GMR begins check-out from Male
The GMR colours of blue, yellow and orange are prominent on the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport trollies and some flex banners that promise a "better airport in 2014." That promise will obviously remain unfulfilled, as GMR Male International Airport Ltd announced on Friday that it would begin the process of handing over the airport to Maldives Airport Company Ltd at midnight tonight.
Agency reports said GMR Group chairman G M Rao met the Maldives President on Friday and had a cordial meeting, and the state-run Maldivian company had agreed to retain all staff on the same terms as before and promised to employ Indian nationals hired by GMR.
The decision, GMR said, was in deference to the orders of the Singapore Court of Appeals and was without prejudice to its legal rights. "We are taking requisite steps to work out the compensation receivable from the Maldives government," the statement said.
It's obvious that GMR had seen the writing on the wall soon after the court order. A group of senior GMR officials and lawyers, who arrived here by a Bangalore flight full of honeymoon couples, tried their best to hide the disappointment and refused to give anything away. But some of GMR's employees at the airport still retained a sense of humour. "The marriage seems irretrievable - only the alimony needs to be figured out," one of them said.
Beyond the conversations in hushed tones, everything else at the Male airport seemed business as usual.
The flight from Bangalore in the afternoon was packed, the passengers seemed oblivious of the signs of simmering tensions at male. Young women with intricate mehndi designs running from fingertips to the elbow, and their husbands headed for a weekend bliss or more dominated the passenger list. Their worries had nothing to do with the high stakes game being played out at their destination: The 90-minute flight was delayed by two hours.
High-end tourism, patronised by Indian honeymooners, European pensioners and NRI backpackers forms the core of the Maldivian economy. The Ibrahim Nasir airport, being the sole port of entry, forms its nerve centre.
It is not too difficult to figure out why Maldivians feel strongly about the airport and why they will rather end the marriage with GMR at an estimated damages of $700 million rather than lose control over it.
Despite its political and economic significance, the airport itself was neither an imposing structure nor covered any reasonable space. It's an aggregation of largely single-storeyed structures, and somehow gives the feeling of a tier-II Indian city's busy bus station.
Functioning on bare minimum security (even by Indian standards), the airport is yet to see the tonnes of glass and steel India's mega airports are standing on these days. It is also yet to see escalators and walkways.
But the Male airport has what no Indian airport will probably ever have: Just outside the international terminal lies the ocean.
Fly in, row off.
It's unlikely, however, the tourists would notice GMR's absence from the airport after the handing over process is over. For, all the airport crew and the staff wear neutral uniforms that refer to just the Male airport or the government department they belong to - immigration, security services, and others.