New Delhi: Facing backlash over his support for privatisation of the Thiruvananthapuram airport, Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from the city, has said the Kerala government is “questioning the very game” it has chosen to play.
“First, the BJP announced the tender, not the Congress, and the Government of Kerala chose to participate in the bidding, under rules they agreed to. After losing in the bid process, they started questioning the very game they had chosen to play. Ask them why they joined the process,” Tharoor said in an email interview to ThePrint.
The controversy erupted last Wednesday, when the Union Cabinet approved the leasing of three airports, including the one at Thiruvananthapuram, to Adani Enterprises. The private developer, led by billionaire Gautam Adani, had emerged successful in a global competitive bidding process conducted by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) last year.
However, the cabinet decision was immediately opposed by both the ruling Left Democratic Front as well as the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala. In an all-party meet called by CM Pinarayi Vijayan Thursday, it was decided that the Kerala government will explore legal options to block the move.
Going against party line
The Congress leadership in Kerala has maintained that it is against the privatisation of the airport, calling the move “deplorable”. Party general secretary K.C. Venugopal, leader of the opposition in Kerala assembly Ramesh Chennithala, and state Congress president Mullapally Ramachandran all expressing their opposition to the move.
The Union Government's decision to award operations of Trivandrum Airport to Adani Group on a 50-year-lease amidst the COVID crisis is a deplorable move. The airport is the state's property, and must not be privatised.
— Ramesh Chennithala (@chennithala) August 19, 2020
Ramachandran last week launched a sharp attack against the Narendra Modi government, asking for the decision to be “immediately withdrawn”. Venugopal labelled the decision “selling out”, and added in a TV interview that Tharoor’s position was only “personal”, and the Kerala Congress leadership’s view was final.
However, Tharoor, the three-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, said he has spoken in favour of privatisation of the airport since Day One, and the state Congress leadership did not consult him before opposing the move.
“I took my stand when the issue first arose in 2018, and I have not deviated from it. It is not a new stand. I was not consulted before the KPCC expressed its views, and I had expressed my opinion a long time ago, which I have merely repeated,” the former Union minister said.
“I have made it clear I am only expressing the opinion of the MP of Thiruvananthapuram on what is good for Thiruvananthapuram, not speaking for the party,” Tharoor clarified.
Private operator will benefit Thiruvananthapuram
Gautam Adani is perceived to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling dispensation, which is seen as one of the major reasons why the Kerala government and the Congress have united in opposing the privatisation of the airport.
However, Tharoor said his position “has nothing to do with Adani”.
“Nor do I particularly care about which industrial group takes over the airport, as long as all parties participated in a transparent and fair process and were subject to the same set of rules and conditions,” the MP said. “The Congress party initiated the first PPP airport projects in India in 2006, in Bombay and Delhi. Their success is evident for all to see and led the UPA to involve private operators in many other airports in the country.”
Tharoor added that “if a private operator, motivated by profit, creates a better airport that more airlines will use, Thiruvananthapuram will benefit”.
“Whoever the winning private party is, the ownership of land and airport, as well as the responsibilities of air traffic control, security, customs and immigration still remain with the government agencies. No one is ‘giving away’ the airport; it is an operating contract, that’s all,” he said.
Tharoor insisted that what really matters to him in taking this stand “is the interests of Thiruvananthapuram, not Kochi or Kozhikode or Kannur”.
“People I represent deserve a thriving and commercially viable airport, an airport that offers world-class facilities and has the capacity to attract strong connectivity via an expanded flight schedule,” he said.
Tharoor also claimed that poor air connectivity has been a “major disincentive” in the development of Kerala’s capital, and claimed that last year, before the lockdown, the number of airlines and flights serving Thiruvananthapuram had declined.
“When more companies move to Thiruvananthapuram, they generate jobs for our people, as well as bring in more employees who will rent your homes, make purchases in your shops, eat in your restaurants and hire your taxis. This is how a city grows and develops,” he said. “The airport is a means to an end. The end is about what will make Thiruvananthapuram develop and flourish.”
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