After weeks of suspense and drama, Bangalore’s new international airport at Devanahalli, 33 km from the city, has come to life, but the old airport has not ended its life as yet; it has been put on a ventilator for the next three months. “The HAL airport is closed, but the issue is still open,’’ Karnataka’s Infrastructure Secretary V.P. Baligar declared, soon after the new airport opened to passenger traffic on May 24. Implicit in the comment was a hint that HAL airport, too, could coexist with the new one.The Karnataka government, especially its bureaucrats, has never been sympathetic to the critics of the new airport, who are resentful not just of the inadequate connectivity to the airport, but also the proposed permanent closure of the old airport. Located on the east of Bangalore, HAL airport, though small, was ideally suited for IT companies.
Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL), 74 per cent of which is funded by private investors such as Siemens, L&T and Unique Zurich Airport, doesn’t want the old airport to operate. BIAL has so far spent Rs 2,470 crore on the project, and one key commitment it secured while inking the deal in 2004 was that no other airport would function within a distance of 150 km. All this while, the government betrayed no signs of reneging on its word; but one is not sure what line the new government will pursue.
Nevertheless, the officials are talking about renegotiating with BIAL the possibility of keeping HAL open for short-haul flights. The stakeholders in the new state-ofthe-art facility have no option. The Karnataka High Court, hearing PILs filed, among others, by Bangalore City Connect Foundation—a group predominantly of CEOs led by Bosch India’s Joint MD M. Lakshminarayan— has directed the Civil Aviation Ministry, Karnataka Government and BIAL to see if the HAL airport, too, can function.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman of Biocon, sees nothing wrong in a concluded contract being reopened and reworked on fresh terms. “It’s not cast in stone. The agreement clearly goes against public interest and supports private monopoly,’’ she fumes.
Most residents of Bangalore’s Electronic City, which houses several big names in the IT business and is located 55 km away from the new airport, air similar views. “Seeing the long distances one has to travel from the new airport and the traffic congestion that will arise, our IT clients have already told us that they would prefer meetings in Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai,” says T. V. Mohandas Pai, Director, HR, Infosys Technologies. Others say the new airport’s annual capacity of 10 million passengers is inadequate. Albert Brunner, BIAL’s CEO, disagrees. “We can easily handle 14 million passengers at our airport. We want to be a world-class airport, and for that reason, immediately after the airport opening, we go into the next expansion phase.’’ For now, the debate rages on.