Bangalore/ Hyderabad: Suddenly, Mohammed Saleem finds himself vulnerable.
For the last decade, he has worked as a parking attendant at the Begumpet airport—the current airport in Hyderabad— for about 10 hours a day, earning Rs5,500 monthly.
“I have been living in a small rented house in Rasoolpura,” near the airport, says the barely literate father of four. “I have started having nightmares ever since I learnt that Begumpet airport would stop operations from 15 March.”
The journey to airports opening in the suburbs of Bangalore and Hyderabad poses a potential headache not just for airline passengers, but also for the workers who make up the ecosystem of air travel.
For some 2,500 workers contracted for tasks from managing parking lots to clearing trolleys at Begumpet, the formal inauguration of the new airport on Friday by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi ushers in an uncertainty dreaded for many months. They will be forced to commute long distances, through areas where roads remain rough let alone public transport available. Some will uproot families to keep earning their salaries, but say the families will pay a steep price by losing access to good schools and a familiar rhythm of life.
Uncertain future: K. Somanna, taxi driver (top) and Rama Naik, trolley retriever, at the old airport in Bangalore. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/ Mint)
Much is at stake for the airport developers, who rely on such workers to ensure operations run smoothly. Hyderabad’s new airport, for example, has been touted as an example of the ability of a homegrown infrastructure developer, southern business house called GMR Group, to build a worldclass aviation hub.
The new airport, run by GMR Hyderabad International Airport Ltd (Ghial) on the city’s Shamshabad outskirts, begins operations after midnight on Sunday.
Some 500km south-west of Hyderabad, a new airport at Bangalore promises similar fate to the likes of K. Somanna, a 33-year-old cab driver. Years of assured returns from running his cab under a pre-paid taxi scheme at the current airport run by Hindustan Airport Ltd (HAL) encouraged Somanna to buy a car on loan in 2006.
But, by 10 May, when the new airport north of the city, run by Bangalore Airport Authority Ltd (Bial) at Devanahalli, opens, Somanna, who is a graduate in arts, will have to look for a new employer because the current one, the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation, lost the bid to run the taxi service contract at the new airport named Bengaluru International Airport.
Somanna apart, most among the 3,000 workers contracted at the HAL airport stand to lose jobs because Bial—as also Ghial in Hyderabad—has chosen other concessionaires for activities such as ground and baggage handling, cleaning stands, etc.
Contract workers are not the only ones angsty. The main worker group at the government-run Airports Authority of India (AAI), the country’s airports regulator which owns and runs most of its airports through an eponymous unit, went on a strike for two days against the closure of the Begumpet and HAL airports. The workers ended the strike late on Thursday evening.
The unsaid subtext to the strike was that AAI employees may lose jobs or get transferred. Stanley Sampath Kumar, secretary of the Airports Authority Employees’ Union in Bangalore, says that “nothing has been spelt out yet” about whether their services would be required or not. (At the New Delhi and Mumbai airports, both under private management since 2006, AAI employees still have an option whether to join the companies or continue with AAI.)
At Hyderabad, the road ahead is clear just for half the 472 AAI employees as of now. “Close to half of the (total number of) employees here would be posted at Shamshabad and we are yet to receive instructions from our headquarters on what needs to be done with the rest of the staff,” says R.K. Singla, director of AAI at Hyderabad. A large number can be retained if the Begumpet airport is allowed to run non-commercial operations such as defence aircraft and VIP movement, he said last week. (On Wednesday, civil aviation minister Praful Patel said in New Delhi that the Bangalore and Hyderabad airports would be kept open for non-commercial movements.)
But GMR says the new airport is creating jobs. “You should appreciate the fact that against around 4,000 odd employees, both contract and permanent, now working at Begumpet airport, we have created around 8,000 jobs at Shamshabad airport,” says Kiran Kumar Grandhi, chairman-airports, GMR Group.
Some employees working in Begumpet have been hired by the companies that have been awarded contracts at the new airport based on their experience and skill, he said.
Those moving to man operations at the new airports are equally worried because their work timings will now get stretched and transport expenses potentially shoot up, thanks to the increase in commute times: Shamshabad falls some 25km away from Hyderabad while in Bangalore, the new airport is 36km away from the centre of the city.
Around 400 AAI employees will have to travel to the new airports from their homes in Hyderabad and Bangalore daily. Since they lived within the city limits, most of them went to work in their own vehicles. Commuting will be expensive and difficult from now, and the AAI, like most airlines, is planning to have bus services to ferry their employees in both the cities. The commute in both places is estimated to take two hours one way.
“We may have two 12-hours shifts a day as against the three shifts earlier,” says an AAI officer at Bangalore requesting anonymity since he is not allowed to be interviewed by the media. The AAI has asked the Karnataka government for land to build residential quarters at Devenahalli, but the employees are quite certain it would be some time before the plan materializes. Airline staff at Hyderabad and Bangalore, too, are bracing for longer workdays. Mohammed Zaheeduddin, who works with the low-cost airline IndiGo and stays near Begumpet, says: “It hardly takes 15-20 minutes for me to reach the airport on my bike now. Now, I may have to start at least two hours early to reach Shamshabad.”
State-owned National Aviation Co. of India Ltd, which runs the Air India airline, has 1,270 employees working at Hyderabad and it plans to shift around 500 employees to the new airport. Engineers and technical staff would be shifted once maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities are ready.
“We cannot think of shifting to a house near Shamshabad airport since our two children studying in a school in Begumpet,” said the wife of an Air India employee, asking not to be identified. “There are no good schools around Shamshabad as of now,” she said.
K. Raghu and Tarun Shukla contributed to this story