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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday, October 17, dismissed a Kerala government’s plea challenging the Union government’s decision to hand over the operations of Thiruvananthapuram International Airport to Adani Enterprises Limited, The Hindu reported.
A division of Chief Justice U.U. Lalit and Justice Bela M Trivedi rejected the plea on two grounds. “Considering the fact that the private entity has been in operation since October 2021, we see no reason to entertain the special leave petition. Thus, the appeal is dismissed,” the court said, according to Bar and Bench.
Secondly, it said the airport was handed over to the Adani Group after the company won a bidding process held in 2019 by quoting Rs 168 as the per-passenger fee payable to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) over Rs 135 offered by the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC), according to Hindustan Times.
However, the court held that the question regarding the ownership of the land on which the airport is situated would remain open whilst Adani Group continues to operate, manage and develop the airport for a period of 50 years.
The two-judge Bench also noted that employees have the choice to either stay with the AAI or switch over to the service of the private entity, Adani Group, while dismissing a separate petition filed by the Airport Authority Employees Union.
The matter reached the apex court in November 2020 after the state government’s plea was rejected by the Kerala high court in October 2020. A division bench at the high court had then ruled that the court cannot interfere with a policy decision of the executive regarding privatisation of airports, allowing Adani Group to run the operations of the Thiruvananthapuram airport.
The Pinarayi Vijayan government and other parties in the state barring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for over two years now, have been opposed to the Adani Group taking over the operations of the airport in the state capital even before it became official.
Arguments of the Kerala government
The Pinarayi Vijayan government told the Supreme Court that preference was given to the Adani Group despite the private concessionaire having no experience in managing airports. It said the decision “smacks of arbitrariness”.
It also alleged that the decision to hand over the airport to the Adani group was not in the public interest, alleging that the entire procedure, including tender processes, was “vitiated by malafides” and in violation of the provisions of the Airports Authority of India Act, 1994, and the proprietary rights of the state government with regard to the land on which the Thiruvananthapuram Airport stood.
At this juncture, Chief Justice Lalit asked the Union government representative, additional solicitor general K.M. Natraj, whether it was not prudent to have made ‘experience’ one of the parameters in handing over the airport.
“Running an airport is not like running any other entity. It requires a tremendous amount of experience, expertise and knowledge gained through experience,” Chief Justice Lalit orally remarked during the hearing, according to The Hindu.
In response, the Union government said the policy was arrived at after conditions were fine-tuned following several consultations.
However, the Kerala government charged the Union government with violations. It alleged that the “grant of concession” to the Adani group was in violation of an earlier undertaking by the Union ministry of civil aviation rejecting the proposal of the state government to form a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to take over and run the Airport on a revenue-sharing basis, the Bar and Bench report said.
The state government’s counsel further pointed out that the Kerala government had experience in running airports through its various organisations.
“The Kochi International Airport at Nedumbasserry, Ernakulam, Kerala, which is being operated by Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), a state government-sponsored company, is one of the leading airports world over,” the appeal said while also referring to Kannur International Airport, according to The Hindu report.
“This airport has the most modern and state-of-the-art aviation, other passenger and cargo facilities, which is being operated by the Kannur International Airport Limited (KIAL), another state government-sponsored company, has become operational and is making steadfast progress,” the appeal further added.
It maybe recalled that in August 2021, before the airport operations were handed to Adani Group, Kerala Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a resolution appealing to the Union government to rescind its decision.
“For the last two years, the state has been opposing the move. I have written twice to prime minister (Narendra) Modi. Still, it was handed over to a private entity ignoring the state’s protest…” chief minister Vijayan had lamented last year.