A day after the Union Cabinet approved the leasing of three airports including the one at Thiruvananthapuram to Adani Enterprises, an all-party meet called by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Thursday decided to explore legal options to block the move, setting the stage for another round of centre-state showdown.
Though the opposition Congress stood with the state government on the issue, party leader and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s support to Centre’s decision left many red-faced. Tharoor, however, said his position on the issue has been consistent from the day one.
“The all-party meet decided to explore all options. We will not allow this to happen. We firmly believe that without the state’s consent, nobody can take over it,” the CM said after the meeting. He also said the state assembly will pass a resolution opposing the takeover.
He had also sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, deploring the move.
Tharoor’s concurrence with the BJP and voices from the industry on the issue has left some Congress leaders upset. Pradesh Congress Committee chief Mullapally Ramachandran has criticised Tharoor’s move without naming him.
“Congressmen can’t support the move to loot a public property by an industrialist close to PM Modi,” he said. AICC general secretary K C Venugopal also slammed the Union government’s decision calling it “a sellout”.
Tharoor said private participation will usher in the much-needed development in his constituency.
“My position on the airport has been consistent from the beginning itself and I stick to it. I am not a politician who says one thing to voters and something else afterwards for political convenience. The reality is that a private entity running the operations competitively is the only way the airport could flourish,” he tweeted.
The state government has been opposing the privatization of the airport vehemently and has fought many legal battles but the courts refused to interfere calling it a policy decision. Last year, the Kerala High Court had dismissed a clutch of petitions including that of the state government and later the Supreme Court also declined to stay the decision.
Last year, the government-owned Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) had participated in the open bid for the airport won by Adani Enterprises. Adani group had quoted Rs 168 per passenger fee, compared to KSIDC’s quote of Rs 135 per passenger fee followed by GMR at Rs 63.
After losing the bid, the CM had written to the Prime Minister asking him not to handover the airport to a private entity citing the successful PPP model of the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) and the Kannur airport. He said the state deserved preferential consideration over the private group taking into account its experience of running two airports and the public interest. He had also pointed out that the bid-winning firm had no experience in running airports, in an indirect reference to the Adani group’s inexperience in running airports, though it manages a number of sea ports in the country.
The Airports Authority Employees Union (AAEU) has also decided to move another petition opposing the handover of the airport before the high court. “Employees were not consulted by anyone at any stage,” said AAEU convenor S Ajith Kumar.
The BJP has responded by accusing the state government of attempting to whip up passion to divert attention from the raging gold smuggling case.
“One of the oldest airports of the country is in bad shape. The CPI(M) and Congress want to sabotage its development,” said BJP state secretary S Suresh. Thirty kg gold was seized last month by customs from a bag addressed to an employee of the UAE consulate, casting a shadow on the government after the CM’s secretary was removed for his alleged ties with one of the main accused.
“The state was consulted on every occasion. It also participated in the bid. Now the CM is crying hoarse as investigating agencies are coming close to his office in the gold smuggling case,” said minister of state for external affairs V Muraleedharan, criticizing, what he called the “new-found bonhomie between the Congress and CPI(M)”.
Built in 1932, the airport currently operated by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) is situated on 638 acres of land allotted by the erstwhile rulers of Travancore. Later, only 40 acres were added to the airport crippling its further expansion. It is one of the few airports in the country situated in the middle of the city.