Government acting like a spoiled brat, puts even nation’s jewel Air India on sale
New Delhi: The Modi government is on a selling spree. Like a spoiled brat it is putting on block one public asset after the other. It is for some reasons desperate to sell the flag carrier Air India, often termed as jewel of the nation.
Completely exposed on its economic policies, the government’s move to sell off Air India could do irreversible damage to the nation in the long run.
It would be the most unfortunate day when the national carrier goes under the hammer. Air India is not just any other airline . It is one of the symbols of sovereignty and pride of the nation. It was Air India which flew gangrape victim Nirbhaya to Singapore for treatment and brought her back when she was declared dead. The airline readied its plane to operate medical emergency flight within an hour of instruction from the then government.
The airline has successfully evacuated Indians from war zones in Iraq and Libya besides safely flying people when they were hit by a natural calamity.
Now that the government is hell bent to sell the national carrier, it is necessary to bring facts to the fore. Also, the inside story behind the whole idea which people fear to discuss given how brutal and vindictive the regime could be to them.
The insiders say that the government wants to sell Air India as it thinks that the airline is part of the UPA-II’s corruption legacy and hence it must be disposed off. This is totally a prejudiced view. Air India belongs to the nation and not to Congress or BJP. Once a decision is taken with certain bias and prejudice, it is set to result in disaster.
One of the key arguments for Air India’s privatization is its losses and why taxpayers’ money be used to run an airline. Neither of the two arguments withstands the scrutiny of logic. If high losses are the reason for privatization, then why its profitable subsidiary Air India Express has been put on the block. As far as taxpayers’ money is concerned, the government is subsidizing air travel under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature regional connectivity scheme UDAN to help common man realize the dream of flying.
Under UDAN, subsidy is being given to private airlines too for providing air connectivity to remote areas. But when the same connectivity is being provided by Air India and its regional subsidiary Alliance Air, the financial support to it is seen through different prism.
Despite heavy losses, Alliance Air continues to operate its flight on Delhi-Simla route to ensure government’s commitment to provide cheap flights is fulfilled. Private carrier SpiceJet instantly suspended UDAN flight to Dhaka from Guwahati after finding occupancy lower than expected.
“It will be unfair to not give Air India its due credit. Many towns are on the aviation map of the country today because of Air India,” a veteran aviation professional said.
There is a lot of hullabaloo around the Rs 30,000 crore bail-out package given to Air India in 2012. Since the bail-out plan was staggered over 10 years, the yearly financial support has been Rs 2,500 crore. Given the size of Air India’s operations and commitment towards government’s sovereign function, the amount is insignificant.
It may be noted that when all other airlines stopped flying after Pakistan’s airspace closure this year in the wake of tensions between two countries, Air India continued its long-haul flights to the US and Europe taking circuitous route. This caused the airline massive loss of about Rs 150 crore a month.
A senior bureaucrat blamed the absence of autonomy for the airline’s poor show in the last decade. He said that generally an IAS officer was appointed and kept under constant threat impairing the decision-making. To be sure, the airline is currently headed by Railway engineer Ashwani Lohani. He has been offered the job for the second time after his retirement from the Railways. The move is perhaps akin to appointing a medical practitioner to write a history text book.
In the last five years, the airline has seen four chairman and managing directors (CMDs). Needless to say, all have been outsiders and career bureaucrats.
“Since the officers is are more concerned about what Mantriji liked and did not like, long-term policy implementation always remained a challenge. The management is rarely separated from the government,” said an insider.
Pushed to the brink in 2010 in the wake of a massive spike in fuel price, the airline had appointed expat Gustav Baldauf as its chief operating officer. The professional, however, quit much before his three year term after he fell out with the government.
One of the key grouses for his departure was government not giving free hand in managing day-to-day affairs.
Not many of Baldauf’s plans could see the light of the day as government system did not allow it.
While airline staff have their own share of the blame for the poor performance, the government is the major culprit. It last year announced to sell the airline deeply demoralizing the staff. It has continued since then reflecting on its operations and financials. With the latest push to privatize Air India by all means, the airline has been left rudderless.
“This government never tried to realize Air India’s social objectives. A financial help of Rs 2,500 crore annually is peanut compared to what it has been doing. If you see the economics of the airline, nearly Rs 4,500 crore goes every year by way of interest. If you remove this, Air India’s performance is as good as any other airline,” said an airline executive.
“The airline’s average annual loss is Rs 4,500 crore. So, if this much money is given to the airline there would not be any crisis. There would not be any cash starvation,” he added.
The executive said that the government’s intentions seem beyond privatization stressing that it considers everything pre-2014 as Congress entity. There is hence, he noted, an anger towards Air India.
“There is a feeling in the current dispensation that anything that is associated with Nehru or Congress just needs to be thrown out. The move to privatize Air India is partly influenced by this feeling,” the veteran said.