On June 13, 2019, after the Thiruvananthapuram airport was put up for auction, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan threw a challenge at the Narendra Modi Government. “The airport rightfully belongs to Kerala and it is not going from our hands,” Pinarayi said in the Assembly.
A year later, on August 24, 2020, the Kerala Assembly unanimously passed a resolution asking the Centre, that too in quite an abrasive fashion, to desist from handing over the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport to the Adani Group.
Now, more than a year later, there is a deafening silence in the Assembly about the Adani Group's takeover, which would happen officially in the early hours of October 14.
Begins with a bang, ends in a whimper
Neither the Chief Minister nor the Opposition, which had in 2020 rallied behind the Chief Minister's aggressive stance, seems disturbed by Adani's arrival.
The takeover has never come up for discussion, not even as a passing reference, in the 15th Kerala Assembly. It looks as if the government was just waiting for Adani to land to wind up their protest.
Back in 2019, it seemed as if Kerala was doing all it could to stall the privatisation of the airport. When competitive bidding was announced, Kerala formed a special purpose vehicle under KSIDC called TIAL (Trivandrum International Airport Limited) to take part in the bid, and had sought the right of first refusal.
The advantage was granted and it meant that TIAL would win the bid even if its quote was lower than even the highest bid provided that the difference was not more than 10%. Adani's bid was 25% higher than TIAL's and therefore Kerala lost out.
Kerala's swift counter moves
Immediately, the KSIDC moved the High Court challenging the Airport Authority of India's (AAI) decision to rope in a private entity to run the Thiruvananthapuram airport. In its writ petition on March 5, 2019, it said the move was not in "public interest".
Simultaneously, the Chief Minister also shot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reminding him of the growing public angst. Pinarayi wrote that “public resentment” would make it difficult for the state to back a “private agency”. Consequently, Kerala refused to sign the State Support Agreement, which still remains unsigned.
Pinarayi cries foul
The chief minister had also called the entire bidding process into question. “The absence of a prior experience clause in the tender document was surprising,” the chief minister said. “Instead an experience in infrastructure development alone was asked for. That the Adani Group, which had no experience in airport development, had won six bids makes the entire process suspicious,” he added.
Kerala also refused to part with 18.5 acres of land required for the development of the second module of the international airport. Fact is, only 50 cents within this real estate belongs to the Kerala government. The remaining 18 acres belong to private landholders. Even government sources concede that Adani has the requisite wiles, and finances, to make private landholders to part with their land.
Twist in the story
However, the government's high-wattage revolt looked hollow when it was revealed that the consultant the TIAL had picked for the airport bid, Cyril Amarchanddas Mangaldas, had deep connections with the Adani Group.
The then Opposition Leader, Ramesh Chennithala, alleged that this was a conspiracy to help the Adani Group to win the bid. TIAL quoted Rs 135 per passenger but Adani assured Rs 168 per passenger. Chennithala also wanted to know why Cochin International Airport Limited was not chosen as the consultant.
Shailaja embarrasses Pinarayi
Now, the Opposition posers, too, have dried up. But there was one potentially embarrassing question about the airport that was posed during this session, and this was asked not by the Opposition but by CPM MLAs K K Shailaja, V K Prasanth , P Nandakumar and Thottathil Raveendran. It was about the meeting the Chief Minister had with Prime Minister Modi on July 13, this year.
The last of the four questions they asked was about the Adani takeover of the Thiruvananthapuram airport. "Have you discussed the need for the centre to drop its move to hand over the airport to Adani, which would go against Kerala's interests," the CPM MLAs asked. Pinarayi's written reply was terse: "Did not discuss."
Pinarayi Vijayan, who in 2019 gave the impression that he would fight to the last to keep Adani away, did not think it worthwhile to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister when he met him on July 13.
The date of the CM-PM meeting is significant. It happened almost on the eve of the original takeover date: July 18. It was later that Adani asked for an extension till October 18.