The site of Mumbai’s future airport is a mess of crocodile-filled swampland, jungle and the odd river.
It is a daunting landscape even by Indian standards, requiring a leap of imagination to see an international airport ever rising out of it.
The Maharashtra state government forecasts air traffic will increase to a staggering 100 million passengers in 2035, from 35 million passengers last year.
The latest estimate of the project’s cost, from the Civil Aviation Ministry, is 167 billion rupees (S$3.5 billion).
“Mumbai is the most constrained airport in the world,” said Mr Bhushan Gagrani, who was appointed head of the City and Industrial Development Corp (Cidco) of Maharashtra last year. “Another airport is a given.”
When that day will come is far from clear. Clearing out the crocodiles is among the very least of the problems.
But there is no other choice in a radius of 50km or 60km, the distance to the swollen heart of Mumbai with its population of 20 million, said officials.
“Even from a simple engineering point of view, building an airstrip on reclaimed land, mudflats and mangroves — it is going to be very unstable,” predicts Mr Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust, an NGO.
“It will start sinking, there will be potholes, and all kinds of things will start happening.”
Such concerns have been dismissed by Cidco, which said it chose the site only after a careful environmental evaluation.
It said the airport will be crucial to the development of Navi Mumbai itself — a fast-growing satellite town with more than one million people — helping to ease the pressure on the narrow peninsula of land that bounds the old city.
‘NOWHERE DOES GREENFIELD EXIST’
India’s long history of inviting the private sector to invest alongside the government in building roads, ports, power plants or airports has not been a particularly happy one for either side.
But officials said they have learnt from the mistakes of the past, pledging that Navi Mumbai will be a new model for joint endeavours.
It will be a private-public partnership where 74 per cent of the equity will be held by the developer and 26 per cent by Cidco.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made upgrading India’s infrastructure a priority.
For Mumbai, a Cidco study shows that every US$100 (S$143) spent on air transport generates benefits worth US$325 for the economy, and every 100 air transport jobs create an additional 600 jobs.
However, Navi Mumbai’s momentum has slowed after Cidco’s bidding process got off to a shaky start this month, with only one bidder submitting a proposal in time for its deadline.
Other challenges loom. The biggest problem for the most ambitious projects in the country has been land acquisition. The difficulty of amassing the land for a new airport is not unique to India, of course.
Indeed, it has proved fraught in countries from Japan to Thailand to the United Kingdom. Japan built the airport that serves the Kansai area on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay — and it is sinking at a much faster rate than engineers expected. But nowhere does the challenge seem as intractable as India.
“Government must take the lead,” said Mr Sanjay Reddy, the son of the founder of GVK, the Hyderabad-based infrastructure company that has a 50 per cent stake in the existing Mumbai airport and is the only company so far to have submitted a bid for the new one. “It is their responsibility to shift the people. Will the government give enough time for everything?”
Procuring land is by no means the only problem.
There are also difficulties in structuring clear agreements between public and private sector interests to avoid disputes and litigation.
Making sure that the road and rail links are built so people can actually reach the new airport is challenging.
The cost of obtaining finance in India is high, making affordability an issue. Besides, securing environmental clearance can hold up projects for months.
That no foreign company chose to bid independently for the project, despite an extended outreach — especially to Singapore’s Changi airport authority — was a blow to the government. Yet it was hardly surprising. Foreign groups have learnt to be leery, particularly when it comes to land acquisition.
Difficulties settling claims with residents were one of the principal reasons Posco of South Korea pulled out of a US$10 billion steel project in Odisha.
When a Warburg Pincus-invested company in Andhra Pradesh chose a site for a port, a preliminary study found 700 residents but in the end the company paid compensation to thousands of claimants.
“Nowhere in India does greenfield exist,” said Mr Gagrani of Cidco.
‘ONLY BUY COMPLETED ASSETS’
Often the land price has gone up well before projects are announced, as insiders acquire land in the expectation that they could sell it on development and make windfall profits.
“A lot of the land for Navi Mumbai has already been cornered,” said the head of one real estate and infrastructure fund based in Mumbai. “Anyone who is anyone has bought land around this project.”
Mr Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust said, “What tends to happen is these guys (politicians) buy the land in anticipation of the project coming through. And they make a killing.”
On some projects, the land became so expensive that the infrastructure company involved had a hard time making a profit.
“The lesson everyone learnt in the previous cycle was never take development risk,” added the real estate investor. “Only buying completed assets is attractive. Once something is built, you can earn a high rate of return.”
Mr Gagrani said, “At airports including Delhi and (the existing) Mumbai, there was a lot of padding of costs. Everything got passed on to the users. The concessionaires in some places get a lot of land and undervalue it.”
There has been some progress. Despite its inhospitable landscape, the Navi Mumbai site is home to 10 villages, and Cidco has obtained 200ha and the consent of about 3,000 households.
It has earmarked 300ha in new plots for the displaced. But there is a wariness on both sides when the public sector negotiates with private companies on infrastructure projects.
“Rules change, the government changes, people change,” said a participant in several Indian airport projects, who has decided not to bid on Navi Mumbai. “There is no consistency.” Regulators will sometimes retroactively change rules, as they did at Hyderabad airport, added the investor, creating cash-flow problems for stakeholders.
“When you build something, with the inflationary environment that we’re in, (the regulators) have been known to strike down or disallow certain costs, which has hurt some previous airport (projects),” said Mr Darshan Hiranandani, managing director of the Hiranandani Group.
Building the infrastructure to connect to the airport brings its own problems, complicated by the fact that there are so many separate parties involved.
In Navi Mumbai, the Airport Authority of India, a central government agency, is in overall charge of the airport itself. But at least five state bodies are also involved. They include one responsible for highway links, another for the rail connection, a separate one for a metro link and a fourth for preparing the land.
“How do we make sure that 15 million passengers (a year) can get in and out of the city efficiently?” asked Mr Hiranandani.
Moreover, infrastructure contracts between the government and the private sector have sometimes been so poorly drafted that they later give rise to legal disputes.
“There are all kinds of grey areas,” said the investor in other Indian airport projects.
There were lengthy disputes in New Delhi over whether revenues from retail businesses in its new third terminal came under revenue-sharing agreements between GMR Industries, the private developer, and the government.
“In the past there was no single regulator,” said Mr Gagrani. “But now there is and developers will always conflict with regulators.”
‘FUNDING IS A HUGE CHALLENGE’
Given these challenges, many infrastructure companies look for ways to mitigate their risk.
Part of their problem is how high the cost of capital is in India — often 14 or 15 per cent — more than twice the typical rate in China.
This means that if the companies get the timetable wrong, debt can become a time-bomb, since the leverage doubles in five years.
Delays have already set in at Navi Mumbai.
First conceived in 1997, Cidco originally approved the project in August 2007.
The Indian Defence Ministry granted clearance to the plan in October 2010, while environmental approval followed shortly afterwards. The deadline for bids was extended until today.
Last year, three bidding groups were shortlisted as project sponsors for Navi Mumbai.
Along with GVK, the list included GMR, the builder of Hyderabad and Delhi airports, and Tata, with the support of Italy’s DaVinci airport. The process was supposed to close in September, but then Hiranandani, in partnership with the Zurich airport authority, successfully challenged its exclusion, bringing the number of acceptable candidates to four.
But only GVK eventually submitted a bid in time for Cidco’s original Jan 9 deadline, forcing it to extend the bidding period.
Yet it is far from clear if any more companies will sign up, given the bidders’ unhappiness about the handling of the process.
“They give you a price, saying your runway should cost X. But we’ve done the maths, it is costing us more,” said Mr Hiranandani.
“So there’s a chance the authority may disallow that as a cost.”
According to one person at fellow bidder GMR, the group was deterred from bidding in part because of the “unrealistic” 41-month development timeline requested by Cidco for work that GMR believed would take seven or eight years.
Insufficient pre-development work had been done, added the person.
And GMR was further spooked by the fact that, of the 3,000 households who will be displaced by the project, fewer than a tenth have so far been rehoused.
The private sector is sparring with the government on how long the preparation of the land will take before construction.
The “ultimate phase”, when the airport will be capable of handling 450,000 passengers a day, is now scheduled for 2030-’31.
Selection of a winning bidder also threatens to be a drawn-out process.
One problem is that GVK, which has the right of first refusal on the new project, is financially constrained.
“Funding is a huge challenge with infrastructure,” said Mr Reddy, speaking generally.
“Banks don’t want new projects. If the cost of capital was lower, then banks would have more risk appetite. The government must take the lead with backing and guarantees.”
Today, the state government continues to tackle the thorny matter of getting further approvals from the environmental and forestry agencies. It estimates that approvals will take 18 months.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra has begun the pre-development work on the land it has acquired and estimates that compacting the land will take two-and-a-half years, a timetable that the bidders are saying is unrealistically ambitious.
In other words, what was meant to be a showcase for the New India will not be ready to claim that title for many years — at best.