In July, farmers from the Balh valley, in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district, saw drones flying overhead. These drones were surveying their land for an international airport that is supposed to be built over their villages. The state government has planned to build an international airport in Himachal Pradesh since the early 2000s, but this plan has remained largely at a standstill. Following the union government’s funding for such an airport under the UDAN scheme in 2016—which aims to expand and develop new regional airports—and its Greenfield airport policy in 2017 the state government began formulating a plan to build the Balh valley airport. The state government announced early estimates in 2020 that 2,936 bighas—roughly 237 hectares in Himachal Pradesh—would be acquired for the project, but the land for the airport is still being surveyed. Constant changes to several government’s plans in the last four years have meant that no land acquisition has yet taken place.
The amount of land to be acquired is one among the many concerns about the airport. Farmers I spoke to from the valley said that the planned airport would take away the state’s limited fertile land. They feared that the growth in tourism—what the airport is ostensibly planned for—is unlikely to give them a stable livelihood. Environmental researchers told me that the state government had not yet clarified what the cumulative environmental impact of the airport and other supporting infrastructure would have on the state. Even members of Himachal Pradesh’s tourism industry and aviation experts said that the Mandi airport is likely to have only a minimal effect on tourism and that less destructive solutions, such as encouraging smaller aircrafts, to give a boost to the industry were overlooked. The government seemed to have ignored other locations for the airport despite the seeming technical unsuitability for the airport in the Balh valley. Despite these shortcomings, the state government seems intent on continuing the project.
Politicians and professionals in Himachal Pradesh have demanded an international airport in the state for at least two decades now. A union tourism ministry document from 2003 stated that one of the government’s primary goals should be the expansion of Shimla airport so that it can service international travel. However, in 2007, Virbhadra Singh from the Indian National Congress, who was then the chief minister of the state, proposed that an international airport be built in the town of Sundernagar, in Mandi district, instead. This site fell in the Balh valley, about two kilometres away from the currently planned location. His successor, Prem Kumar Dhumal from the Bhartiya Janata Party, too requested the union government to expedite permission for the construction of the airport.
However, successive governments appeared to have ignored this for about a decade. In 2017, Jai Ram Thakur, the current chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, who is also from BJP, pressed for the project to begin in earnest in the Balh valley. But further disagreements between politicians and bureaucrats in the state about the choice of site delayed the process. In April 2018, Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur, announced that the union government and the Airport Authority of India were considering the Jahu area, about 50 kilometres from the current site. Jahu village lies in the Bhoranj block of Hamirpur district, at the intersection of Mandi, Hamirpur and Bilaspur districts, making it a centrally located site for the proposed airport. Anurag is the current union minister of sports, youth affairs and information and broadcasting.
The Jahu site enjoyed local political support. Several local officials including the heads of panchayats in the region, supported the construction. The 50-kilometre stretch suggested for the airport flanks the two sides of the Jahu bridge over Seer Khad. It starts at Jahu village in Hamirpur district and ends at Dali and Bhambla villages in Sarkaghat sub-division, in Mandi district. In 2018, both Inder Singh—Sarkaghat’s representative in the state legislative assembly, who is from the BJP—and Rajendar Jar, the president of Hamirpur district’s Congress committee, backed the Jahu site. “Most of the land they suggested for the airport here is government land and is not in use,” Munish Sharma, a member of the Sarkaghat district council, told me. “Locals here are willing to give their private land for the international airport. Cash crops are not grown here. Only subsistence farming is carried out and that too has come down drastically due to the problem of stray cattle.”