The Rs 4,765-crore Navi Mumbai airport slated to come up by 2012 is critical -- not just to land sharks who have invested in the region and to leading politicians who have bought up large tracts of land but also to many large industrial houses in Mumbai.
According to officials, at last count at least six large groups or consortiums are vying for this project, which is expected to change the way Mumbai is viewed some years down the line.
Tenders are expected to be issued by City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra in mid-September inviting global bids from consultants who will conduct the detailed feasibility study. Bids from private players are expected to be announced in April next year.
The Mukesh-Ambani-led Reliance group is one of the interested parties since bagging the airport would ensure a virtual monopoly in the Navi Mumbai area.
The group recently received approval for its 1,250- hectare multi-product special economic zone in the region. This SEZ surrounds the proposed airport, and land belonging to it is to be found both below and above the airport land.
The group is also expected to build the Mumbai trans-harbour link from Sewri (in the Mumbai Port Trust area) to Nava -- the entry point of Navi Mumbai. This link will reduce the distance through a six-lane bridge of what today takes one and a half hours from South Mumbai to Nava.
Mukesh Ambani's new proposed headquarters -- a 23-storeyed building -- is also coming up in one of the 'nodes' or 'towns' of Navi Mumbai. Says an official associated with the project: "If he gets the airport, he will have total control of the region."
It is precisely that fear that has ensured the Anil Ambani-led ADAG group sees this project as a high-priority venture. The younger brother, whose bids for the modernisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports were unsuccessful despite taking the matter to court, will be left out in the cold in Navi Mumbai if the airport also goes to his brother.
The ADAG group was also disqualified from the trans-harbour link project too, a matter on which Anil Ambani has been fighting Mukesh's group through the courts.
But the project is also critical for GVK, the company that's involved in modernising the existing Mumbai airport -- a task far less enviable than one would have imagined.
According to top civil aviation ministry sources, the consortium has made far less progress than it ought to have despite land constraints (it has only 2,000 acres available to it compared to 5000 acres available to Delhi airport).
In fact, the delays have pushed the ministry to examine whether to impose penalties on the consortium for breaching deadlines for mandatory work.
But for GVK, according to a consultant involved with the project, it is critical to get the Navi Mumbai airport if it hopes to make money from its airport foray.
"The existing Mumbai airport will soon be saturated and scope to make profits from it is limited due to the number of problems that besiege it," the consultant said.
He was referring to at least three serious problems that GVK has to grapple with -- only 900 acres of the available 2000-odd acres is available for use at present, there are encroachments all over the land and the runways have a criss-cross configuration. As a result, there is little space to start new work.
GVK gets first right of refusal within a 10 per cent price band for Navi Mumbai but its chances of being permitted to bid at all will get slimmer if it fails to meet commitments on the present facility.
"There is nothing to stop the government from saying that on technical grounds MIAL falls short, especially if it sets a poor precedent with the existing airport," an aviation ministry official points out.
Barring these three, the Delhi-based GMR group, the Tata-Changi combine and L&T are also keen on the new project, said a CIDCO official, the agency that gave birth to Navi Mumbai in 1971 and is now handling the city's entire development.
GMR -- which is expanding its presence in airports both in India and now overseas by bagging the contract for an airport in Turkey -- is also keen to get a foothold in Mumbai.
For the Tatas, the compulsions are somewhat like those for Anil Ambani. The Mukesh Ambani led group has stolen a march over all others in an area that many argue will command the same land value as Colaba and Cuffe Parade do today.
"Navi Mumbai is expected to be the "next big thing" in the city of Mumbai. It would hardly do for the Tatas or any large industrial house in Mumbai to be left out of it altogether," said a CIDCO official. He is convinced this will be one of the most keenly contested battles in 2008.