What we think about the future affects how we live in the present. Predictions about what the future will look like are therefore never neutral, but always loaded with power and semantic excess. Even something as trivial as air passenger estimates can therefore have dramatic consequences in the present.
In the new book Rule by Aesthetics, D. Asher Ghertner shows how wildly inaccurate poverty projections in India have been used to produce an image of hundreds of millions of poor people rapidly ‘moving up’ into the middle class. This image has, in turn, triggered rising land evaluations and has legitimised slum demolitions, massive evictions of the ‘informal’ urban poor, and the auctioning off of public lands to private developers who have benefitted enormously from India’s booming real estate economy. While the logic behind such a correlation may seem obscure, it is simple enough: If the Indian middle class is set to expand rapidly, people will (and should) want to live in better and newer housing rather than in slums. In this way, predictions of future income levels and consumer purchasing power create visions of economic possibility, and this vision of a possible future directs action in the present in powerful (but often tragic) ways, as Ghertner writes.
When I read Ghertner’s book I was reminded of what is going on in Mopa north Goa, where a new airport is set to come up alongside many other forms of tourism infrastructure such as holiday resorts, new roads, golf courses, hotels and much more. What underlies this plan that will soon lead to the state-led takeover of more than 2,000 acres of land and the dispossession of some thousand landowners, is passenger estimates, not poverty estimates. But the logic and dynamic is similar.
Goa currently has an international airport in Dabolim. It handles around 3.5 million passengers per year, but following the opening of a new terminal in 2013-14 and some ongoing upgrading it will soon have the capacity to handle upwards of 8 to 9 million passengers. While this may seem sufficient capacity at least for the time being, it is the spectre of the imminent ‘saturation’ of Dabolim that drives the construction of Mopa airport: Because Goa has (according to the CAPA Centre for Aviation) ‘not even scratched the surface of its tourism potential’ it can soon expect to see massive growth in air traffic. Thus, the proponents of the Mopa airport estimate that by 2025 Goa will handle close to 8 million air passengers, and around 14 million by 2044. According to CAPA, these estimates are even ‘very conservative’.
Given that the overwhelming majority of air passengers that travel to and from Goa are domestic passengers, these estimates are in principle underpinned by assumptions similar to those described by Ghertner, namely a rapid expansion of the Indian middle class and, not least, its ability to fly. But whether such assumptions hold is open to question. For example, Ghertner notes that while Delhi indeed had a housing shortfall of 1.3 million units in 2007 it simultaneously had nearly a million vacant houses. The reason for this is profiteering in an era of exorbitant property prices where anticipated increases in property prices lead investors to forego rental income in the present. The real estate-driven land hoarding that is already well underway in the area surrounding the planned Mopa airport can arguably lead to comparable outcomes there. Likewise, India is already home to several so-called ghost airports, i.e. airports that see no regular arrivals or departures. A few of them are, in fact, yet to receive a single commercial flight. In such instances, prior passenger estimates that have been used to drive airport development have evidently been spectacularly off target.
Since the foundation stone for the new Mopa airport has not yet been laid we cannot know whether a similar fate will befall this airport. But in any event, what the passenger estimates surely look set to achieve in the short run is a significant land dispossession affecting several thousand Goans, alongside the transfer of large areas of adjacent lands to private investors for speculative purposes.
Kenneth Bo Nielsen