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Air India: Maharaja's tears

Air India: Maharaja's tears

Author: Sucheta Dalal
Publication: Moneylife.in
Date: October 11, 2011
URL: http://moneylife.in/article/air-india-maharajas-tears/20475.html

Those who robbed the State carrier are roaming free

One of the most brazen sights on television in early September was a smiling Praful Patel, hopping from one television channel to another, trying to pass the buck to the Air India chairman and a group of ministers. Mr Patel's 'achievements' as civil aviation minister include getting rid of an efficient chairman of Indian Airlines (Sunil Arora, who effected a turnaround and had made the airline truly competitive), initiating a half-baked merger of Indian Airlines and Air India; purchasing a fleet of expensive aircraft that the airlines could not afford, simultaneously giving away lucrative Gulf routes to private carriers and foreign airlines to debilitate Air India further-and leave it with a whopping debt of over Rs40,000 crore which may kill the airline, or make it end up being salvaged by the taxpayer.

That wasn't all. Indian Airlines acted as a courier service for Mr Patel's family, but he promoted the interests of private airlines without any qualms. Airline staffers will give you dates and circulars which show how the lucrative flights of Air India and Indian Airlines had their timings changed or were abruptly pulled out, only to be replaced by private carriers or some of the Gulf airlines. So brazen was the corruption in many ministries those days that people were helplessly silent. Thanks to Niira Radia's leaked conversations, we know that Mr Arora made a brave attempt to inform the prime minister (PM) and the cabinet secretary about how Indian Airlines was being looted. But, as we know about many such cases of heist, the PM wasn't listening.

Praful Patel's other trick was cultivating the mainstream media owners and senior journalists. Ms Radia, whose connections in the aviation industry cemented her reputation in PR, also said that Mr Patel owned stakes in the private airline IndiGo and Mr Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines which were the big beneficiaries of Praful Patel's regime. Kingfisher enjoyed extraordinary credit indulgence of the public sector oil companies running into a few thousand crores.

Yet, none of this seems to merit serious discussion by the mainstream media. Even after the CAG (comptroller and auditor general of India) report, it was Mr Patel who was shining on all TV channels. The story has been quickly buried. This should not be tolerated. Accountability must be fixed and those guilty of foisting this colossal loss on the nation must be punished. Everyone knows that the buck stopped at the minister's desk, but if it is indeed true that the yes-man appointed as chairman of Air India had okayed the loss-making decisions (buying 111 aircraft instead of the 67 that were required-24 for Air India and 43 for Indian Airlines in the medium-capacity long-range category), then he cannot escape either. It will help strengthen the spine of other bureaucrats who are willing to do anything to grab top posts.

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