PPP is where the Public is a puppy of the Private

RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: As if to prove the old adage that the shortest route to a man’s heart is through his stomach, both the stories churumuri has put out on the Bangalore International Airport have been about food. Not surprising perhaps for a site named after a snack.

The first story, by Arun Padaki, on the need for restaurants and outlets in the new airport to dish out local cuisine like Mysore pak and jolada rotti; and the second, an anonymous piece, taking potshots at Kannada activists demanding that ragi mudde be served on planes taking off from the new hawai adda.

I suppose adult men have their little kinks and are free to exhibit them, but with less than two months to go before the first planes take off and land, surely there are more important issues of the mind, body and State than these admittedly important issues of the heart, about the new airport?

Some of the issues confronting the airport have been obvious for a while now:

1) With just weeks left, the approach road to the new airport is not ready and is not going to be. Eight years after it was decided to locate the new airport at Devanahalli, and four years after the concession agreement was signed and real work began on it, somebody forgot to build a clean, fast, well-lit road.

As Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha writes in today’s Mint, it would be fitting if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he comes to inaugurate the new airport, drives down to it instead of parachuting into it by helicopter like all VVIPs fearful of reality:

“… 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.”

How could three State governments—of S.M. Krishna, Dharam Singh and H.D. Kumaraswamy—of one of India’s most reform-minded States have ignored this small detail, when none of them could ever utter the letters IT without suffixing it with BT?

And how could the international airport authorities themselves? Are they already counting their cash so as to care about passenger amenities and comfort? Was N.R. Narayana Murthy oversensitive to quit as BIAL chief when H.D. Deve Gowda questioned his contributions, or just smart given the kind of bozos he was dealing with?

2) The second issue is of capacity. The single runway at the new airport was planned to service 10 million passengers per annum, a figure which consultants said would be reached by 2010. That figure was expected to go up to 11.3 million passengers per annum by 2015.

As Ramanathan writes, with Bangalore passenger traffic having already crossed 10 million in 2008,

“…the new airport will be running to 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.”

However, both these issues pale in front of what I believe is the stunning arrogance of a project that is billed as India’s first “Public-Private Partnership” airport towards the greater common good—of the public not the private.

The first is BIAL’s insistence that the existing HAL Airport be closed as per the terms of the contract that no new airport shall be operational in a 150-kilometre radius. If this is truly a “Public-Private Partnership”, how difficult is it for the State, as an instrument of the Public, to alter the terms of the contract to allow the old airport to function till at least a second or third runway is built at the new airport?

More importantly, when even a nursery child knows that India needs more, not less, infrastructure, who are the netas and babus—and industry visionaries—who willingly allowed existing infrastructure to be shut down in a manner which is only designed to help the consortium to rake in millions while a City bleeds?

If BIAL refuses to allow the old airport to function, are Bangalore’s titans—Narayana Murthy downwards—who are always wailing about infrastructure, willing to go on, say, a hunger strike in the name of the City?

The second issue is of “user development fees” which the Bangalore International Airport proposes to levy from all passengers taking off from the airport. “User development fees” for an airport without a connecting road is an obvious irony, and BIAL wants to fleece Rs 675 from each embarking domestic passenger and Rs 955 from each international passenger. Even if 5 million passengers take off, that’s a sizeable number per annum.

And this when the new Hyderabad International Airport, which will open just a few days before Bangalore’s, has expressly decided not to charge any such “user development fees”. Appeals from the Civil Aviation Ministry to BIAL not to levy the user fees have fallen on deaf ears, quite unlike in Hyderabad where the developers, the desi GMR, has decided to acquiesce. Why?

Yes, local food and local jobs are valid issues, as I am sure the local language on the signboards will soon be, but surely we need to discuss how in a so-called “Public-Private Partnership” all the advantages seem to be so weighted that only the private partners seem set to have all the fun at the expense of the public partners?

As Ramesh Ramanathan writes aptly:

“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.”