Just past midnight on Friday and quite a distance from the buzz at the international terminal, the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport’s VIP lounge witnessed an unusual ceremony. Attended by four senior functionaries of the Maldives government, the event saw Maldives Airports Company Ltd (MACL) officially taking over the airport from its operator, GMR Infrastructure, which had been awarded a $511-million contract in 2010 by the government of former president, Mohamed Nasheed, to build and operate the airport.
No GMR executive was seen at the ceremony. According to local media reports, the company had been invited to participate, but the company expressed its inability to do so. There was no immediate comment from GMR on the issue, but the local media reported that the company did not do so for legal reasons.
The invitation-only press conference may have been a subdued affair, but there was no shortage of hyperbole. Acting transport minister, Mohamed Nazim, described the night as monumental to the people of Maldives and thanked all for their support in winning the airport back for the people. On the question whether the taking over of the airport from an Indian company would affect the island nation’s ties with India, Nazim said he saw no reason why the Indian government should get involved in a commercial contract.
He, however, was quick to soothe the Indian government’s ego by saying the country’s long relationship with its neighbour was intact and that India was all along kept in the loop.
In a gesture that would do any politician proud, he thanked GMR, which had “worked for the development of the airport”.
The Maldivian President’s press secretary, Masood Imad, today described the handover as very smooth and seamless. He also said all airport workers who wished to stay back after GMR left would be taken on board by MACL. At present, there are 1,663 employees, including 110 Indians. Imad said the government now had the long and difficult task of weeding out corruption and inefficiency.
The two sides have agreed on a three-week transition period before the Maldivians start running the airport on their own.
GMR did not respond on this specific issue till the time of going to the press. Chief Financial Officer Siddharth Kapur had on December 5 said the International Financial Corporation (IFC) had conducted a transparent and robust evaluation process and the company qualified for legal, technical and financial evaluation of the bid.
Imad, however, said the evaluation committee had issues with the GMR-MAHB proposal, and clarified their concerns. “Even after clarifying, the committee did not find the proposal satisfactory. So, on the last day of the technical bid evaluation, the committee failed GMR,” he added.
This was met with much hostility from Halcrow, a consultancy company involved in the process. The committee was pressured to re-evaluate its decision. With five members in the committee, it reconvened, and the decision was to pass the GMR consortium on three-two vote, including the vote of the chair, Imad added.
Kapur said: “Dr Saeed (special advisor to the President) has mixed up IFC with International Financial Center (IFC), being developed at our Hyderabad airport. Halcrow’s master-plan was developed much before the bidding process started and was shared with all the bidders during RFP.”