In the air

After the burst of airport privatisation initiated in the early 2000s, there is now buzz in the corridors of power that the Narendra Modi government is set to privatise several airports run by the government, including the big ones in Kolkata and Chennai. To begin with, the Airports Authority of India, which owns and runs 125 airports in the country, could soon hand over the operation of eight airports to private companies.

Private players already operate airports in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. When the government allowed the takeover of Mumbai airport by GVK and the Delhi airport by GMR Group, and construction of new airports in Bengaluru and Hyderabad as public-private partnerships, it also intended to privatise the airports at Chennai and Kolkata. But strong regional governments and trade unions forced prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh to keep the two cities out of the list.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

The DMK was a powerful member of both the NDA and UPA governments, and party patriarch M. Karunanidhi was against privatisation of any government asset in Tamil Nadu. He put up staunch resistance to the stake sale of Neyveli Lignite Corporation and Chennai airport. He wanted the AAI to modernise the airport.

In Bengal, the Left Front government led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee opposed the move to hand over the Kolkata airport. The first UPA government was dependent on the outside support of left parties, and the decision was left by Manmohan Singh to future governments. Now, the Narendra Modi government is not dependent on any party from Tamil Nadu or Bengal for survival. However, Modi is in good terms with the AIADMK government led by Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who has not voiced any opinion so far on the privatisation of the largest government-owned airport in south India.

The situation is different in Bengal, as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has strong pro-public-sector sentiments. She is also a fierce opponent of Modi. Though she is expected to put up a stiff resistance to any attempt to privatise Kolkata airport, the Centre is confident that the proposal can be pushed through.

The AAI is also considering privatisation of airports in tier II cities like Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow and Guwahati—all in states ruled by the BJP. However, the rules that governed the privatisation and establishment of greenfield airports through revenue sharing more than a decade ago will be changed based on the government’s experience.