In a relief to the Airport Authority of India (AAI), the Supreme Court on Friday set aside the Delhi High Court’s decision that quashed its tender for selecting ground handling services (GHS) agencies at Group D-1 airports. It said that the AAI can decide its own terms and fix the eligibility criteria for these cluster airports comprising 49 regional and budget airports catering to domestic, regional and non-scheduled flights involving smaller aircraft and the courts cannot interfere with the tender conditions.
A Bench led by Justice MR Shah while giving nod to the AAI’s tender said that “the HC has committed a serious error in first of all entertaining the writ petition at the instance of Centre for Aviation Policy, Safety & Research (CAPSR), an NGO and also holding the relevant eligibility criteria/conditions mentioned in the tender documents as illegal.”
It said that that the AAI’s rationale behind various conditions like 36 months experience in past seven years in providing three out of seven Core GHS and the financial capacity – annual turnover of Rs 30 crore (modified as `18 crore) in any one of last three financial years “cannot be said to be arbitrary and/or mala fide and/or actuated by bias. It was for the AAI to decide its own terms and fix the eligibility criteria.”
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According to the judgment, the government and their undertakings must have a free hand in setting terms of the tender and only if it is arbitrary, discriminatory, mala fide or actuated by bias, the courts would interfere. The terms and conditions of the tender are not open to judicial scrutiny, it held.
It said that the advocacy group in the field of civil aviation could not have challenged the tender as it was not a aggrieved party and none of the GHAs had moved the court.
While quashing the tender floated by AAI, the HC asked the PSU to come up with a fresh tender on the grounds that the proposal “subverts” the Atmanirbhar Bharat policy and stifles all attempts of smaller entrepreneurs to dream bigger. It termed the tender conditions mandating previous work experience in providing GHS and an annual turnover of `18 crore “as discriminatory and arbitrary”.
Questioning the scope and judicial review of administrative decisions, the AAI had argued that it had carried out region-wise sub-categorisation of the 49 airports falling under Group D1 as the “clustering of airports reduced cost in airport operation and increased cohesive management.
To implement the ministry of civil aviation (Ground Handling Services) Regulations in consonance with Regional Connectivity Scheme-UDAN, the authority had floated the tender as there was a need to augment the GH services at such small airports as the air traffic movements at such airports was steadily on the rise, thus, the need for experience in schedule operations became important not only for smooth operations but also for safety and security of everyone involved in said operations.