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Interview with Praful Patel
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The Financial Express

Sept 17. 2006



ĎThe potential in India is mindblowing. We have just scratched the surfaceí

  SHEKHAR GUPTA: Fifteen years back there used to be four flights between Delhi and Mumbai, and they were all full. Today there are 60 flights, and they are all full. Is it a sign of the change of times?

The kind of change of which is happening in journalism is also being witnessed all around the country. I personally feel that if we donít realise that there is change and we donít adapt to that kind of change, we are not doing justice to whatever we are doing...I was in Belgaum the other day and the kind of awareness there is in the people, the youth, the farmers, that is incredible. A silent revolution is taking place in other parts of the country which we are probably ignoring. None of us realise that Belgaum has four medical colleges, 10 engineering colleges, 20 pharmacy colleges, 12 dental colleges...So, what is happening around us in our country, the restlessness is coming along with that. I guess people want to see their aspirations met someway or the other. The younger generation is more restless...That is one major thing that has to be addressed. Why do people say that this government is not good or that one is not good? Anti-incumbency happens when there is a mismatch between the pace of change of growth and the pace of change in governance.

One single thing that has changed India or the way world looks at India is the telecom model. It is the silent, single, biggest contributor to the change in India and in integrating the country. Internet is also sweeping across the country. In my constituency Gondia in Maharashtra, the eagerness in a small Adivasi village, Ashramshala, to have Internet and browse has become ingrained. A great churning is taking place and none of us is understanding the gravity of the issue. On one side, itís a great challenge and opportunity and on the other, it is huge problem. Almost insurmountable at this moment going by the pace of reform and pace of development. We cannot be happy saying we are growing at 8% because this growth is not meeting the aspirations of our people or the requirements of change which are there in our country.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: To put a perspective there, we are growing at 8% but the world is growing very rapidly. After having grown so far for so many years, 8% is not good enough for India because it will create a huge aspirational gap?

In aviation, when I look at infrastructure, there is no infrastructure in the classical sense. We have runways, terminals, some landing aids but if you look at the other infrastructure, there is nothing. Take Amsterdamís Schiphol airport. One out of 10 people living in Amsterdam is employed at the Schiphol airport. There are 1,25,000 people working on this airport. Itís completely a world on its own. In Dubai, they are already building a second airport whereas the first one itself is being expanded. In the last one year, I have not been able to buy an aerobridge because of the processes, forget making a building. Tenders have been called and scrapped twice for different reasons. Thatís why I feel joint ventures are the best way to try and resolve some of these issues. Our systems are not designed to handle large infrastructural projects because the left hand doesnít know what the right hand is doing. So now we are mandating turnkey projects in the works to be executed by the Airports Authority of India.

GAUTAM CHIKERMANE: What stops you from changing these processes, since you are the man at the top?

Within my ministry, I am short-circuiting these processes by going in for turnkey projects. Regarding Terminal 1B at Mumbai airport, so many people have written to the CVC and CBI. Anybody who is aggrieved lodges a complaint with the CBI. I am not saying these institutions are not required but there should be some parameters for entertaining or not entertaining a complaint. Why should anonymous letters be entertained? A lot of people in the government are worried about taking bold decisions for the fear of being pulled up by these agencies. A CAG report comes after two years. By that time everything is done. It only makes a headline. Has anyone done anything on a CAG report?

When Air-India and Indian Airlines planes were being bought, two senior bureaucrats told me that they got the shivers signing on the Rs 42,000-crore purchase. I went to the Prime Minister and got a committee instituted which negotiated directly with the aircraft manufacturing companies. We then sat across the table with both Boeing and Airbus and negotiated the deal. Similarly, I wanted an expert group of Ministers for the airport because the more people you involve in a decision, better you can discuss and resolve issues.

MANINI CHATTERJEE: Do you think the proposed amendment in the RTI Act will make the decision-making process worse?

In our over-enthusiasm and eagerness to have transparency we should not destroy institutions. The Government is not wrong there. We have to be practical. I see people getting scared of taking decisions. Making file notings public will increase that fear.

GAUTAM CHIKERMANE: How do we bring accountability then?

The amount of pressure of the public eye and media has made people wary of taking decisions. There is pressure on people not to do wrong.

PRANAB DHAL SAMANTA: There is major congestion in metro airports. Is there talk about telling new airlines that they canít operate exclusively from these airports?

We had the China model wherein you build the infrastructure first and the demand follows. What we have done is expand the demand so that there is pressure to build infrastructure. In India, infrastructure is a non-starter. What we are making is not good enough for today. There is a growth of 51% in the domestic sector this year. With infrastructure, this can go higher.

PAMELA PHILIPOSE: As a politician, how do you deal with problems like slums coming in the way of expansion of the Mumbai airport?

I could not have done it through the AAI for the simple reason that my processes were self-defeating. Every time, I had to pay money to clear a jhuggi ...At Mumbai airport, we can handle twice the existing traffic without causing any major upheaval. It is just a question of handling it right. In Mumbai, you give a slum to a builder, he actually makes money out of it. Even after paying off and rehousing people. We tried to do this through the AAI but couldnít achieve anything. We paid Rs 25 crore for removing 300-400 huts and still couldnít remove them. You have to find new solutions where you are in the ambit of the government and yet think innovatively.

SANGHAMITRA MAZUMDAR: What are the problems in modernisation of Mumbai and Delhi airports?

Mumbai is a difficult airport. When we went in for the joint venture, we went in with the conscious decision that the second Navi Mumbai airport will have to come up. The Navi Mumbai airport has been cleared by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and weíll go in for the bidding next year. Delhi airport has the potential to go up to 80 million passengers from the current 15 million. It will have four runways eventually. But in Mumbai, a second airport was always envisaged.

PRANAB DHAL SAMANTA: Doesnít Kolkata need a second airport?

The question is what happens to the current airport. Will a greenfield airport be viable there when the existing airport has the capacity to handle traffic for the next 10-20 years? However, as Government of India, we will not come in the way of a second airport for Kolkata.

NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: What about regional connectivity?

There is a need to have redistribution of traffic patterns in India. Everything cannot be Delhi-Mumbai centric. Around 70 per cent of Indiaís air traffic until two and a half years ago was only moving to Mumbai-Delhi and then elsewhere.

Today, that figure has come down to 55% and it will go down further. There are airports across the country which are not operational. We want to promote airlines with smaller aircraft, 80-seater and less, flying from a single metro within a region. We will give them sops although we have not frozen the period for the same. Sops will include free landing, parking and route navigation so that it makes it more attractive for them.

SONU JAIN: We hear so much about airlines running into losses but still offering cheap tickets. Is this to stay?

Competition, in the true sense, has just started. Everybody just wants to make their presence felt. It has to stabilise at some level because ultimately, everybody is there to make money. At some stage, fares will level. It will not be complete madness.

This year, airlines have gone through a bad patch because of fuel prices. Pricing has a direct correlation to the number of people travelling. The only silver lining in India vis-ŗ-vis the world is that other markets are stagnant and we are growing at 50%. I keep cautioning people not to trip over each other in their over-enthusiasm to build market shares.

SONU JAIN: How much has Indian Airlines lost from reducing fares in the wake of competition?

Indian Airlines has a problem of frozen capacity. Their flexibility is very limited. They are not so much affected by fares as rising fuel costs. They are facing the heat of the competition without having the flexibility to adapt and change around too much. Other airlines play around with things while IA is in a fixated mould for whatever reasons.

COOMI KAPOOR: How is that your dynamism has revolutionised the civil aviation industry but not the national carrier?

The national carrier is an area of concern because of old planes. The past two and a half years have seen aviation firming up the world over. As a result, leasing of planes, which was a stop-gap interim arrangement, has failed. They have not been able to get planes and the few we got are really old. Today, we are in a quandry since we donít have replacement for some aircraft leases which are due to expire in November this year.

AMITABH RANJAN: What do you see as the way forward?

The potential in India is mind-blowing. We have only scratched the surface. We have 235-240 planes currently. This will go up to 1,000 planes within seven-eight years.

It is good that Delhi and Mumbai airports are not ready as of now as this will force people to explore new routes. My firm conviction is that Goa, Port Blair and Agatti (Lakshadweep) can be our answers to places like Seychelles, Mauritius, Bali and Phuket.

We have the most beautiful beaches and we are in the same areas as them. Why not use our own natural assets? Why canít Lakshadweep get the same business as Male?

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: How does the NCP second-rung leadership see the arrival of Supriya Sule?

We have to throw up new leaders. Supriyaís coming will add to our young leadership.

Nobody in the party is being scuttled because another one is growing. Sharad Pawar is not one of those who will put his family first before anything. He has not imposed her on us.


-- Edited by karatecatman at 13:49, 2006-09-17

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