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Praful Patel`s wrong, again

RATIONAL EXPECTATIONS
Sunil Jain / New Delhi May 19, 2008
(c) The Business Standard

Aviation Minister Praful Patel’s outburst against Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia is perhaps not difficult to understand since most people think it was actually Patel who should have been keeping an eye on the delays at the Delhi airport — Ahluwalia’s asking the GMR Group officials who are building the airport to make public their plan to reduce the severe congestion shows up Patel as sleeping on the job. Hence his cute comments about how he was sure Ahluwalia would do his best to address issues of poor roads and sewage that he would no doubt have noticed “in (his) many visits across Delhi and the country”! But what are truly amazing are the other things Patel has written in his widely reported letter to Ahluwalia.

He has, for instance, blamed the Planning Commission for delaying the Delhi and Mumbai privatisation. Even Patel would remember that, while he and other ministers were keen to award the Delhi and Mumbai contracts, the Planning Commission dug in its heels, arguing the marking system was designed to favour the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. When the Planning Commission refused to agree (actually, all it said was its objections should be taken on the record!), the Cabinet Secretary was called in to resolve matters at the level of the secretaries to various ministries. Convinced that the objections raised weren’t as frivolous as being made out, he got Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan to examine things — Sreedharan concurred with what the Planning Commission had said and, using their method, revised the marks for the ADAG bid downwards. As a result, the ADAG bid no longer qualified on technical grounds. When ADAG went to court, arguing it was being discriminated against, the court was also quite critical of how the bias wasn’t caught by anyone else while dismissing the petition.

But instead of taking any action against those who were party to the problem, Patel’s now pointing fingers at the Planning Commission! The international consultants who fudged the markings have not even been blacklisted, nor have they been made to refund the consulting fees given to them — not surprising perhaps, since if this were to be done, chances are they’d squeal on who asked them to do the selective marking!

Patel’s other objection, that the Planning Commission was delaying the modernisation of Kolkata and Chennai, doesn’t hold much water, either. (Interestingly, thanks to the opposition from the Left, the government has gone back on its own proposal that the airports at the four metros would be modernised under the public-private-partnership model — the airports at both Kolkata and Chennai will now be modernised by the government-owned AAI, whose unsatisfactory performance is what caused the need for private players in the first instance!).

What is Patel’s main charge? That, while the AAI is complying with his directions that it plan for 20 years ahead, the Planning Commission wants it to construct a terminal which will cater to traffic projections for just the next few years. In a piece of brilliant writing, Patel said the idea was to not repeat the mistakes made at the time of construction of the present Delhi airport, the plans for which were approved by (under an earlier government, decades ago), apart from the aviation ministry, the Planning Commission! Put that way, it’s difficult not to agree with Patel.

Except all that was being asked was that the AAI build the terminal in a modular fashion. Right now, Kolkata gets around 5 million passengers and the AAI wants to build an L-shaped terminal that can accommodate several multiples of this. All that the Planning Commission is saying is that the AAI should build the ‘I’ leg of the ‘L’ terminal right now and build the other leg after a few years when passenger arrivals reach a certain level. There are two reasons for this. One, building an extra large terminal implies that the fees passengers will have to pay will spiral. It’s worth mentioning here that the high passenger charges proposed at both Bangalore and Hyderabad have become such a political hot potato that the government has had to ask the private promoters to keep them in abeyance for as long as possible, and this is causing large losses to the private promoters (GVK and GMR Groups). The AAI also plans to shut the existing international terminal — again, asking that the terminal be used, perhaps for low-cost carriers, is a sensible one. Even the Delhi airport which is being extensively remodelled plans to use each of the existing terminals.

Also, Kolkata and Chennai won’t be the first airports, either in India, or in the world, to build in a modular fashion. The Hyderabad airport, which the GMR Group is building, started off with planning for 3-4 million passengers and, as its concession agreement tells us, the ultimate capacity being planned is 40 million. The GMR Group is planning it in such a way as to leave the necessary space to add terminal buildings and to expand/build runways as and when required. The same approach is being planned in Delhi and Bangalore. Why this should be such a problem in Kolkata and Chennai is difficult to fathom.

Aviation Minister Praful Patel’s outburst against Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia is perhaps not difficult to understand since most people think it was actually Patel who should have been keeping an eye on the delays at the Delhi airport — Ahluwalia’s asking the GMR Group officials who are building the airport to make public their plan to reduce the severe congestion shows up Patel as sleeping on the job. Hence his cute comments about how he was sure Ahluwalia would do his best to address issues of poor roads and sewage that he would no doubt have noticed “in (his) many visits across Delhi and the country”! But what are truly amazing are the other things Patel has written in his widely reported letter to Ahluwalia.

He has, for instance, blamed the Planning Commission for delaying the Delhi and Mumbai privatisation. Even Patel would remember that, while he and other ministers were keen to award the Delhi and Mumbai contracts, the Planning Commission dug in its heels, arguing the marking system was designed to favour the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. When the Planning Commission refused to agree (actually, all it said was its objections should be taken on the record!), the Cabinet Secretary was called in to resolve matters at the level of the secretaries to various ministries. Convinced that the objections raised weren’t as frivolous as being made out, he got Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan to examine things — Sreedharan concurred with what the Planning Commission had said and, using their method, revised the marks for the ADAG bid downwards. As a result, the ADAG bid no longer qualified on technical grounds. When ADAG went to court, arguing it was being discriminated against, the court was also quite critical of how the bias wasn’t caught by anyone else while dismissing the petition.

But instead of taking any action against those who were party to the problem, Patel’s now pointing fingers at the Planning Commission! The international consultants who fudged the markings have not even been blacklisted, nor have they been made to refund the consulting fees given to them — not surprising perhaps, since if this were to be done, chances are they’d squeal on who asked them to do the selective marking!

Patel’s other objection, that the Planning Commission was delaying the modernisation of Kolkata and Chennai, doesn’t hold much water, either. (Interestingly, thanks to the opposition from the Left, the government has gone back on its own proposal that the airports at the four metros would be modernised under the public-private-partnership model — the airports at both Kolkata and Chennai will now be modernised by the government-owned AAI, whose unsatisfactory performance is what caused the need for private players in the first instance!).

What is Patel’s main charge? That, while the AAI is complying with his directions that it plan for 20 years ahead, the Planning Commission wants it to construct a terminal which will cater to traffic projections for just the next few years. In a piece of brilliant writing, Patel said the idea was to not repeat the mistakes made at the time of construction of the present Delhi airport, the plans for which were approved by (under an earlier government, decades ago), apart from the aviation ministry, the Planning Commission! Put that way, it’s difficult not to agree with Patel.

Except all that was being asked was that the AAI build the terminal in a modular fashion. Right now, Kolkata gets around 5 million passengers and the AAI wants to build an L-shaped terminal that can accommodate several multiples of this. All that the Planning Commission is saying is that the AAI should build the ‘I’ leg of the ‘L’ terminal right now and build the other leg after a few years when passenger arrivals reach a certain level. There are two reasons for this. One, building an extra large terminal implies that the fees passengers will have to pay will spiral. It’s worth mentioning here that the high passenger charges proposed at both Bangalore and Hyderabad have become such a political hot potato that the government has had to ask the private promoters to keep them in abeyance for as long as possible, and this is causing large losses to the private promoters (GVK and GMR Groups). The AAI also plans to shut the existing international terminal — again, asking that the terminal be used, perhaps for low-cost carriers, is a sensible one. Even the Delhi airport which is being extensively remodelled plans to use each of the existing terminals.

Also, Kolkata and Chennai won’t be the first airports, either in India, or in the world, to build in a modular fashion. The Hyderabad airport, which the GMR Group is building, started off with planning for 3-4 million passengers and, as its concession agreement tells us, the ultimate capacity being planned is 40 million. The GMR Group is planning it in such a way as to leave the necessary space to add terminal buildings and to expand/build runways as and when required. The same approach is being planned in Delhi and Bangalore. Why this should be such a problem in Kolkata and Chennai is difficult to fathom.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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