In Kerala, they have their heads in the clouds and eyes on non-residents. A fifth international airport—and India’s first wholly private one—is coming up in a state where no highway is more than half as wide as the National Highways Authority of India’s standard minimum of 60 metres. No other state in the country has as many international airports. Tiny Kerala, where narrow roads are the norm due to lack of land, clearly bets its future on its vast army of non-resident Keralites whose remittances account for 31% of the state’s GDP. The new airport is coming up at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district.“It’s going to be the most state-of-the-art airport in the state, with two runways and a taxiway,” Gigi George, managing director of the Chennai-based KGS Group, the airport’s promoter company said. George said the company has got every clearance in hand and 750 acres have been acquired for the project. The Aranmula airport will be close to multiple tourism destinations such as Kumarakom, the backwaters of Alappuzha, and the high ranges of Kumily, the Thekkady tiger reserve, and most of all, the pilgrimage centre of Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Pathanamthitta district.
Kerala has international airports in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode and Kochi, the last being a joint sector project. Another international airport is being developed under public-private partnership (PPP) in Kannur.
Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation Executive Director TP Thomaskutty said the Aranmula airport project would be presented at the forthcoming ‘Emerging Kerala’ global investor meet in September. He said KGS Group had got some of the clearances for the project. Everybody is not convinced about the viability of a fifth airport in one of the tinier states in the country.
“There are limits to Kerala’s air traffic growth, because it’s not an industrial economy. Road development in the state would serve more people better,” said Abraham Joseph, a retired project engineer of Nedumbassery airport in Kochi, who has been associated with two other airports. “Even the Kannur airport is one too many in the area, considering the Kozhikode and Mangalore airports are close to the proposed airport,” he said.
KGS Group’s George counters this with statistics showing that Kerala’s air traveller numbers have multiplied from 2 million in 2004 to nearly 10 million a year now, and said there is no slowdown yet in the pattern of Keralites’ migration. The number of domestic air travellers is also on the rise. In fact, George said his company would focus on the market potential of attracting well-off pilgrimage tourists from different parts of the country to Sabarimala.
The KGS Aranmula International Airport project has an outlay of Rs. 2,000 crore, with a 1:1 debt-equity ratio. The first phase of the project is expected to cost Rs. 750 crore. The project has Malaysia Airports as its technical and strategic partner. KGS Developers, in which Anil Ambani’s Reliance Capital and Reliance Infra hold a 15% stake, expects the first flight to land at Aranmula in less than two years. Although George said the company has got all necessary clearances, the project is still facing opposition from local environmental and social activists. “The area is a wetland, and a flood-plain region for the seasonal flooding of the Pampa river, there are paddy fields, too,” said NK Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of Pampa Parirakshana Samithy, an environmental organisation leading the agitation against the project. But even Nair admits that all political parties, including the Left, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, seem to be in agreement in allowing the promoters to realise the project. That is a rare consensus in a land known for its hartals and political violence. Curiously enough, another case of that rare political unity was two years ago when the opposing fronts petitioned the Centre for exempting National Highways in the state from the highway authority’s standard minimum width of 60 metres.