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How Patel changed Indian skies

Last updated on: January 29, 2005 15:18 IST

CeeJay House in Gondia, considered by many in Maharashtra to be the exact centre of India (and not Nagpur, as is commonly believed) is a sprawling bungalow and the home of the bidi king of Vidharbha, Praful Patel.

It's another matter that Patel also occupies an official bungalow in Lutyens's New Delhi in his capacity as minister of civil aviation. But his visits to this small town are frequent.

It was here he lived as a child, here that he owns bidi factories and oversees educational trusts, and here that he lived out his ambitions as both industrialist and politician.

In far-away Delhi, Patel is fast earning a reputation as a minister who works, and works efficiently. In a handful of months, he has changed the way civil aviation had crippled policies and growth, and suddenly "open skies" is no longer just a phrase.

To anticipated criticism but overwhelming relief, he's cleared fleet acquisition plans for the two national carriers, opened up international routes for private domestic players, and won the grudging approval of airport staff for privatisation plans that had been threatened by strikes.

People largely used to ignoring politicians are beginning to sit up and take notice of a minister who, like them, dresses well, enjoys his luxuries, and runs the ministry like he would any industry.

Who is Patel, and what makes him tick? The only son of his father's youngest wife Shantaben, he lost his father when he was a teenager and inherited his father's business while still in school.

As a result, he often had to miss school, and hardly ever attended college. But while many remember him as intelligent, he made the most impression on the playing fields with cricket and football.

Imagine a chubby schoolboy from Campion School in Mumbai some 35 years ago at a badminton match where seats were hard to find. Sitting in the front row was actor Ashok Kumar.

The boy told his friend he would see the match sitting next to the filmstar. Headstrong or go-getter? Either way, Praful Patel showed signs early in life that he could get the job done.

No wonder Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan, the sprawling headquarters of the civil aviation ministry, has been buzzing since Patel took charge here a little over six months ago.

There are clear signals that India, along with China, will drive growth in the global aviation business in the near future. Indian carriers are expected to acquire more than 200 aircraft in the next 12 months -- at the moment, there are only 175 aircraft criss-crossing the Indian skies.

Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic has tried every trick in his bag to invest in the sector. Every airline worth its lifejacket wants to mount new services to India, offering connectivity to more and more cities in the country.

In the midst of this, Patel reels off statistics. "Air traffic has grown by 27 per cent since I took over. Over the next three years, we will see a triple digit growth in terms of both traffic as well as capacity.

"Steps have been taken to ensure that flying becomes a possibility for the common man," he says, a Franck Muller watch in rose gold worth a fortune dangling from his wrist.

Patel's detractors are justified in asking how he can hog credit for generating additional air traffic.

"It has resulted from the country's strong economic growth in the last two years," an industry source says, "and it is not Patel but G R Gopinath (of Air Deccan) who has brought air travel within the reach of common people by starting his low-cost service."

Also, the privatisation of the Delhi and Mumbai airports was initiated when the National Democratic Alliance was in power.

Patel may have got the benefit of taking over the right ministry at the right time, but to his credit he has created an environment that will help Indian carriers spread their wings and grow.

Bureaucrats in his ministry disclose that unlike his predecessors of the NDA regime, Shahnawaz Hussain, first, and then Rajeev Pratap Rudy, Patel is capable of taking quick decisions.

When the Airports Authority of India employees threatened to go on strike against the privatisation of Mumbai and Delhi airports, there was fear that air traffic in the country would come to a standstill.

Patel stepped in and asked the employees to prepare their own blueprint for the two airports, which would be considered along with the bids of private companies.

The crisis was diffused in time.

The bureaucrats also insist that he has a better feel of the sector than both Hussain and Rudy. But that is not difficult to understand: Patel had become familiar with flying early in life.

His father, Manoharbhai Patel, a hugely successful businessman and a philanthropist, owned a Cessna. Patel too has logged some flying hours, though he does not possess a pilot's licence.

Mukul Raja, a Mumbai-based friend of Patel, recently asked him the specifications of the aircraft the government proposed to buy. He listened in impressed silence as Patel reeled off the complete list.

But Patel's decisions haven't been without their share of controversy. Some in the bureaucracy grumble that Patel's initiatives will only benefit private carriers like Jet Airways and Air Sahara at the cost of the state-owned Indian Airlines and Air-India.

A recent directive by the ministry to Indian Airlines that it should first complete its fleet acquisition programme and then draw up plans to fly abroad met with a frosty response from some bureaucrats.

In his mind, Patel is convinced that the two carriers need to strengthen their fleets for survival.

He has initiated an exercise to offload their shares to bankroll the acquisitions. Senior Indian Airlines functionaries say Patel has convinced the Cabinet about the need to upgrade the fleets and has even managed a sovereign guarantee for Indian Airlines when it raises funds despite stiff opposition from finance ministry officials.

Similarly, he got the Air-India brass to alter its fleet acquisition plan as it was not in sync with market demands and personally supervised the plans for Air-India's low cost international carrier, Air-India Express.

What works in his favour is that he is not seen to be in the habit of currying favours from the state-owned airlines. Rudy bagged the biggest headlines of his career when Indian Airlines picked up the bills for his vacation in Goa.

Of course, Rudy cleared the dues with Indian Airlines subsequently. In contrast, Patel comes to work in his personal car (he owns a fleet of over 20 luxury and vintage cars and is superstitious about registration number either beginning or ending with 2 or 7) and does not draw a salary from the government.

But then he heads the closely-held Rs 500-crore (Rs 5 billion) CeeJay Group that has interests in bidis, pharmaceuticals, real estate, packaging, finance and oil, and employs over 60,000 people.

A charitable trust controlled by Patel runs over 40 schools in Maharashtra providing education to 80,000 students at any time.

The group's mainstay is bidis. The business traces its roots to the 1920s when the father-son duo of Chotabhai and Jethabhai (hence the name CeeJay) came to Gondia from Gujarat to trade in tobacco.

In the 1930s, Manoharbhai, Chotabhai's nephew, joined the business and engineered a forward integration into bidis. Soon, the family was riding the gravy train.

At its peak, some 25 years ago, the group used to run 40 factories in and around Gondia packing as many as 5-6 crore (50-6- million) bidis in a day. The bestselling brands in its portfolio were Monkey Boy and No. 27.

In the last several years, bidi sales have started dwindling owing to an upgradation in lifestyles across the country.

The CeeJay Group operates just two factories now, though it continues to make the same number of bidis. It is here that Patel makes it a point to visit CeeJay house (with its huge lawns, spacious garages and quarters for a staff of 30) at least twice a month.

He still eats off the coal-fired ovens in the kitchen, though the maharajas who now cook for the Patels are more conscious of the health requirements of the family's diet.

People in the town fix up marriages keeping in mind his scheduled visits.

A Delhi-based associate describes Patel as "yaaron ka yaar" -- a friend among friends -- and the people of Gondia are testimony to the close links he has always maintained with the town and its people.

Harish Jhotwani, a Gondia-based lawyer, recently told the minister he would accept his invitation to come to Mumbai only if Patel sent a private jet to collect him.

The next day Jhotwani woke up to be told that a private plane had landed at the Birsi airstrip on the outskirts of Gondia, and he was obliged to fly to Mumbai to meet his friend.

There is place in Patel's circle friends for those who regularly make headlines -- a bevy of Mumbai businessmen, superstar Shah Rukh Khan, steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal -- but the friendship he is known best for is that with Sharad Pawar.

In the beginning, Pawar had two confidantes, Suresh Kalmadi and Patel. But after Kalmadi's rift with Ajit, Pawar's nephew, he drifted away.

This left a vacuum, which Patel was quick to spot and fill. Today, nobody is closer to Pawar than Patel. He is the treasurer as well as spokesman of the NCP.

Whenever Pawar wants to hold meetings away from the public eye, he does it in Patel's house. Patel, on his part, does not go to town about his relationship with the Maratha strongman.

Last year, when Pawar was battling Jag Mohan Dalmiya for the top post of the Board for Control of Cricket in India, Patel was in the thick of it, keeping tabs on every vote that counted.

Pawar lost. But Patel has not given up: "I think Indian cricket needs to be freed from the present one-man show." After he's freed the Indian skies from the tyranny of claustrophobic controls, this could be his unfinished agenda.

Grounded?

If there is one thing that could ground Praful Patel's well-crafted plans it is the state of the country's airports. All the international airports are bursting at their seams, while the domestic airports are in no position to cope with additional flights.

Patel says he is aware of the problem and is embarking on an ambitious Rs 50,000 crore (Rs 500 billion) project to upgrade the airport infrastructure in the country.

The airport modernisation plan will start with the privatisation and upgradation of Delhi and Mumbai airports. In the second phase the other two metro airports -- Kolkata and Chennai -- will be upgraded through public-private participation.

Simultaneously, he has kicked off an exercise to develop 23 non-metro airports. To generate funds for the development of these airports, the government will undertake commercial development of the "city facing" land of these airports.

To this effect, the Airports Authority of India has shortlisted two consortiums, one led by Ernst & Young and the other by UTI Bank, to come up with a detailed business plan for 10 airports within the next three months.

AAI is expected to come out with another tender for the remaining 13 airports shortly. The consultants are required to ascertain how the land owned by these airports can be commercially utilised.

Various possibilities like setting up shopping malls, multiplexes and hotels are likely to be considered. Some of these airports are known to own 80-100 acres of land, which can be developed for a range of commercial activities.

Once this exercise is closed, another 30 airports will be taken up for upgradation.

Besides, Patel also plans to develop greenfield airports with an investment of over Rs 6, 000 crore (Rs 60 billion) in Goa, Navi Mumbai, Pune, Kannur and the multi-modal international hub in Nagpur.

The early starter

February 17, 1957: Praful Patel born to Manoharbhai Patel and his third wife, Shantaben, in Kolkata.

Celebrations were held for three days at Gondia. A struggling Bollywood director made a film on the occasion called Nanhe Praful Kumar

1970: Manoharbhai, self-taught businessman, philanthropist and educationist, dies.

1973: Patel inducted into the family bidi business at the young age of 16.

1977: Patel marries Varsha, 18, soon after getting a bachelor's degree in commerce from Sydenham College, Mumbai.

Plans to study law get put paid to because of marriage and business. Over the years, Varsha bears him four children -- three daughters and a son.

1984: Encouraged by Vasant Dada Patil, Patel enters public life. Contests on a Congress ticket and loses.

1985: Wins the Gondia Nagar Parishad elections. Remains mayor of the town for seven years.

1991: Wins Lok Sabha elections from Gondia as a Congress candidate. Retains the seat in the 1996 and 1998 elections

1995-96: Suresh Kalmadi withdraws from the Sharad Pawar camp. Patel moves in.

1999: NCP formed. Patel is a key member. Contests from Bhandara and loses by a slender margin. Split in caste votes cost him the seat.

2000: Enters Rajya Sabha as an NCP member.

May 24, 2004: Appointed Union Civil Aviation Minister.

With Bipin Chandran in New Delhi and Arti Sharma in Mumbai and Gondia

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Bhupesh Bhandari
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