Bangalore: The opening of a new airport in Bangalore, scheduled for the wee hours of 23 May, could get delayed yet again after a two-judge bench of the Karnataka high court asked for the minutes of a government meeting last week which decided that a city airport be closed down to make way for operations at the new one. The airport opening has been postponed twice already.
The court decision comes in the wake of charges that the state and Union governments are hurrying through with opening of the new Bengaluru International Airport before the court, which is hearing a public interest litigation against the closure of the city’s existing airport, reopens on 26 May. The court is on a summer break until then.
A meeting of Union government and Karnataka state officials with representatives of the Bangalore International Airport Ltd, or Bial, the new airport’s developer, at New Delhi on 12 May decided that the existing airport, run by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, or HAL, be shuttered keeping with a 2004 agreement with the Siemens AG-led developer.
File photo of an Air Deccan aircraft at the Bengaluru International Airport, which is scheduled to open on 23 May (Photo by: Hemant Mishra / Mint)
On Tuesday, the litigant, Bangalore City Connect Foundation, or BCCF, filed a petition before the vacation bench of the high court demanding a stay on closure of the HAL airport until the court resumes on 26 May. The vacation bench that hears urgent pleas when the court is on vacation will take up the BCCF plea for hearing on Thursday, the midnight of which the new airport is to open.
BCCF said it has asked for the minutes of the “renegotiation” meet held between Bial, the civil aviation ministry and the Karnataka government, for clarity on how the decision was taken. “How can (such) a decision be taken in three hours, when they took months to negotiate the contract?,” asked V. Ravichandar, member of BCCF and chairman of Feedback Business Consulting Services Pvt. Ltd, a market research firm.
BCCF, he said, would lobby top Union government functionaries such as the prime minister and wanted the government to conduct an independent traffic study that, he hoped, would reveal the need for two airports in the city.
The promoters of the Rs2,470 crore project, sorely needed in a city that is a crucible of explosive economic growth as also sagging infrastructure that blights India, face charges of being greedy. BCCF, a citizen’s body, has said the city’s existing airport need not be shuttered because the new airport may run full capacity in a year of operations due to increased air passenger traffic in Bangalore, driven by a boom for tech services providers based in Bangalore.
“People ask us why we were silent in 2005 and now raise this issue (of over capacity). We don’t want to be asked the same question in a year’s time (when the capacity is full),” says M. Lakshminarayan, chairman of BCCF, who is also the joint managing director of Bosch India Ltd, the local unit of German auto component maker Bosch Group.
(Ramesh Ramanathan, a co-founder of Janagraha, a citizen’s group, and a Mint columnist, is a general secretary of BCCF.)
BCCF wants the government to renegotiate the contract to retain the HAL airport and questions the timing of the airport opening in absence of a government in the state as also the court’s vacation. Karnataka is in middle of a three-phase election to the state’s legislative assembly, the results of which are expected on Sunday.
“We work in multinational companies and we know that contracts have to be honoured. But in this case, the (air traffic) situation has changed since the agreement was signed,” says Lakshminarayan. “Here we are talking of public interest”.
G.R. Mohan, an advocate who has filed a petition not related to BCCF in the Karnataka high court, has argued that Bial will not suffer revenue losses because it had made its revenue projections on nine million passengers, which had already been exceeded at Bangalore. Last year, the HAL-run airport is estimated to have handled more than 10 million passengers.
On 21 February, Bial, which expected the airport to open on 30 March, projected passenger traffic to grow 30% to 13 million in the first year of operations. BCCF says the airport at Devanahalli, 35km on the city outskirts, which currently has just one runway of 4km, may operate at full capacity in a year of commencement of operation.
Last July, Albert Brunner, chief executive of Bial, had said the firm was planning an additional runway a decade ahead of its plan, or by 2014, when it plans to touch passenger capacity of 18 million.
With nearly 30% of traffic to Bangalore on smaller planes such as ATRs, one that carries less than 70 people, the runway capacity could be full, said a person with familiarity of airports in India who did not want to be named.
Bial declined fresh comment on the issue on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KRV), or Karnataka Protection Front, a local outfit that says it promotes the Kannada language and culture, said it will hold a protest rally in Bangalore on Wednesday calling for, among other demands, the airport opening on 23 May be put off until a popular government comes to power in the state.
KRV, known for violent outbursts over local issues, has assured of a peaceful protest on Wednesday, urging Bial to give jobs for family members of farmers on whose land the airport is built and usage of Kannada along with English on signages. On Thursday, KRV said, farmers from the 15-odd villages nearby will barge into Bial premises.
“Only through an elected (local) government can we ask that our interests be protected,” says B. Sanneerappa, a KRV spokesman.
People hailing from Karnataka form over half of Bial’s worker strength of 473 people and it would hire more locals as it expands, Bial said in a statement.
KRV also wants the airport to be renamed on the founder of the city, Kempe Gowda. Taxis would be off roads after a local taxi association said it would join the protest demanding jobs for local drivers. Bial is a joint venture of Siemens, Unique Airport that manages Zurich airport in Switzerland, and India’s largest engineering firm, Larsen and Toubro Ltd. The Karnataka government and the public sector Airports Authority of India hold minority stakes in the company.