Recent facts reveal that the Central Government has not given up its aim of liquidating and privatising the largest state-owned airline company in the country, to satisfy monopoly capitalist greed for maximum private profits. They show that the opposite claims made at the end of the pilots’ strike last year were blatant lies.
The Group of Ministers headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherji had set up a panel last year to "submit a plan for the turnaround of Air India". On January 23, this panel submitted a report to the GOM. The salient feature of this report is that (1) government should infuse sufficient funds into Air India to achieve an appropriate level of growth; and then (2) sell stake of Air India to a strategic private partner. "The group strongly feels that once Air India is able to achieve an appropriate level of growth rate, divesting the airlines to a strategic partner could be considered" says the report. (Hindustan Times, Jan 24, 2012)
Towards this end, the government panel has recommended that the government put in Rs 6,750 crores this fiscal (2011-2012) and fund Air India's Rs 18,929 crores loans for the purchase of aircrafts. According to Air India, it has a debt of Rs 50,000 crores and accumulated losses of Rs 20,000 crores at the present time. The panel, comprising top finance and aviation ministry officials, was mandated to examine and vet the blueprint of AI’s turnaround and financial restructuring plans.
This move comes at a time when it has been acknowledged worldwide that Indian domestic and international air traffic is the fastest growing market compared to those of other countries. The appetite of Indian and foreign capitalist interests in the aviation sector in our country has greatly increased. Air India will have the biggest and most modern fleet of all airlines operating in India. It has a massive skill base, consisting of over 40,000 workers from pilots to loaders. Importantly, it has massive fixed assets in the form of land and real estate in all the major cities of India, as well as abroad. It is a fat cow waiting to be milked dry.
The privatisation plan for Air India is not new. The bourgeoisie announced the "Open Skies policy" in the nineties as part of the program of globalisation through privatisation and liberalisation. The aviation sector had become a growing sector and the big capitalists saw huge profits in this sector. They had also grown to a size, as a resultant of the Nehruvian model of socialism, wherein they could venture into this sector with state support. With this in mind, the government allowed various private carriers to compete with Indian Airlines. Successive governments run by the Congress, United Front, NDA and UPA ensured preferential treatment for these private airlines, and in return, the pockets of ministers and officials were lined up. In fact, in 2001, Air India was put up for sale by the NDA government to a Singapore led Consortium, which did not work out as a result of Singapore airlines pulling out of the propose deal. The UPA government has been merely continuing on this course
On March 1, 2007, the merger of Indian Airlines and Air India took place, under the aegis of the UPA, and with Praful Patel, then Civil Aviation Minister, known for his connections with Indian and foreign private airlines, announcing the done deed. (The Raadia tapes revealed that the appointment of Mr Jadhav as Air India Chairman, was done to ensure the purchase of the 111 Boeing aircrafts by the government.)
This merger was a disaster. In effect, the merger was used to put the losses of the international carrier (Air India) onto the backs of the profit making domestic carrier (Indian Airlines). The international carrier's losses were among other reasons caused by the questionable decision to acquire a large number of aircraft (111) from Boeing, and the handing over of profitable international routes to foreign carriers.
The main aim of the merger was to cover up the losses of Air India, bleed Indian Airlines, and then create conditions for a "strategic sale" of the merged entity at throw away prices to some Indian or foreign capitalist in the airlines industry.
This plan would have gone through already, had it not been for the repeated and consistent struggle of the employees of Air India — pilots, cabin crew, engineers, ground staff, and so on. They have exposed and opposed the privatisation plans of the management of Air India and the government for all to see. In response to the successful struggle of the workers, the UPA Government beat a temporary retreat in April 2011. Ministers declared that there was no firm decision to privatise. The unpopular Chairman and Managing Director was changed. New tactics have been adopted but the underlying aim of privatisation has not been given up.
For over two years now, the AI management and government have adopted a tactic of forcing AI workers to go on strike. One main tactic has been to deprive the workers of their wages and allowances, under the pretext that the carrier has no money. A government which has pumped in tens of thousands of crores into bailing out various capitalist houses citing the global economic crisis refuses to give even the legitimate dues to the workers. This has affected severely the living conditions of the Air India employees. The recent strike of Cabin crew and of pilots earlier this month was precisely over this issue. Flying allowances make up more than 80% of the salaries of pilots and cabin crew, and they have not been paid these allowances since August 2011!
After every strike, the government announces that one month's dues would be paid. It may be noted that as early as January 6, the Aviation Industry Employees Guild, a union with 8,000 members, including ground handlers, engineers, booking office staff and check-in staff, have issued a strike notice to the airline.
The second method of attacking the workers is to keep them divided as employees of erstwhile Air India and erstwhile Indian Airlines. The wages and working conditions of the workers are different for the two sets of workers, 5 years after the merger. Right from pilots, cabin crew, engineers and ground staff, to casual workers, the Air India Management has deliberately pursued this policy, in order to heighten the insecurity of the workers, and create conditions for internal strife amongst workers performing the same job, with the same skill level, for the same management.
In response to repeated agitations by workers on the issue, particularly by workers of the domestic airlines, the government set up the Justice Dharmadhikari Committee to go into merger and the demands of the workers. After the May 2011 strike of Air India Pilots belonging to the Indian Commercial Pilots Association, (ICPA), the government announced that the Dharmadhikari Committee would give its report in 6 months time. Eight months have passed, with no report from this committee. There is naturally seething anger amongst the workers.
In early November 2011, the Air India management, in line with the agreement reached with ICPA following the May 2011 strike, announced the training program for the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners that had been acquired. An equal number of pilots from erstwhile Indian Airlines and erstwhile Air India would be trained for this plane.
The Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) (Union of Pilots of erstwhile Air India) opposed this. They threatened a strike, and declared that a hundred of the three hundred pilots would resign. They demanded that a comphrensive career plan for pilots be worked out by the management of Air India in consultation with the IPG and the ICPA. The AI management immediately withdrew the training scheme.
Following the withdrawal of the training scheme, the ICPA sent a letter to the Air India Management threatening mass resignation by 750 pilots, and demanded a No Objection Certificate from the Management for the same.
Both the pilots unions have valid grievances. As have all the employees of Air India. The employees must see through the games of the government and the Air India management and strategise accordingly. They must not allow the management to divide them.
The plan of the government is to create a situation wherein the workers of Air India (pilots, cabin crew, engineers, etc) leave the airlines in disgust, so that retrenchment is carried out in effect, the airlines is liquidated, and then offered for sale to some Indian or international private party. This can and must be foiled. Strengthening the confederation of unions of Air India, which has been formed, is a step in the right direction.