By Dhiraj Kumar
Most people are celebrating the return of India’s national carrier Air India to its mothership- the Tatas. The rest are concerned about the pittance of the price tag of Rs 18,000 crore against the actual value, the debt burden which taxpayers will continue to bear, and the sale of a national asset (or liability) to a private sector behemoth. Indian business icon and Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata welcomed the airline which was nationalized by Jawaharlal Nehru to meet India’s aviation needs in 1953, with a tweet note “Welcome back, Air India”.
Air India was founded by Bharat Ratna J.R.D. Tata, which was earlier named Tata Airlines in 1932. Since then, Air India has been a beacon of class, dignity, hospitality as it carried the values instilled by its founder from the first day. Post-Independence and nationalization, Air India became the face of Indian aviation with celebrated service standards, networking of routes on a global level, and a mouth-watering food menu which helped it to keep flying high. The lack of other domestic players gave it an empty field to operate without competition.
The Government of India through successive Ministers of Transport/Civil Aviation Ministers took a keen interest in Air India and its operations since 1947 by investing a healthy stake in the company. Nehru and Minister for Railways and Transport Lal Bahadur Shastri brought Air India into the Government fold from the Tatas in 1953 but retained J.R.D. Tata as its Chairman. Nehru founded Indian Airlines to cater to domestic consumers in 1953 while Air India focussed on global routes. In 1978, Prime Minister Morarji Desai and aviation minister, Purushottam Lal Kaushik summarily dismissed J.R.D. a month after the tragic crash of Air India Flight 855 into the Arabian Sea from boards of Air India and Indian Airlines. Indira Gandhi who was in the opposition then wrote a sympathetic letter to J.R.D. “I am so sorry……. you were not merely Chairman, but the founder and nurturer who felt deep personal concern. It was this and the meticulous care you gave to the smallest detail, including the decor and the saris of the hostesses, which raised Air-India to the international level and indeed to the top of the list.”
When Indira Gandhi returned to power as Prime Minister in 1980, she appointed J.R.D. Tata back on the board of Air India and later Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi continued the tradition to keep Tatas within the grip of Air India with a place on the highest table of decision making.
Though Air India defined Indianness and world-class service, trouble started with extreme government control, political interference, free travels for the political class, employee unions, profit margins, debts, unfeasible routes, cost of fuel, and a general decline in service standards. Post-1991, economic reforms & liberalization and the introduction of premium airline Jet Airways dented Air India’s market share and losses started to mount on the national carrier. Post-2003, the Government of India realized the importance of privatization of Air India and began its efforts despite stiff opposition. The launch of Air Deccan, Kingfisher Airlines, Sahara, Indigo, and Spice Jet and the extension of domestic airlines to international routes, further dented Air India and Indian Airlines though both airlines were loved by consumers for nostalgia. From 2008 to 2011, under the charge of Civil Aviation Ministers, Praful Patel and later Vayalar Ravi the government merged Air India with its domestic counterpart Indian Airlines to make it a giant in aviation space which aimed at synchronizing resources for better efficiencies. However, sensing no end in sight to the losses and wastage of taxpayer money, the government finally bit the bullet in 2021 with its sale to the parent company- Tatas.
Since Independence, Indian aviation has been served by a whopping 39 Union Ministers and four Ministers of State, under whose purview, the Civil Aviation Ministry operated to oversee affairs of the aviation industry in India. Under the Civil Aviation Ministry, the statutory bodies, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Airports Authority of India (AAI) operate and report to the Civil Aviation Minister. The role of a Civil Aviation Minister since 1947, beginning with John Matthai to the incumbent Jyotiraditya Scindia (whose father Madhavrao Scindia served as Civil Aviation Minister in the Narasimha Rao Government) has been to ensure the growth of the rapidly growing aviation and cater to the needs of the nation, industry, and consumers.
The government-controlled national carrier Air India & Indian Airlines and government-owned airports gave Civil Aviation Ministers a tighter grip on the affairs of the aviation sector. During any crisis abroad, the government and its minister have quickly intervened to send Air India planes as saviors to bring back stranded Indians abroad, noteworthy amongst which is the Gulf war crisis when Air India operated 488 flights from 13 August to 11 October 1990 to evacuate Indians out of the war zone under the supervision of Aviation Minister Arif Mohammad Khan. Likewise, the Vande Bharat Mission did yeoman service to help Indians stuck abroad during the Covid-19 pandemic. No private airline would have operated at the beck, call, and command of the Government to help Indians abroad like national service.
The privatization of the national carrier takes away a significant portion of the ministry’s influence and call to serve the nation in times of need. (Unless the selfless Tatas offer to help in the next crisis keeping the country above corporate interests). Over 141 countries in the world claim of controlling a state-owned flag carrier in various stages of, complete ownership, majority stakes, or joint ventures with an exception of India which does not have a flagship airline anymore. Another issue is that the airlines operate surge pricing and fleece customers during festivals or other crises often raising ticket prices to unaffordable levels at the time of Diwali or New Year to select locations. The ministry acting on consumer complaints has had limited influence to lower the prices to normal. It could still control the pricing of Air India but private airlines were tough to reign in despite a frowning DGCA.
The ministry’s hold over the airports has also begun to cloud with the rampant privatization drive of airports under the present Government. The Government has launched its pet project, the ambitious National Monetisation Pipeline to privatize and divest its stake in government assets to private players. In the sector-wise monetization pipeline, the government has earmarked an outlay of Rs 20782 crores over FY 2022-2025 in the civil aviation department. Following up on this policy, the board of the AAI decided to privatize 13 airports, namely, Bhubaneshwar, Varanasi, Amritsar, Trichy, Indore, Raipur—along with seven smaller ones in Jharsuguda, Gaya, Kushinagar, Kangra, Tirupati, Jabalpur, and Jalgaon in a board meeting on 10th September 2021. The Government has already handed over the keys of the Jaipur, Mumbai, Guwahati, Mangaluru, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, and Thiruvananthapuram airports to the Adani Group which are in various stages of takeover.
The Civil Aviation Ministry was separated from the Ministry of Transport, Railways, and Shipping in the 1960s and 1970s into an independent ministry tagged to a minister with an independent charge to control Air India, Indian Airlines, and AAI airports. Today, the Ministry of Civil Aviation may become a smaller version of its former self without a flag carrier and government-owned airports.
With the plans of privatization of railways (National Monetisation Pipeline earmarks Rs 1,52,496 crores), and the already privatized national airline and airports, perhaps it may be time to go back to the old ages of calling the ministry -the Ministry of Transport, merging railways and civil aviation into one, alluding to their truncated powers and influence.
(Dhiraj Kumar is an author, writer and columnist based out of Mumbai. He can be reached at his Twitter profile @authordhiraj and his website www.thedhirajkumar.com)