Indian infrastructure giant GMR on Monday hosted a groundbreaking ceremony on Hulhule’ for the new terminal of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).
President Mohamed Nasheed, GMR Chairman G M Rao, Malaysia Airports Managing Director Sri Bashir Ahmad and assorted officials dug the first hole for the new terminal in front of journalists both local and Indian.
Aircraft belonging to local airlines flew overhead, with seaplanes from Maldivian Air Taxi and Trans Maldivian Airways dropping flowers onto the newly-reclaimed land.
Addressing the gathered dignitaries, officials, journalists and GMR staff, Rao said the company was conscious that INIA was the gateway to the Maldives.
Thoughout the ages the development of human civilisation had been spurred by transport links, Rao said, promising that the new airport would be a hub for economic development and modernisation.
“Since we have come here the love and affection of Maldivians has been of great comfort to us,” Rao said. “As an infrastructure developer GMR is the custodian of the asset it builds, while the asset belongs to the nation and its people. For the last year, we have fulfilled every one of our commitments to the government of the Maldives, and we intend to respect and fulfill every remaining commitment.”
Dehli Airport was ranked 101 in quality in the 40-50 million passenger category by the Airports Council International in Geneva when GMR took it over, Rao said. “Now it is ranked number four. And soon after completing the new airport at Hyderbad, it was ranked first in the 5-15 million passenger category.”
The bidding process for the airport, which has been attacked by opposition parties in the Maldives, “was awarded in a transparent manner in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank,” Rao said.
“It was a tough global competition, and [the bid] was finally awarded to GMR. It is a privilege to be entrusted with the responsibility for developing the airport, and GMR promises to deliver the airport well with the timeline.”
GMR had begun sending batches of 29 local employees every two months to India for on-the-job training, he said, and had committed to sponsoring 10 students every year to study engineering disciplines in India.
During the political crisis in Egypt earlier this year, “GMR safely transported 160 Maldivians from Bombay to the Maldives in a special aircraft, after they were evacuated from Egypt,” Rao said.
The company had also taken four teachers from Iskander school to India to see best practices in education, Rao said, adding that there were “various other initiatives in the pipeline.”
“Whatever the challenges, we are committed to delivering the promise we have made to your nation. GMR will find solution to every problem,” he said.
In his own address, President Nasheed said he wished to assure GMR that the government was “200 percent behind your contract, and every single other contract the government has signed with any other foreign party in this country. Not just contracts signed by our government, but also contracts that any ruler of the Maldives has signed with any party. We will honour it.”
The opposition aligned Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) recently filed a successful Civil Court case against the government claiming that GMR’s charging of a US$25 airport development charge for departing passengers, as stipulated in the concession agreement, was illegal. GMR took a stock price hit on the Mumbai stock exchange following the announcement.
GMR was also the subject of protests last weekend and a proposal in parliament for local businesses to be “defended” from the airport developer. The Alpha MVKB duty free shop at the airport was forcibly vacated by GMR and Customs officials eight months after GMR’s original notice. Rulings from the Civil and High courts upheld GMR’s right to terminate the shop’s contract, however company CEO Ibrahim ‘MVK’ Shafeeq launched the protest under the slogan ‘Go GMR Go!’.
Speaking to Minivan News, Rao said that the ADC was part of the agreement with the Maldives, and noted that President Nasheed had said the government would honour the agreement.
As for the stock market impact, “We are not working for the stock market, and we are very confident in the government of the Maldives.”
He noted that the developer had had similar experiences with unhappy concessionaires when redeveloping Delhi Airport, and that this was part of the transition process that would be vindicated when the new terminal was opened.
President Nasheed meanwhile also addressed the gathering in Dhivehi, stating that it he wished to impress upon his people “the magnitude” of the occasion in their language.
There were, he said, “people [in the country] who want to go back to the time when the islanders remained locked in their islands, with no [communications or transportation network].”
If the citizens wanted to have the development they desired, Nasheed said, “we have to be connected and think broadly, take ideas outside our islands, outside our atolls, and outside the borders of the Maldives.
”Today you all have heard about the death of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il – that is because you are connected to the outside world.”
“No sincere person” could speak out against developing the airport, Nasheed said.
“More than one million tourists visited the Maldives this year to spend their holiday on the beach – that beach is what we sell in the Maldives. But many years have passed since this airport was first built, and day by day the need to improve the airport and its services has kept increasing.”
Arriving tourists were spending in some cases over US$1000 per night for a bed, and should enter the country through an adequate airport, he said: “the tourists begin their holiday at the airport.”
Nasheed expressed surprise at the hostility to the airport development charge, noting that only a few Maldivians frequently travelled outside the country.
“Why should anyone be worried about paying US$25 to develop the airport from the money they spend on their weekend in Sri Lanka?” he asked.
He noted that the Maldives had always welcomed foreign investors, and that there was no harm in them doing so.
“The gov understands the need for foreign investment and we are aware of the role that foreign investors play in development of this country,” Nasheed said.
“A fair amount of our assets are foreign owned, even now, and today I am happy to say we are again increasing our list of assets by one with the groundbreaking ceremony we are having today.”
The new terminal is due to be completed in June 2014, and will be run by GMR under a 25 year concession agreement extendable for a further 10 years. GMR holds a 77 percent stake in the venture, with the remaining 23 percent held by Malaysian Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB). The US$400 million project is the single largest foreign investment in the history of the Maldives.