Grounded at the word go

Grounded at the word go
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First Published: Mon, Feb 11 2008. 12 39 AM IST
In the next few weeks, Bangalore will see the unveiling of a new international airport. Billed as India’s first greenfield public-private partnership (PPP) airport, this is a project that has gone through all the challenges an innovator faces. Construction began on 2 July 2005, marking the end of a tortuous process that began in 2001, with the final concession agreement being signed in 2004. During this period, the project was buffeted by the political currents of changing governments at the Centre and in the state. Governments everywhere learnt a lot about the challenges of doing airport privatization from the Bangalore experience.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending. With the airport set to open in March, there are no smiling faces in Bangalore. There are two fundamental issues with the airport: the first—and more serious long-term problem—has to do with capacity constraints.
In analysing airport capacity, one can get lost in the gobbledegook of technical data about runways, ramps, airspace rights and peak hour movements. The bottom line, however, is easy to see. Soon after signing its contract, Bangalore International Airport Ltd (Bial) commissioned Lufthansa Consulting (LHC) in 2005 to undertake a revised traffic study, given Bangalore’s explosive air traffic growth. LHC’s most optimistic estimates projected 10.1 million passengers by 2010. The reality: Bangalore has already clocked more than 10 million passengers this year.
More realistically, Bial estimated that passenger traffic in Bangalore would reach 11.3 million in 2015, seven years from now. We will cross this mark before this calendar year is out, seven years ahead of expectations.
What does this mean? Adding airport capacity isn’t like building bus bays in a local bus depot. At full stretch, a single runway cannot do more than 10 million passengers, beyond which a second runway will be required. This means lead time to build, as well as a host of related technical issues. Given that we have already reached 10 million passengers, Bial’s only runway will be running at full capacity the day it opens. Even if work on a second runway begins right away, it cannot get operational for another three years—during which time another 10 million passengers can be added to Bangalore’s demand, with no airport or runway to service them. The Bial contract requires that no other airport be operational for a 150km radius—meaning that the current Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) airport will shut down.
This is new territory for Indian governments, as we witness the underestimation of a runaway economy. Just last week, a Mint story reported on the recently opened Delhi-Gurgaon expressway: “The original traffic flow projections, carried out in 1998, were way off the mark: The flows projected for 2013 were witnessed the day the expressway was opened. Against the estimate of 80,000 vehicles a day, the actual flow is around 140,000.”
Little can be done about the Delhi-Gurgaon situation. But in Bangalore, we are going to do something extraordinarily stupid. Even as we struggle to build much-needed infrastructure in the country, Bangalore will actually witness the first instance of shutting down existing infrastructure. The argument here isn’t against private operators: Bial needs to make the returns that it projected when it won the tender. But given the growth in traffic volume, there’s no question that they will make out even better than this, even if HAL airport were kept open.
As if this is not enough, we have the second problem of connectivity to the new airport, because of a state government that has been asleep at the wheel. It’s astonishing that we are talking about something as trivial as road connectivity at the 11th hour, four years after the concession agreement was signed, and eight years after the decision to locate the international airport at Devanahalli.
A plea to Manmohan Singh and Praful Patel. When you come to Bangalore on 30 March to “inaugurate” the airport, don’t parachute in like VIPs. Instead, travel like the average passenger, toiling from Rajajinagar through West of Chord Road, battling the trucks across Peenya, getting stuck at the Yeshwantapur railway crossing, stop-starting across the 26km highway stretch sliced by 23 junctions with tractors and bicyclists and pedestrians, before bouncing over a 4km dust-track to finally get to the spanking new airport. Wouldn’t it more fitting if the inauguration were on 1 April?
So, a few weeks in advance, here’s a greeting to Bangalore’s air travellers: Welcome to the most underdesigned, underconnected, woeful piece of infrastructure that is the face of new India to the world. Maybe we can harness a new source of renewable energy in India: “angry citizen energy”. It’s available in plenty, and being replenished every day by our governments.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at ­mobiusstrip@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Feb 11 2008. 12 39 AM IST
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