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.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday has ruled that in a cognisable offence, registration of first information report (FIR) is a mandatory and action must be taken against police officials for not lodging a case in such offences.
A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said, “We hold registration of FIR is mandatory and no preliminary enquiry is permissible in cognisable offences.”
Police officials cannot avoid register an FIR in a cognisable offence and action must be taken against them if it is not done, the apex court said
The Bench, also comprising Justices BS Chauhan, Ranjana P Desai, Ranjan Gogoi and SA Bobde, said that action must be taken against erring police officials for not registering FIR in cognisable offences. It said, “Police officials cannot avoid register the FIR and action must be taken against them if no FIR is registered”.
It said that preliminary enquiry can be conducted in other cases to find out whether the offence is cognisable or not and such probe must be completed within seven days.
The Bench said there is no ambiguity in the law and the legislative intent is for compulsory registration of FIR in cognisable offences.
The Constitution Bench delivered the verdict after a three-judge Bench referred the case to the larger Bench on the ground that there were conflicting judgments on the issue.
The judgement has dealt a rare stinging blow to several powerful reputations. The SC also called the petitioner a 'stool pigeon'
On 3rd November, the Supreme Court (SC) rejected a third public interest litigation (PIL) against the appointment of UK Sinha as chairman of the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI). The 87-page judgement termed the petition ‘motivated’ and felt that the petitioner was a ‘stool pigeon’ of ‘surrogate phantom lobbies’. The judgement has dealt a rare stinging blow to several powerful reputations with this observation: “This is not a petition to protect the fundamental rights of any class of downtrodden or deprived section of the population. It is more for the protection of the vested interests of some unidentified business lobbies.”
On two previous occasions in 2011, similar PILs were filed by a very eminent troika of persons namely, former air chief marshal S Krishnaswamy, India’s ‘super cop’ Julio Rebeiro, and former joint director of the central bureau of investigation (CBI) BR Lall. They were represented by Gopal Subramaniam, the former solicitor general of India. In November 2011, I had described these petitions ‘bizarre’ and wondered why these persons, who had shown no interest in the many major problems with India’s capital market regulation, would go to the apex court with a petition making ‘unfounded’ allegations against the then finance minister. The then chief justice, SH Kapadia, had called it a ‘publicity-seeking petition’ and allowed it to be withdrawn twice. This time, a very combative petitioner was represented by Prashant Bhushan, a reputed advocate and now a senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party who is known to take up public causes.
Assuming that all these activists are concerned about establishing a fair process to select the chairman of SEBI, the question is: How come none of them found anything objectionable in the appointment of UK Sinha’s predecessor CB Bhave? He was not on the final short-list and was hobbled through his tenure by an artificial ‘ring fence’ in connection with SEBI’s indictment of the role of National Securities Depository Limited (which he founded and headed for 15 years) in the IPO scam of 2006. The activists also found nothing wrong in the surreptitious attempt to grant an extension to Mr Bhave and his chosen core team of whole-time directors and executive directors, whose term ran almost concurrently, just a year after their appointment.
But time has a funny way of dealing with issues. Among those against UK Sinha’s appointment, was SEBI’s former whole-time director, KM Abraham. In a letter to the prime minister (PM),
Mr Abraham had alleged that Mr Sinha would bury the Sahara case at the behest of then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. The Supreme Court has been dismissive of these letters. Mr Abraham has been proved completely wrong on the Sahara issue. (He was also part of the cabal of top SEBI officials close to the previous chairman who considered Jignesh Shah unfit to run an equity exchange. Mr Shah may have proved them right but the fact is that the same prescient team had found Mr Shah fit to start a currency derivatives segment). The apex court pointed out that Mr Abraham’s complaint was ‘motivated’, that it “did not espouse any public interest” and was made only after his extension at SEBI was denied, seemingly out of personal pique.