‘It was a huge challenge to get people out (for the airport). It was like doing an open heart surgery on a runner during a marathon’

The new terminal at the rebuilt Mumbai international airport has put it in the category of one of the finest airports in the country.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: January 14, 2014 3:52:02 pm
The father-son duo of GVK Group behind Terminal-2 tell  The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, on NDTV 24X7’s Walk the Talk, about the problems they faced, and the art that puts their airport apart. IE The father-son duo of GVK Group behind Terminal-2 tell
The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, on NDTV 24X7’s Walk the Talk, about the problems they faced, and the art that puts their airport apart. IE

The new terminal at the rebuilt Mumbai international airport has put it in the category of one of the finest airports in the country. The father-son duo of GVK Group behind Terminal-2 tell The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, on NDTV 24X7’s Walk the Talk, about the problems they faced, and the art that puts their airport apart

With its new terminal, the rebuilt Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai has to be one of the finest airports in the world. Mahindra & Mahindra CMD Anand Mahindra said that if there’s one terminal where he wants to be stranded, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, it is this. The men behind the new airport are the father and son duo of G V K Reddy, Chairman of the GVK Group, and Sanjay. Tell us the story of how this became possible.

GVK: One of the impossible things to build an airport here in the city is that we had 2,000 acres of land that the government had given us, (but) out of that 50 per cent was occupied.

By slums?
Partly slums and also government departments, like Air-India, Indian Airlines, police station, so many things. And when they wanted us to build this — actually it was impossible — they wanted us to expand the existing terminal and also to refurbish and operate the existing terminals. I was talking to Sanjay, this is only for 60 years for us (the lease period), and after 60 years, I’m not there, you’re not there, at least the airport will be made.

This is your crown jewel now?
GVK: Yes, the crown jewel… We started in 2009, within four years, we were able to make it happen. People living in Bombay city, even today, 50 per cent of them are not aware that a new terminal has come up.

It happened as if you had done it under cover.
GVK: Yes, it looks like that. That is something unimaginable.

There must have been many heartbreaks… This was supposed to have come up two years earlier. I’ll be punished for saying this, even Chhatrapati Shivaji got in the way.
Sanjay: When we came to the Mumbai airport in 2006, May 3 I remember, there was only one person I had along with me, because we didn’t know much about airport operations and we didn’t have much support. It was a huge challenge for the first few years, especially given that, as my father said, we had only 2,000 acres, of which only 1,400 acres was available for airport operations, and even that was occupied. There was nothing vacant.

That was my immediate reaction as I came here. I said, where was all this land, where was all this space.
Sanjay: There was no land. So we had to really create or manufacture land, so to speak. In this one terminal — it’s about 50 acres — we had more than 100 buildings, used for various things, whether it was a temple, a police station… And each one required its own solution, a different discussion. It was a huge challenge to get people out. I normally use the example that it’s like doing an open heart surgery on a marathon runner in the middle of a marathon. Because on one side we have the old terminal which is in operation. We had to break it bit by bit, we had to recreate road networks, we had to change parking, we had to do a lot. It’s been a lot of struggle. But in 2006 itself, we had set up a vision, saying that we have to be one of the best airports in the world.
How did we do it? We selected two things that were, I think, distinguishing. One was the design, which is basically based on traditional Indian design…

It’s very pleasant, not forbidding or cold…
Sanjay: Very welcoming. Even the colours we’ve used, we’ve used a lot of wood, we’ve used a lot of brown colours, and the reason is that we wanted it to reflect India. India is a very hospitable country, and we can’t just copy something from the West.

Unlike most European terminals. Very cold, metallic.
Sanjay: Not only European, in Asia too. I can’t think of one large terminal in the world which truly reflects that country. That’s why we wanted to create a global benchmark to how we actually re-engineer airports, how we actually bring about a new thinking in airports. So that was one thinking. And, as you were mentioning, it’s very warm and pleasant. The ceiling (reflects) a thousand white peacocks in the sky. Peacock is India’s national bird.

Can you tell us your two favourite stories of the big problems you had?
GVK: This is difficult… not difficult, it’s easy, but we don’t want to give the

Just mention some…
GVK: The total land belongs to the Airports Authority (of India). And it’s been leased to different departments of the government… Everything is over, they’ve been sitting there, they don’t like to move, the government is not able to move them. Ultimately we have to negotiate (with) them — ‘Okay you have this much area, I will build you one and a half times or more at a different place’ — to request them, one after the other…

And each department is a government by itself.
GVK: Finally, (we came to) the police station. It was sitting in the centre. We told them we’ll give you the best police station. We built a three-storey police station, computerised, air-conditioned, and last year the Chief Minister inaugurated it… His deputy CM said at the inauguration, ‘Mr CM, I want police stations in the state the same way’. He said, ‘I cannot compete with GVK, their quality, I cannot build’… Similarly, Sanjay went and brought everybody, I don’t want to name, said ‘come and see’. They came in helicopters, they came by road, they saw the terminal being built… (We said if) you want us to build the best one for you, you have to shift. If you don’t want, then it’s up to you. Everybody cooperated… They were very happy we are going to do much more than their expectations.

Even the Chhatrapati cooperated.
GVK: (Laughing) Yes, the Chhatrapati cooperated…
Sanjay: We’re very proud of that.

Tell us that story.
Sanjay: No, maybe I’ll tell you two stories which are different. When we first took over this project, there were a lot of commercial establishments — shops, retail. There was this lady who had at least five different stores. Our commercial people called her. A 60-year-old lady in a sari, she walked into the room, sat on the table and immediately from her purse took out a gun and put it on the table… Literally there’s a gun on the table and there’s an old lady, 60-year-old lady…

God made man and woman, weapon made them equal.
Sanjay: That’s right. Another interesting story is about the old terminal. After a year of operating the terminal, which was redone, we realised that in one room, there was this gentleman living. I believe he had been living there for 15 years and nobody even knew. He got upset when we found him. He stripped naked and started running around, saying ‘you can’t take me out’.

This is the story of half of Mumbai.
GVK: One more I will tell you. I was taking rounds, looking at the slums, and I saw one place, a beautiful garden, vegetables and all. I asked my man what is this garden, five to six acres, there are no slums here… After one week he came back from the revenue authority. ‘There is one lady’… We called her and asked, ‘What are you doing?’. ‘I’m safeguarding this land,’ she said. ‘This land is not mine. I’m growing vegetables here. What do you want?’. She took Rs 20 lakh and handed over the land and she was gone… I mean you get good people also.

And then the Shivaji statue right in the middle of where the terminal would have to be.
GVK: We don’t want to discuss that… We are going to do much more for Shivaji, we’ve a lot of respect… We’re building a huge new smarak, at the main entrance.

Your art wall… The idea of having almost a museum in a terminal, does it just add to costs or does it add to value?
Sanjay: If we have to compete with the best in India, and globally, we have to differentiate ourselves. We thought how can we make ourselves different? That was one. Secondly, to think about Indian identity and Indian pride, and the fact that I personally have a lot of interest in traditional Indian art. So mixing these, we thought, why can’t we create a huge programme where we can showcase the best of Mumbai, the best of Maharashtra, and the best of India, to frankly not the world, to Indians? Because I believe that Indians are forgetting what India is, their identity, and especially the next generations. If they see, they will really fall in love with India, rediscover India. That was the whole thought. So we brought in Rajeev Sethi from Delhi and we had this — more than 3 km of an art programme.

Once you call him, you can trust him to fill it up with art. You gave him 3 km of wall to play with.
Sanjay: It’s a four-floor wall, about 60 feet high. And we have two programmes, one at the departure and the second at the arrival. We’ve named it ‘Jaya Hai’. ‘Jaya Hai’ is part of our national anthem, and ‘Jaya Hai’ stands for glory to our country.
We have an application which you can download on your smart phone, you can do anything with it. Also, if you like some piece, we’re going to merchandise it, where you can actually order a piece and it will connect back to the rural India where people can make it and ship it to you. So there’s also a social impact.
You asked about cost before. The overall cost of this terminal is amongst the best in the world. We’ve built a very efficient terminal. We have 4.4 million sq ft, we handle 40 million, could go up to 45 million, passengers. So if you actually calculate the sq m cost, and see the number of passengers we handle compared to, say, European airports, we are just 15 per cent of the cost. If you compare with Asian airports, we’re just 35 per cent of the cost. Even if you take Terminal 3 in Beijing, we’re only 35 per cent of the cost. And even if you compare with Suvarnabhumi of Bangkok, we’re only 50 per cent of the cost. For that matter, on a passenger-cost basis, compared to Delhi, we are 70 per cent of the cost. If anybody who comes and sees this terminal thinks that this must be very expensive, it is not.

What is it about the Reddys or, in fact, about the people from Andhra, and infrastructure? I now say that entrepreneurs who build infrastructure should be called Andhra-preneurs.
Sanjay: (Laughs).
GVK: Basically, we are from agriculture (background). We never knew business… (Then) the family got into construction…

What about the others? Look at GMR, they are also from Andhra.
GVK: Our family produced many more people. People used to work with us and they started independently by looking at others…

Why are all these businesses under stress now? Because all of you are facing debt.
GVK: The problem is the country’s economy is not good. When the economy is good, investors will come happily. When investment comes, economy is good, everything, the evaluation, is better. People have gone away. People are scared to invest in the country because of what will happen tomorrow… Now the only way we start growing our business is by debt — to start with, in the hard times, we cannot stop it. This is the time because, at least, we create… Even though we are in debt, there are many people coming forward. We’ll be able to pay back the debt.

Some people have talked of nationalising the new airports.
GVK: Let them do that. You take five-seven years back, what was the airport at that time doing? Today it is cash rich, how much more they are getting… Within the same passengers, how many times have we increased their revenue? Within the same place, we have done it.

Will you explain how this works? How does the Airports Authority of India actually earn more money by letting you guys build and run airports?
We create things. And the right man, internationally…
….gets a share of the revenue.
GVK: The share of the revenue, and much more revenue. Previously, for instance, from only one area, advertising, they used to get Rs 10 crore. Now they get about Rs 150 crore… The government used to only get Rs 10 crore, now they get 150… Before liberalised policy, could we expect airports like this? Today we are giving international facilities apart from comfort.

You have different aspects on different walls. And then you have your hall with a thousand chandeliers.
Sanjay: It’s actually throughout the departure hall. We needed to create light, so we said why can’t we actually create chandeliers? And if we create chandeliers, why can’t we use the lotus flower? So the ambience of the terminal is very cool, calming, very Indian, it’s unmistakeably Indian.

GVK: One of the questions you were asking, ‘How much it cost?’. I put the same thing to Rajeev Sethi… He immediately said, ‘Hold on… There’s a GO (government order) by the government of India that in any public building, including airports, 2 per cent of the money has to be spent on art and culture’. We’ve not spent that much money.

Sanjay: It’s from the ’70s. Everyone forgot about it.
Sanjay: The hall where we have more than 200 chandeliers is one of the areas where we have a lot of international traffic. It’s a beautiful space. People say, ‘The whole terminal looks like a lounge, so why do we really need to have any lounges?’. Everything looks and feels like a lounge. And the other day somebody mentioned that it’s a very quiet, serene environment, like a spa. Airports are places where people are always very anxious. But this airport, we hope, will just calm people down and they’ll enjoy and spend more time here.
Good design makes good business sense, because then they will spend more money, they’ll have to buy more things.

What are the problems that remain?
GVK: About 330 acres of slums are still there, about 80,000- 86,000 people are living there… I was talking to the CM, they’re also very anxious, the ministry is also very anxious, that we must plan to shift everybody.

But this rebuilt airport will not be enough for Mumbai?
GVK: That is why they are going in for another airport. It is likely to come up in Navi Mumbai. We have the first right of refusal, and definitely we will bid for that.

It will be like Heathrow and Gatwick. Although sometimes, landing into Mumbai, it reminds you not of Heathrow, but what Kai Tak used to be in Hong Kong. You could pretty much read the size of the people’s underwear, hanging on the clothesline. What about the other idea, of expanding the small Juhu airport as well?
Sanjay: It makes a lot of sense. The challenge there is the buildings around, lots of them, they are built too high. You can’t use the full runway. The only way to address this is to build the runway into the separately.

Transcribed by Hansika Chopra

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