Interview with L.George, Regional Secretary of AAEU
MEL: Airport Authority of India (AAI) employees have launched an agitation against the privatization of Airports. Can you please elaborate on your struggle.
Com. L. George: Government of India has recently called for proposals from private parties for the operation and management of Chennai, Kolkota, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Guwahati airports. This is neither in the interest of Indian people nor for the workers of AAI. When the airports of Delhi and Mumbai were privatized in 2006, we opposed that move. Vast number of people, various political parties and organizations also opposed this anti-national move. In spite of this, the government handed over Mumbai and Delhi airports to private operators. These two airports alone were earning over 60% of the total revenue of AAI. Thus the people in power handed over the most lucrative areas of service to the capitalists. Besides these two airports, government also privatized Bengaluru and Hyderabad airports which were also earning high revenue. Consequences were terrible for the airport workers. Hence we have decided not to let the same fate fall before the AAI workers of Chennai, Calcutta, Lucknow and others. We are vehemently opposing this move.
MEL: What is the background of this privatization?
Com. L. George: When Delhi and Mumbai airports were privatized, due to the fierce opposition of the workers of AAI, government set up a tripartite committee consisting of the management, government and the unions, to examine this issue in Feb 2006. That committee carried on its proceedings for 3 years. The committee finally recommended that all the remaining 123 airports should NOT be privatized and all the work relating to modernization and operations of these airports will be carried out only by AAI. These recommendations were accepted by the government in July 2009. However in blatant violation of this agreement, now they have decided to privatize these six airports. If they succeed in this, then they would take up remaining airports for privatization in stages as per the needs of big capitalists.
The Airport Authority has recently completed construction of a new terminal building and other aeronautical works at Chennai airport. Only recently Chennai and Kolkota Airports were modernized at a cost of over 5000 crores of people’s taxes. After this work has been done, the Government has announced that it will hand these airports over to private parties. Besides the valuable resources in the form of latest technology, infrastructure, buildings and other resources, these airports also possess vast highly valuable land, which are being eyed by the capitalists. Chennai Airport is said to have over 2000 acres of prime land which will be given to the private capitalist on a platter. The private operator will have free hand to leasing these lands to five star hotels reaping lakhs of crores of rupees of profit. These were the lands acquired from poor people by forcibly evicting them from their lands at one time or the other, supposedly for the “Public cause”!
MEL: What is your summation of past privatisations?
Com. L. George: The government went against the workers and people’s wishes and handed over the Delhi and Mumbai airports to private parties. Over 2723 acres of prime land in Delhi were handed over to the private operator for a lease rent of Rs.100 per annum! As per the most conservative estimates of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), of the land handed over in Delhi just 240 acres alone would fetch over Rs. 1,63,557 crores during the lease period for the private parties. This shows the extent to which the government is handing over the peoples wealth to private parties. In the case of Mumbai airport, vast tracts of land in Kalina and surrounding areas were handed over to the operator for free!
If one objectively measures the services rendered by these privatized airports in relation to the fees and revenue they earn, one will realize the actual pathetic state of affairs. Indian government has been enriching these capitalists at the cost of travelling public and Indian people.
Privatization in other industries such as Modern Food, Balco etc., very clearly point out the pathetic fate of the workers in these industries and the rapacious greed of the capitalists. Hence if we allow airports of Chennai, Kolkota and others to be sold to private parties, then condition of our workers will be no different. And the cost and services to the public will be very similar to what happened in Delhi, Mumbai and other airports.
MEL: What is its impact on the workers?
Com. L. George: When Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad were privatized, it was claimed that the new private operators will absorb 60% of the workers, but they did not. Neither the government nor the AAI did anything to force the operators to enforce this. Consequently 5000 of these workers are idling and they are on the payroll of AAI. People’s tax money is being used to subsidize the capitalists to earn hefty profits.
In the place of experienced hands, the private operators engage youth on contract or as casuals with very low wages. They do not have any job security. These ‘modern day airports’ exploit the workers in medieval forms denying them all rights including trade union rights!
All over India, in these 123 airports, 21,000 employees are working in AAI. In Chennai alone over 2000 are working. By trying to bring Chennai, Calcutta and other airports under private parties, the fate and future of the workers in these airports are put in danger.
The rulers of India keep talking about taking India to 21st century, etc. But their vision of 21st century is to drive the vast majority of Indian people down as beggars to fatten a handful of parasites and criminals. Is this what “modernization” mean? We workers say – No, this is not acceptable and we workers of AAI will fight to stop this loot. We will not allow our right to job security, right to decent life and progress be trampled for the selfish interests of few. We created these airports as you see them today with enviable assets with our hard labour and sweat. We will not allow this to be usurped by criminal elements.
MEL: There is an opinion that privatization would benefit passengers and improve the services. How do you think travelling public is impacted by the privatization?
Com. L. George: The government has formed Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) in 2008, to fix the tariff, user fees and other charges to the airport users with the sole purpose of ensuring highest profits for the private operators of the airports by fleecing of passengers. AERA has approved and legitimized private operators to charge the passengers under various names such as user development fees, Airport development fees, etc.
For example, Delhi airport charges travelers Rs. 860 for domestic departures and over 2000 Rs for international departures. Even the arriving passengers are not spared. They are being charged Rs.466 and Rs.990 for domestic and international travel respectively. In Mumbai, passengers are being charged at Rs.618 and Rs.1453 for domestic and international departures respectively. Compared to this daylight robbery, airports under AAI virtually charge nothing at all.
If these six airports are privatized, travelers will have to pay very high user fees to boost up the profits of the operator as it is being already done in privatized Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad airports.
There are similar multifold hike in the fees to the airlines for their landing, parking and other services. According to IATA, Delhi has become one of the costliest airports in the world today. Airlines in turn pass on these charges by way of higher ticket prices to the passengers. So these high charges once again land up on the heads of travelers. They will have to put up all these in the name of modernized – international level services.
What is happening is that in the name of improvement of services, people are being bled to fatten the private owners of the airports.
It is the people’s money that has created the public sector. Over the years, workers in this sector have created mass of wealth in the form of resources and assets through their labour. The capitalists want to plunder this wealth that belongs to us. Like we would defend our own personal properties from criminals and thieves, people of India must wake up and put these criminals behind bars. People must come forward to defend their common assets and ensure that these institutions serve the people’s interests for the years to come.
MEL: What are the agitations you have launched?
Com. L. George: We have formed Joint forum of Unions and Associations to fight the anti-worker and anti-national move of the rulers. We are holding lunch time demonstrations and gate meetings everyday in our premises in all the key airports against this privatization. Large number of workers and officers are participating in these demonstrations wearing black badges.
On 8th Oct, representatives from GMR, GVK, Cochin International Airport Limited, Fraport, Larson & Toubro, Reliance and Celebi Holdings from Turkey visited the Chennai airport and held discussions with officials. When these potential bidders came to Chennai airport to see its resource and functions, we protested the whole day. We entered into the arrival hall of the domestic terminal and staged a protest from 9am. Carrying loudspeakers, we shouted slogans, waved black flags and fought with Central Industrial Security Force personnel. Over 1500 our staff and workers took part in this. We gheraoed the visitors and prevented them from seeing the facilities. Unable to even hold a meeting with them, management had to take them out to a hotel to present them the prospects of the Chennai airport.
From 22nd of Oct onwards we are holding relay hunger strike. We held massive Candle light marches on 25st of Oct in all our airport premises. Large number of workers and staff took part in this march. From 28th of Oct, we are also planning to gherao the Airport in-charges in all the airports. We are continuing our just struggle. We have received overwhelming support from large number of workers, trade unions and working class parties and organizations. We are determined to fight this out to defend the interests and future of the workers and to stop the vested interests from capturing the airports and its resources.
MEL: We fully support the just struggle of the AAI Employees. MEL has been a consistent opponent of privatization. We have militantly supported the struggle against privatization in Modern Food Industries, Balco, NLC, Air India, BSNL and various others. We wish you workers best success. Thank you.