The formal approval for the Cochin International Airport Ltd. came 20 years ago in March 1993. Until then a sleepy town with a few industries, Ernakulam metamorphosed into Kochi, a bustling metropolis straining at the leash to leap into the big league. Kochi is, now, home to the State’s film and TV industry, the real estate boomtown set to turn smart very soon, Kerala’s hub for backwater and eco-tourism and host to much more that happened in the last 15-20 years. In this series we celebrate change and the city's change-makers.

The international airport came to change the way the world looked at Kochi, the commercial capital of a State that did not have a fancy per capita income or employment figures. Its history of being pro-communist lent it an out-of-the-world charm because until that time nothing good, including an airport, had happened outside the capitalist world.

The airport revolutionised accessibility to Kochi. A couple of years after the airport was commissioned, National Geographic Traveller magazine named Kerala one of the 50 must-see destinations in the world. Concepts like large shopping malls, international food festivals, large-scale tourism, international convention centres and a booming business in Ayurvedic treatment owe their origins to the international airport.

Fourth largest in India

Cochin International Airport today ranks among the best in India. It is the fourth largest in terms of handling air passengers in the country. The airport handled nearly five million passengers last financial year, an unimaginable rise from less than four lakh passengers nearly 13 years ago.

From being a loss-making entity in its first years of operations (1996-2000) to paying its highest dividend of 16 per cent in 2011-12, the airport has come a long way. There are around 5,500 people directly employed by the airport, which involved a total investment of Rs. 300 croe. It is today a debt-free company, on the verge of a public issue that can raise at least Rs. 1,500 crore from the public.

But the CIAL was just an idea way back in March 1993, when the Union civil aviation ministry gave its formal approval for building a new airport that would serve the city. Nobody took the suggestion from the Union ministry of civil aviation and Kochi’s need for international accessibility more seriously that V. J. Kurien, an IAS officer of the 1983 batch.

“Blessings, a lot of blessings”, went into the airport’s commissioning, says Mr. Kurien, who emerged as the reluctant hero of a saga that involved acquiring 1,300 acres for the project against all odds, fighting around 500 court cases, some of them in the Supreme Court of India and successfully coordinating action among 15 Union ministries and 17 State departments for six years between 1993 and 1999.

Karunakaran’s backing

He, of course, had the political backing of chief minister K. Karunakaran. Mr. Karunakaran was positive even in the face of opposition from his Cabinet colleagues. The chief minister took a bold and unexpected decision on providing state government guarantee for a Rs. 100-crore loan from Housing and Urban Development Corporation. The loan, coming through in 1995 March, provided the financial muscle to the project.

The project had its origin in a desperate situation in which Kochi would have been out of the domestic air travel map of the country because Kochi was being served by an airport belonging to Indian Navy. Nobody wanted to invest in expanding facilities in a naval airport. The National Airports Authority of India said it did not have the money to lengthen the naval airport’s runway to handle the newly introduced Airbus 320s. Cochin Port Trust, its closest neighbour, said the airport should not be expanded because it would then stall the sea port’s expansion plans.

The Railways, which had its lines running close to the naval airport, did not have money to relocate its trunk line. The National Highways Authority of India did not want to find a new alignment for the road to facilitate the expansion of the naval airport. It was at this juncture that, says Mr. Kurien, Madhav Rao Scindia, then aviation minister, suggested that Kochi find a new location for an international airport. The rationale was that changing the road and rail alignments and relocating people in areas neighbouring the naval airport would cost approximately Rs. 80 crore.

The hunt began in right earnest with Mr. Kurien, district collector, Ernakulam, in charge. Several suggestions came up. HMT’s land near Kalamassery, a large tract of land near Edakkattuvayal, a location near Maradu and Pallippuram, near Cherthala, were among the locations. None of them found favour with the National Airports Authority of India, which then plumbed for Nedumbassery, about 30 km north of Kochi.

NRI contribution

Location finalised, the hunt for funding began. NAAI did not have the money, nor did the State government. Mr. Kurien suggested that it could be funded by non-resident Indians (NRIs), who were using international airports like Mumbai to reach Kerala. His idea was that if at least 20 per cent of the 20 lakh NRIs in the Gulf countries at that time pitched in with Rs. 5,000 each, there would be enough money to fund the Rs. 200 crore-project.

The funding pattern was described as “crazy” by senior bureaucrats, including the one who wanted the new company put in charge of building the airport, to be named Kochi International Airport Society (KIAS), so that it could also be expanded into Kurien IAS. It would then be the crowning glory for a foolish idea, the senior bureaucrat had said, Mr. Kurien recalled.

Unwavering stand

The bureaucrat, however, did not waver in the face of the challenges. He was strongly backed by chief minister E. K. Nayanar and some adventurous souls like C. V. Jacob, who made the first substantial investment (Rs. 25 lakh) in a project that nobody wanted to touch at that time. Before him, George Maliekal, an NRI in Germany had sent in a contribution of Rs. 20,000, recalled Mr. Kurien, about the way the public responded to the announcement of the public private sector project, first announced in the second half of February 1993.

At the end of it all he says it was his foolhardy nature — a little rash, a little bold, that made him press ahead with his mission to build Cochin international airport, India’s first PPP project.

Blessings, a lot of blessings, went into the airport’s commissioning

V.J. Kurien

Managing Director, CIAL

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