This is one project that is generating considerable attention even before it could take off. Coming up in the serene settings of ‘god’s own country’, the KGS Aranmula International Airport is attracting as much attention for being the first such private facility as for weathering a storm in the face of opposition from a section of the locals.
The opposition is about use of wet lands, levelling of paddy fields for the runway, and threat to environment.
Project promoter, KGS group, however, does not seem to be unduly worried. “The opposition [to the project] is very minimal. The protests haven’t slowed us,” declares Gigi George, Managing Director, KGS Aranmula International Airport Ltd.
Stating that government projects also face heat, he says that the project, coming up on 700 acres at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, has acquired all required clearances. They include approvals from the Union Ministries of Civil Aviation, Environment and Forests, Defence and Home Affairs besides those from the Kerala government.
On the viability of the airport project, located between the international airports of Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, Mr. George says the idea is not to thrive on diverted traffic. One of the conditions on which an airport project is approved is that two-thirds of the traffic has to be generated on its own. This is possible, he adds, due to the proximity of Aranmula airport to Sabarimala, the second largest pilgrim centre in India that attracted 60 million pilgrims in 2011, and tourist destinations such as Kumarakom and the backwaters of Alappuzha.
A majority of NRI (non-resident Indian) passengers and NRK (non-resident Keralites) passengers of the two existing airports nearby originate within 50 km radius of the upcoming facility. Moreover, it would be serving the four districts of Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki and Alappuzha, which together account for 40 per cent of Kerala’s air traffic.
It will be a privately-owned and managed airport, Mr. George says. The terminal building will be designed to handle 1,000 passengers simultaneously, he adds. The project, which has an initial investment of Rs.2,000 crore, will also comprise shopping malls, star hotels and a multi-speciality hospital.
The State government is likely to pick up a stake in the airport project. “We had discussions recently, and there is a possibility of the State government taking a 10-15 per cent stake,” he says. Getting various government approvals isn’t easy, he argues.
The company also intends to promote the airport as a regional hub to one of the airlines based in the Middle East. “Now, there is no hub for them in India as there is no private airport, and the Airports Authority [of India] could not give permission to one and deny it to another. We have spoken to some of them and everybody is keen,” he replies to a query on the role for Emirates airlines in the project. Air Arabia, he adds, is one of the airlines looking at a hub in India. KGS Aranmula International Airport Ltd. is also confident of Malaysia Airports, the technical and strategic partner for the project, to help in marketing the facility.
The return on investment is expected to be around 18-20 per cent, Mr. George says. Unlike some other private airports, this will not see unnecessary spending, he adds. “We will spend only what is required. We do not want to get into a situation where we spend more and overcharge the customer,” he explains. Operations at the Aranmula airport are expected to begin by the end of 2014. On the opposition, particularly to the levelling of paddy fields for the project, he says such protests are bound to happen. Clarifying that the entire area acquired for the project is not paddy fields, he says, ``In Kerala either you have to bring down hills or you have to fill up paddy fields there is no other go.
There is no flat surface here.” There has been no paddy cultivation in the lands for at least 30 years, he claims. Cultivation is not remunerative, and the State government had declared it as an industrial area.
(This correspondent was in Aranmula at the invitation of the company)