; in places like Alaska and Seattle they are a reliable source of commuting; and in cities in Australia and Canada the tourism product has been integrated with the seaplane ecosystem. Planners have to think about these aspects carefully. On the financing side, the aircraft types are such that leasing is not a viable option. Tax issues abound and financing and insurance costs are high. And ecological concerns lend themselves to litigation and time spent in court. Other issues include the storage and maintenance of the assets, dealing with an evolving regulatory environment and the training and deployment of skilled personnel. On the commercial side, there are yield considerations, and the cyclicality of demand. As a scheduled operation, seaplanes simply do not make sense. As an on-demand charter operation the yield premiums have to be high enough to recover the costs. And while there are avenues to do that, it requires integration of several disparate elements.
Then there are considerations such as the depth of the sea bed and the length of run required for takeoffs and landings have to be catered for. The current flow, water levels, wave heights have to be measured. Presence of animals such as crocodiles or species of fish has to be mitigated. Items such as water debris also have to be accounted for. The approach to landing sites has unobstructed and come under navigable airspace… the list goes on. Other variables include development of staff and pilots, hangar facilities, operating space and docks. In the Indian context, all of these are ‘greenfield setups’. That is, they have to be developed from scratch as opposed to expanding existing infrastructure. That poses unique challenges of its own including the will and skill for such an undertaking. The ability to recover the costs is limited and thus the decision of the government to bring these services under the UDAN scheme – a scheme by the government of India which helps with waivers on costs and also subsidies on airfares to flights between unserved and underserved destinations. The scheme is mostly funded by a fee on travellers flying between metro cities. The greatest challenge to seaplane operations in terms of managing stakeholder expectations is with regards to environmental and ecological concerns. Overall, seaplanes require specialised infrastructure both during development and operation. It is no wonder then that the Maldivian Aero — a part of the national airline of Maldives and owned by the government of Maldives — is assisting in the launch of seaplane operations in Gujarat.
What is the hue & cry about?
The 182-metre-tall Statue of Unity, constructed at a cost of Rs.2,989 crore, has proved to be a popular destination ever since its inauguration on October 31, 2018. However, its very construction wrecked the local ecology and economy. Local people lost their homes, farms and fishing rights, which were compensated for only meagerly. Meanwhile, tourism revenue generated by the statue till date has been about Rs 83 crore. To facilitate ease of access for tourists, and as an added attraction, the Gujarat government and the Ministry of Civil Aviation launched a 45-minute seaplane service from Ahmedabad to the statue. (By road, this distance of 256 kilometres takes about five hours.) If the construction of the statue rode roughshod over the local people and their livelihoods, the seaplane service, too, has flouted the EIA notification 2006. Two water aerodromes were built for the launch of the service at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad and the Panchmukhi Lake of the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Limdi village in Narmada district. This was done despite the fact that their environmental clearance is still pending with the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). To obtain an environmental clearance, an application is made to the EAC, which decides the specific terms of reference for each project. An EIA is conducted over two seasons and then submitted to the MoEFCC and to the State’s Pollution Control Board along with an environment management plan. If the terms of reference include a public hearing, the pollution control board issues advertisements calling for public responses within a 30-day period. The public hearing itself needs to be recorded on video and sent to the MoEFCC. The EAC then debates the issues raised during the public hearing and concludes whether or not to give environmental clearance. According to the environmental activist Rohit Prajapati, this procedure is still ongoing in the case of the water aerodromes. Only two EAC meetings have been held so far. However, the floating jetties were built and the flight service was inaugurated before the study could be completed. According to Rohit Prajapati, the minutes of both meetings, held in April and August, show that the EAC had inserted a clause saying a public hearing was necessary for the two water aerodrome sites, given that they will affect “air, water and aquatic biodiversity”. No such public hearing had been held until October 31 when the flight took off with the Prime Minister on board. Neither was any EIA or environment management plan submitted to the Ministry of Environment or the Gujarat State Pollution Board. Citing the minutes of the April meeting, Rohit Prajapati said: “Public hearing is to be conducted. Issues raised during public hearing and commitments made by the project proponent on such issues should be included in final EIA/EMP Report (environmental impact assessment and environmental management plan) in the form of tabular chart with financial budget for complying with such commitments.” The same points were made at the August meeting. Quoting further, Rohit Prajapati said the EAC felt such public hearings were necessary because “the water aerodrome is not a listed project/activity in the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006 and its amendments. However, a view has been taken by this EAC that the activities proposed under water aerodrome project may have similar type of impact as that of the airport. Considering water aerodromes are emerging in the country as new mode of transport involving sea/river fronts and its likely impacts on water, air and aquatic biodiversity including flora and fauna, the EAC has also taken a view to follow the EC [environmental clearance] process as per category A of item 7(a) ‘Air Ports’ of the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006.”
Then, there is another catch
While public hearings are essential at both water aerodrome sites, there is a special urgency for the one at Panchmukhi Lake near the Statue of Unity. Tribal communities that farmed and fished to eke out a living find themselves labelled encroachers on their own land. However, they continued to live and farm on their acquired land for decades until some years ago when the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, the body that administers the dam and the statue, tried to reclaim it for constructing subsidiary activities around the statue. The tribal communities argued that the land had been acquired for a dam, not for a statue. In July 2019, they obtained a stay order from the Gujarat High Court but in May, during the lockdown, the High Court lifted the stay. This move has dealt the tribal communities of Kevadia a double blow. Not only are they likely to lose their land, homes and livelihoods, but since their land was never used for the dam, they are not categorised as Project Affected Persons and are thus not eligible for the compensations offered under that category. Instead they have been offered lumpsum payments that do not reflect the current market value of their land. A new residential colony is being built for them, but the tribal communities say they are uncomfortable with it since it includes neither their cattle nor their need to stay close to the forest. These people now exist in a grey zone made murkier by the High Court saying that it will decide on the land dispute if the tribal farmers approach the court as individual petitioners, an unlikely proposition since they lack the means and the know-how to do this as individuals.
What an international study says
In a five year study on the environmental effects of seaplanes, the US Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for many of the waterways of the USA, concluded they had no negative environmental impact on air quality, water quality, soil quality, wildlife, fisheries or hydrology. They leave virtually no trace of their visit and are one of the few forms of transport allowed on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. They play a vital role in managing vulnerable ecological areas: the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Parks System both rely on them for environmental and wildlife monitoring and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a fleet of seaplanes which are used extensively for biological work, including sea turtle and mammal surveys. One of the largest users of seaplanes is the Maldives where in 2011, 44 seaplanes recorded more than 100,000 operations, connecting 66 locations. Importantly, the use of seaplanes in this remote Indian Ocean territory can help connect both economically vital tourist destinations and the island communities spread over 192 islands in beautiful area of ocean covering 90,000 square kilometres. The nature of the atolls mean that suitable land for runways is hard to find, making seaplanes an ideal option.
Where else do seaplanes operate?
Seaplanes by multiple airline carriers are operational in countries like the Philippines, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Maldives and Hongkong. In India, Jal Hans, a commercial seaplane service based in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was launched as a pilot project on 30 December 2010 by the then Indian Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel with a capacity of 10 passengers. Hence, often there is a gap between perception and reality and the fact of the matter is that seaplane operations when done the right way continue to deliver for communities and even countries in many parts of the world.