Pinarayi dares Modi to send Adani. But can Kerala seriously defy Centre's airport authority?

In an open challenge thrown at the Centre, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that the state government would not cooperate with the decision to hand over the Thiruvananthapuram Airport to Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL) on lease for the next 50 years.

The Chief Minister first declared his intent to mount a non-cooperation fight in a missive shot off to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 19, and later, on August 20, amplified his call for defiance during the all-party meeting he had convened.

"Whoever takes over the airport cannot run it without the cooperation of the state government. The state's support is essential for all development activities," the Chief Minister told the all-party meeting. Adani, too, was served a warning. "I don't think anyone with a basic understanding of business will want to operate the airport by rubbing the state the wrong way," he said.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, despite his simmering differences with Pinarayi on a spate of issues, offered full support. Except for the BJP, all other parties in Kerala rallied behind the Chief Minister. The BJP's representative, George Kurien, was the sole voice of dissent at the meet.

There is also a plan to introduce a joint resolution against the private takeover of the airport in the Kerala Assembly.

The anti-Adani solidarity is so strong that when Thiruvananthapuram's Congress MP Shashi Tharoor restated his former position in favour of handing over the operations to a private entity, he earned the wrath of even his party colleagues.

Weaponising land

Aviation experts feel that that a state government can put up only a limited show of defiance. "Land acquisition is the only role given to states in airport development. A state's only job is to provide free land for airport development and that, too, free of legal encumbrances. The implied threat in the Chief Minister's words is that his government will not hand over the 18.5 acres the airport desperately needs for development," a top Airports Authority of India (AAI) official said.

The design of the new airport had a twin module; the international and domestic terminals were to come up as mirror images. As it stands, only the international airport part has been completed. The one half had come up on 23.57 acres.

The state-of-the-art domestic terminal is waiting to come up in 18.5 acres near the international terminal.

Adani's advantage

It is this land that the government has now threatened to deny Adani. Fact is, the airport has been given on lease for 50 years to the private entity to operate, manage and develop the aerodrome.

"Develop is the operative word here. This gives the private entity the power to do anything within the law to achieve their development plans and this includes the right to enter into direct negotiations with the land owners," a former AAI official who had helmed five major airports in India said.

"It is true that many are now opposed to the acquisition ostensibly because a private party has taken over but there are others willing to part with their land. Even the recalcitrant others can be made to yield if the right price and right assurances are given," the former official said.

Tucked inside this this 18.5 acres is a small patch of 50 cents owned by the state government. "Of course, the Kerala government can refuse to part with this land. They can do nothing more," the former official said.

Kerala's trump card

Trivandrum international airport
A general view of Trivandrum International Airport in Thiruvananthapuram. Onmanorama/File photo

Even state government officials Onmanorama talked to said the state government derived its bargaining power solely from land.

However, a top official also pointed out that it was not just 18.5 acres that the airport requires. "A domestic terminal alone will not complete the development of the airport. It has many associated operational requirements, like the extension of the Runway End Safety Area (RESA), which still remains to be fulfilled. The original need was for 120 acres, and 23.57 acres were transferred for the international terminal. Even assuming Adani gets the 18.5 acres by luring the land owners, what about the nearly 80 acres the airport would still require? This is where they would require the state's support," the official said.

Land transfer: favour or duty

In his letter to the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister, while stating that 23.57 acres were transferred to the Airports Authority of India for the construction of the international terminal, stressed two points. He said: one, it was free of cost, and two, it was given on the condition that the value of the land would be considered as the state's share in the special purpose vehicle that would be set up.

The AAI official said transferring land free of cost for airport development was the state's duty. "Under aviation law, it is the state's obligation, not a favour. Therefore, it can never be conditional either," the official said.

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