The price of putting the once iconic brand—Air India—is now an estimated Rs30,000 crore. The cost of looting that much tax payer's money puts the aircraft once again back into spotlight
India is woefully short of whistleblowers, especially on the vast public sector, beset by corruption and waste. Honest officials, who stand up to venal politicians and pliable IAS officers, are bound by official codes and do not speak up even when they are shunted from one post to another. Such upright persons are usually at loggerheads with powerful trade unions too which are invariably also a part of the problems leading to decay.
The cost of all this is borne by the citizens when the exchequer periodically pays for a bailout or re-capitalises banks. When that happens, there is some media discussion, mainly restricted to the business press, but the ordinary person remains largely ignorant of the vicious confluence of issues—red tape, corruption and lack of accountability—that leads to losses and bailouts.
Jitender Bhargava, who has been the face of Air India for over two decades, provides an inside account of how the airline was killed, in his book Descent of Air India. It is a story that needed to be told because the fall of Air India mirrors our gradual decline from a newly independent nation brimming with hope and enthusiasm to the economic mess we are in today. The legendary JRD Tata (JRD) and his marketing whiz called Bobby Kooka made Air India one of the best airlines in the world (its ‘hawai sundaris’ included Maureen Wadia and Parmeshwar Godrej, among others) but the rot that set in after its unceremonious nationalisation by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a few decades to show up as big losses.
Over the decades, the government asked JRD to continue as chairman and, later, as a director, but ignored his anguished letters that pinpointed what was going wrong. The importance of Mr Bhargava’s story is not merely in the fact that it highlights how Air India has sunk to the point of irrelevance and is likely to stick us with a whopping bill of Rs30,000 crore for keeping it alive and restructuring it. He does a bigger service by writing about how every tough chairman who cut losses or generated profits was viciously punished by the political establishment and any director who raised objections was unceremoniously removed. Stopping the personal loot of the national carrier was seen as a crime.
V Subramanian, additional secretary and advisor in the ministry of civil aviation, raised objections to the disastrous fleet acquisition under Praful Patel in 2004. He was removed at ‘lightening speed’ and transferred to the ministry of rural development the day he asked for some data at a board meeting.
Sunil Arora, an efficient and no-nonsense Rajasthan cadre IAS officer, who turned around Indian Airlines and later made dramatic improvements in Air India’s profitability as its managing director, was hounded and victimised. He was shunted to an inconsequential state posting when he dared to question the fleet acquisition and informed the Cabinet secretary in a formal letter about what was going on. A CBI inquiry was instituted against him.
One of the worst sufferers was Michael P Mascarenhas who had supported disinvestment and opposed doling out of bilateral rights to foreign airlines in 2000-01. He had also ensured that Air India made operational profits. For his trouble, a cabal of politicians suspended him on trumped-up charges. All charges were later dropped and he was reinstated a couple of days before his retirement, but the after effects of fake investigations launched at that time continue even today.
Mr Bhargava also explains how the airline reached a point of no return under chairman V Thulasidas who acted as ‘His Master’s Voice’ to minister Praful Patel who seemed bent on decimating the airline. The story is important for all concerned citizens, at a time when opposition to privatisation is based on false romanticism about it being a national carrier. Politicians will continue to plunder the airline as long as it remains under State (minister’s) control. And government officials will rip it off through upgrades and free tickets for friends and family. At a time when there are questions about the ownership of Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines has stuck banks with bad loans to the tune of Rs7,000 crore, India urgently needs a dispassionate look at Air India.