Two days after the Union civil aviation ministry issued a notification directing the closure of the HAL airport from May 23 and the subsequent launch of the Bangalore International Airport (BIA) at Devanahalli, the industry players put up a collective fight on Friday under the banner of Bangalore City Connect Foundation (BCCF) - a non-profit organisation that seeks to unite urban stakeholders outside the government - to demand continuation of the old airport.
The BCCF members slammed both the Centre and the state government for failing to renegotiate with the Bangalore International Airport Ltd (BIAL) on keeping the HAL airport open despite a suggestion from the Karnataka High Court.
The BCCF had questioned the Concession Agreement signed between the government (which have 26 per equity) and private promoters (74 per cent) in July 2004, according to which the HAL airport was to be closed once the BIA commences operations.
The BCCF had cited capacity constraints at BIA and demanded continuation of HAL airport as air traffic has witnessed an explosive growth than what was projected four years ago. But with the BIAL refusing to budge, the BCCF members have decided to launch a demonstration at the HAL airport on Saturday to protest against the governments' failure to convince BIAL.
Addressing a press conference, Biocon Chairman Kiran Mazumdar Shaw said the closure of the HAL airport is detrimental to competitive business edge and is not in the interest of the public good.
"Bangalore's growth momentum can be ensured only by allowing both the airports to flourish. With the government not renegotiating with the BIAL, we are heading towards crisis," she said.
Terming the contract (concession agreement) a fraud, she said it would send wrong signals if amendments were not made.
"The passenger growth projections, on the basis of which the agreement was signed a few years ago, was relevant at that point of time. Now the circumstances have changed and the city which is on a high growth trajectory should be allowed to operate two airports. So there is a case to renegotiate now," she added.
When asked how she would react if her company or another corporate body were to be forced to change any agreement because of external pressure, she replied, "Any agreement is relevant for a given period. It can be renegotiated on the basis of the new set of circumstances".
The BIAL was asking for monopoly status and the people cannot be held hostage to such an agreement, she said and added that a developing country like India cannot afford to close down an existing infrastructure when it is facing infrastructure-related problems.
Joining her, Infosys Technologies Vice-President (human resources) T A Mohandas Pai said the closure of HAL airport would damage Brand Bangalore further.
"The IT industry is already upset with traffic congestion, this would worsen it further. Almost 30 per cent of people from the IT industry in Bangalore travel outside India at least once a quarter. If they spend one or two hours just commuting to the airport, it will be a major problem that will impact the industry's growth in the next five years," he said.
The IT industry in Bangalore, is presently growing at 30 per cent per annum. "If 35,000 vehicles hit the Bellary Road which leads to the BIA, imagine what kind of delays it would cause," Pai said.
Concurring with him, Sudip Bannerjee, former president of enterprise solutions, Wipro Technologies and presently the director of PremjiIinvests, said: "We have already started getting requests from our IT clients seeking meetings in Chennai and other places".
The distance between Electronic City and Devanahalli is 77 km and the journey is bound to be tiresome, he said.
Though the civil aviation ministry said that it has held two rounds of talks on the concession agreement and that the BIAL has refused to allow HAL airport to function, the BCCF members alleged that the government was not effective enough in pushing its case.
Former member of Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) V Ravichandar alleged that 'genuine negotiation' has not happened between the government and BIAL. Instead, it had been a mockery, he said while pointing out that the negotiations did not last more than three hours.
Suspecting foul-play over the decision to advance the launch of BIA to May 23 from the end of the month, Ravichandar said it was done to pre-empt litigations in the court. The High Court will open on May 26 and the Supreme Court is on vacation from Friday, as a result nobody can go on an appeal against the launch of BIA on May 23, he said.
Former chief secretary A Ravindra said public interest has been totally ignored with regard to closure of HAL airport. Though the Karnataka Information Commission recently described BIAL as a public authority and a lot of concessions have been given to the project, the government has meekly surrendered to private holders.
"It is undemocratic to have taken the decision as there is no popular government in place now," he said. Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, recounted how the airport project at Lima in Peru was renegotiated 70 times after it was thrown open for traffic and suggested the civil aviation ministry to make an independent assessment on BIA's capacity utilisation.