Air India — back to basics

Predictably, there are those who are happy about Air India going back into the hands of the Tatas and critical about the government losing its ownership. Differences in perception and their airing in public are integral to the cause of democracy. At the same time, there are glaring facts that shame us about the way this vaunted entity was managed or rather mismanaged. That showed up in the balance sheets. The daily loss for the airline crossed Rs 20 crore and the cumulative losses were of the order of Rs 70,000 crore, as per one estimate. This is the sign of the times; that Government has no business to do business.” While there is distress about hand-over of PSUs to private entities, fact is also that the corrupt and inefficient creed messed up with most of these entities. PSUs lack the cutting edge, which is what makes private enterprises grow and flourish. The sad fate of India’s public sector banks is only a part of this painful saga.
For many years since its inception, Air India was one of the world’s most prestigious airlines. It fell on bad days after the turn of the century and began registering substantial losses from 2007. The merger with Indian Airlines was one questionable act. The CAG had, a few years ago, taken serious note of the huge mismanagement of funds during the UPA terms. Allegations were also centred around the purchase of a large number of aircrafts. Also, in another case of alleged graft, priority was given to foreign airlines to run profitable routes at the grave expense of Air India. The Modi government did not seriously follow up on the CAG findings. Air India fell into a rudderless state. Minor attempts like serving good food on flights did not help much in recent years.
India’s aviation history started with the first flight from Karachi to Mumbai in 1932, a postal cargo service, operated by JRD Tata after he started his own airline with help from some Royals. Even after the government took over the airline, JRD continued as its chairman till 1977. The Janata Party government removed him from the post. The Tatas now have high stakes in two airlines, Malaysia-based Air Asia and the Singapore-based Vistara. An allegation from the Opposition is that the Centre handed over three aviation companies – full ownership for Air India and Air India Express and 50 per cent stakes in the ground handling entity – to the Tatas for a song. This is worth a serious debate.

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