Thursday, September 11, 2008

Central delay leaves Kannur airport project grounded

Kannur airport—Kerala’s second greenfield aviation project—has managed to wriggle out of the Centre’s recent two-runways caveat, after the Kerala government started humming a business diplomacy tune.

While the main promoter Leela Hotels group’s firming of technical partnership with Singapore Changi Airport has boosted confidence in the project, the crucial final clearance from Union civil aviation ministry, however, is stuck in a political airpocket.

“It is difficult for a land-starved population-dense state like Kerala to cobble up land for two runways. Civil aviation minister Praful Patel was convinced of this ground-reality, once this case was presented,” M Vijaya Kumar, Kerala minister in charge of aviation said. However, the official process for identifying the partner will be set in motion only after the bidding.

This, again, awaits clearance from civil aviation ministry. Phase I is expected to cost Rs 930 crore. A feasibility report that the LDF government presented to the Centre forsees a swift turnaround period for the project, in the context of the sizeable non-resident Keralite traffic, North Kerala’s tourism potential and the boom in handloom industry in Kannur. The town is the eighth best textile centre in India.

Together three Kerala airports were found to handle the highest air traffic in India. The biggest clouds for the project are in B2P (business to politics) and P2P (politics to politics) areas. While the first is eased, the second one is looming large in the form of a stiffly contested Assembly bypoll in Kerala this week. It does look that to get the sorely needed final clearance, Praful Patel’s NCP and Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan’s CPI-M would have be closer politically.

Achuthanandan is yet to be more than a reluctant fellow-traveller to the NCP in the state’s LDF coalition. Former Congress leader and Achuthanandan’s political beta noire K Karunakaran recently made an entry into the LDF in his new NCP avataar. Praful Patel has publicly announced, “(only) if Karunakaran seeks expediation of Kannur Airport, the project will gain pace.”

The earlier issue was the differences between Achuthanandan and main promotor Leela Group chairman Cap Krishnan Nair over the beach resort in Kovalam. This was ironed out after Nair took pains to make diplomatic overtures with Achuthanandan’s politburo collegues in Delhi.

“Once we are officially given the opportunity, it will take just two-and-a-half years to put a Changi airport-model state-of-the-art aviation infrastructure in place in Kannur,” said Venu Krishnan, executive director, Leela Group.
(CIAL), country’s first greenfield airport, was triggered during K Karunakaran’s tenure as chief minister. Ironically, fate of the new airport in Kannur would also depend on the bargaining stamina of 87-year-old Karunakaran.

Less than 10 years ago, CPI-M top leaders had been in the forefront as the biggest roadblock to CIAL, carrying placards “An airport involving private capital, over our dead bodies.” Achuthanandan is now CIAL Chairman and has vowed to deliver the Kannur Airport dream....

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