India Today - - MAIL - Ji­ten­der Bhar­gava, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Air In­dia, is the au­thor of The De­scent of Air In­dia

Ihave of­ten stated that while a large chunk of our pop­u­la­tion be­ing il­lit­er­ate is a tragedy, the big­ger irony in the con­text of Air In­dia has been that those who are lit­er­ate have also failed to read the writ­ings on the wall. Alas, if only the bu­reau­crats and politi­cians guid­ing Air In­dia’s des­tiny could read the sit­u­a­tion over the years, the great in­sti­tu­tion, founded by the leg­endary JRD Tata, wouldn’t have been in the mess it has been pushed into. It is thus an un­de­ni­able fact that Air In­dia is to­day strug­gling to sur­vive. The gov­ern­ment can’t be ex­pected to end­lessly in­fuse funds to keep it op­er­a­tional. Some­thing dras­tic needs to be done on an emer­gent ba­sis to en­sure the air­line’s sur­vival.

Read in this con­text, the state­ment of Civil Avi­a­tion Min­is­ter Ajit Singh, that Air In­dia needs to be pri­va­tised, em­i­nently makes sense. But the tragedy is that the state­ment has been made in a cav­a­lier man­ner, with­out it be­ing prop­erly de­lib­er­ated or stake­hold­ers taken into con­fi­dence. This is not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing that our min­is­ters have, of late, be­come ac­cus­tomed to mak­ing ‘ off the cuff’ re­marks with­out ever be­ing ques­tioned or held ac­count­able for them.

If we were to only look back at the last few years, we find that there has never been a lack of grandiose plans for Air In­dia. Year af­ter year, the peo­ple in charge and the air­line’s mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers have been speak­ing about the need to trans­form the na­tional car­rier into a pre­mier air­line. But their plans, in­stead of tak­ing Air In­dia to the promised heights, have in­vari­ably brought it down fur­ther. This is be­cause the min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Ajit Singh’s pre­de­ces­sor Pra­ful Pa­tel, have be­lieved only in set­ting the rules, but not been in­ter­ested in mon­i­tor­ing their fi­nal im­pact or in their im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The merger con­cep­tu­alised by Pa­tel, with the pro­claimed ob­jec­tive of “en­abling the two gov­ern­ment- owned air­lines to jointly face com­pe­ti­tion”, has been an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter. It ex­posed how even rea­son­able and crit­i­cal rec­om­men­da­tions for the suc­cess of the merger made by con­sul­tants— in­fu­sion of eq­uity, a sta­ble lead­er­ship, man­power har­mon­i­sa­tion and check on in­dis­crim­i­nate aug­men­ta­tion of ca­pac­ity by for­eign air­lines— were in­or­di­nately de­layed or ig­nored for im­ple­men­ta­tion by the in­cum­bent min­is­ter. Thus to­day, one can re­pose lit­tle faith in the abil­ity of the Gov­ern­ment in giv­ing Air In­dia a di­rec­tion with even a mod­est chance of suc­cess.

Ajit Singh’s own ten­ure as civil avi­a­tion min­is­ter shows lack of ad­e­quate think­ing for Air In­dia’s re­vival or sur­vival. If in April 2012, a Rs 30,000crore bailout pack­age end­ing 2021 was an­nounced to help Air In­dia meet its op­er­a­tional re­quire­ments, in Septem­ber 2012, the Gov­ern­ment, while an­nounc­ing the FDI pol­icy per­mit­ting for­eign air­lines to ac­quire up to 49 per cent stake in In­dian pri­vate air­lines, specif­i­cally barred Air In­dia on the spe­cious plea that it had gov­ern­ment as its share­holder. And now the min­is­ter says Air In­dia needs to be pri­va­tised. Why can’t a one- time com­pre­hen­sive view be taken, in­stead of nu­mer­ous flip- flops which are only mak­ing the ex­tinc­tion of Air In­dia a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity in the near fu­ture? The in­trin­sic value of the air­line has clearly been eroded by the Gov­ern­ment through its own ac­tions.

Pri­vati­sa­tion was an op­tion, but many years ear­lier, not now. With Air In­dia hav­ing been stripped of its as­sets in re­cent years, bur­dened with a huge debt of over Rs 46,000 crore, mount­ing losses, in ex­cess of Rs 35,000 crore since the merger, and a unionised work­force, bulk of which has still not re­alised the grav­ity of the prob­lem con­fronting the air­line, one won­ders who would be keen to ac­quire it?

As one who served the na­tional car­rier for over two decades, I can aver that the Gov­ern­ment re­mains clue­less about what ails Air In­dia. It is of the mis­taken be­lief that in­fu­sion of money and money alone is the panacea to all the prob­lems. The re­al­ity is that mis­man­age­ment, gov­ern­ment med­dling in its day- to- day af­fairs, min­is­ters try­ing to guide its des­tiny even af­ter ap­point­ing their cho­sen bu­reau­crats to helm the air­line, along with sev­eral other fac­tors, have taken a huge toll and are con­tin­u­ing to do so. The need of the hour is to al­low Air In­dia to be man­aged pro­fes­sion­ally, as a com­mer­cial en­tity.

The log­i­cal course should have been for Singh to ask the Board of Di­rec­tors— which now has lu­mi­nar­ies such as Gur­cha­ran Das, the for­mer CEO of Proc­tor and Gam­ble and Pro­fes­sor Ravin­dra Dho­lakia of IIM- Ahmed­abad— aided by ex­perts in the busi­ness, to evolve a sur­vival plan, rather than thrust his own ideas upon the air­line.

A con­sen­sus as a pre­lude to pri­vati­sa­tion will be im­pos­si­ble in our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, un­less there is a proper road map, and the plan is for­mu­lated by those who un­der­stand the busi­ness. Politi­cians, with their ad hoc style of func­tion­ing, have failed Air In­dia far too much and far too of­ten for their plans to in­still any con­fi­dence or find ac­cep­tance.

The loser is Air In­dia, as in the mean­time its down­ward tra­jec­tory con­tin­ues, even as the en­vi­ron­ment be­comes more and more com­pet­i­tive.

Pri­vati­sa­tion was an op­tion, but not now. With AI stripped of its as­sets, mount­ing losses and a unionised work­force, who would want to buy it?

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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