New Delhi, Jan. 31: Airport employees will stop work from 10 am tomorrow in protest against the government awarding Delhi and Mumbai airport modernisation contracts to private parties.
The employees’ forum is not calling the industrial action a strike, which is all-pervasive, but a stop-work without a time limit.
As of now, the indication is that air traffic controllers, who guide planes in and out of airports, will not join the action. Nor would security personnel.
This means that while flights may not be affected, all other airport services ' such as baggage handling, aerobridge, electricity, water supply, air-conditioning, conveyor belt operations, X-ray checks and cleaning ' could come to a halt.
Expecting disruption, the government has kept air traffic controllers, communication experts and technicians of the Indian Air Force on alert in the country’s 20 top airfields. These include the airports in the metropolitan cities.
The Centre also wrote to state governments, requesting them to protect air traffic from getting disrupted. But a state government official said they could do little to keep airport services going in a strike or stop-work.
Civil aviation minister Praful Patel, who earlier in the day announced that GMR-Fraport (Frankfurt airport) had bagged the Delhi airport contract and GVK-South African Airports Mumbai, said “we have made alternative plans” to keep services running.
He also promised to keep talking to the employees’ forum, which is being backed by the Left parties. The employees’ demand is that modernisation should be carried out by the government-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI) alone.
Airlines were not sure how well the “alternative plan” would work and said they would decide whether or not to reschedule flights according to how the situation develops tomorrow.
Earlier in the day, a group of ministers, set up to vet the bids for modernisation, picked GMR-Fraport and GVK-South African Airports as the winners.
Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Airport Developers, which had bid for both, did not get any of the contracts and raised a stink over the process followed for the awards.
Two hours before the bids were opened today, the bidders were informed that tender conditions had been changed. GMR-Fraport was the only one to qualify as a technical bidder and when the bids were opened, it was asked to match the financial offer of Reliance of a 45.99 per cent revenue share for the government.
It was awarded the contract once it agreed to do so. Reliance is questioning, among other things, why GMR was given the opportunity.
“To our utter shock and surprise, substantial changes to the published tender conditions have been telephonically communicated, in strange circumstances, barely two hours before opening of financial bids,” Reliance said.
The threat of stop-work is not the only problem the government faces. There is a strong possibility that aggrieved bidders will go to court.
Patel, who made the announcement after the ministerial group’s meeting, said: “We will go to the cabinet with these awards tomorrow.' We have talked to everyone and I think we have come to a middle path on all issues.”
The Left, which had been demanding scrapping of the controversial bidding process and called it “vitiated”, reacted sharply.
“This sets the stage for a major confrontation,” said Nilotpal Basu, CPM leader in the Rajya Sabha.
Politburo member Sitaram Yechury went several steps further. “The Rajiv Gandhi government had to go because of the Bofors scam and the Manmohan Singh government may also meet the same fate if it goes ahead with its plan to hand over airports to private hands,” he said.
The Prime Minister appealed for cooperation from the Left and other parties for modernisation in the “national interest”.
Patel assured the staff at the two airports that their jobs were not under threat as all of them would be on compulsory deputation for three years. Both bidders had promised to take in 60 per cent of the workforce at the end of three years.
“Another 15 per cent would remain at these airports on our rolls while the rest would be absorbed elsewhere.”