There does not yet seem to have been any substantive action taken against those responsible for what seems to have been the planned destruction of Air India during the UPA period. Lack of effective accountability has encouraged those who seek to profit from disinvestment at fire sale prices to ensure that the assets of Air India be stripped and sold at low prices to favoured bidders. There seems to be a deliberate continuing neglect of the airline by officials rooted in UPA-era ways, as witness for example the condition of the Boeing 747 that was used by Air India to fly at 10.40 am on 27 December from Delhi to Mumbai. The interior was caked in dust, while the entertainment system failed to work. The staff sought to make up the deficiencies by smiles and service, but the overall atmosphere was not warmed by the cold within the cavernous passenger cabin, that was kept at a temperature below what is comfortable. Air India has parcels of property across the world (including landing slots and rights) that would make the airline valuable to any buyer despite its red ink, but a conscious effort seems to be getting made by vested interests to try and showcase it as a disaster. If only the seats and cabin interiors were refurbished and the entertainment systems brought to international standards, the Indian national carrier would be among the best to fly in the world rather than deliberately be made a global object of ridicule, with secretly sponsored trolls active on the internet running down an airline that still retains in its staff the old world courtesies that were instilled into the institution by JRD Tata, the founder. During the UPA years, there was a systematic stripping of the landing and other rights of the national carrier, while a favoured private airline was permitted to grab several of the Maharaja’s most lucrative spots. There is talk about how a flight schedule meant for Air India found its way into a private airline, which promptly adopted the same. Although fear of retribution has kept many employees and ex-employees from speaking in public about the abuses suffered during 2004-2014, a comprehensive enquiry can get at the truth of how a healthy airline that was once among the world’s best has been reduced to its present state. Clearly there is a desire by some UPA-era holdovers to dress down Air India so that the corporation can be stripped of its assets and sold for a song. The Prime Minister and the Civil Aviation Minister need to step in to ensure that Air India is brought back to health, including by spending a bit of money on improving the interiors and the entertainment systems. Of course, Air India is not alone among government institutions that suffer deliberate neglect in order to later offload the same to favoured parties at a huge discount. There are cases where companies that were disinvested were soon afterwards oversubscribed by more than a hundred times, thus showing that the prices secured for them were far below what should have been extracted from the buyer. In this context, what has been happening to the Container Corporation of India needs a forensic relook. It seems to be getting beaten into poor shape so as to be sold at a low price. While disinvestment of most enterprises is necessary, these should be at market prices and through an open auction rather than through processes that are less than transparent. Also, Crown Jewels in the state sector need to remain in the control of government, and run well rather than get pushed into penury.
Now that the world’s financial information flows through digital channels, it is feasible to reconstruct chains of payments that have been sought to be covered up. Hence those officials who seek to favour influential parties by selling them state assets at ultra low prices need to know that they will get exposed sooner rather than later. These days, whistle blowers are appearing in greater profusion than in the past, although in many cases they hesitate to get their names outed. More than a few whistle blowers have been subjected to concocted cases and even to spells in prison as a consequence of the ease with which those responsible for law and order can be subverted by cash. In particular, a close watch needs to be kept on those manning the anti-corruption agencies, as the most corrupt often move heaven and earth (in the form of sacks of money) in order to insert themselves into such agencies so as to protect the guilty and harass the innocent. The anti-corruption campaign needs to be brought to a much higher level, although it must be said that the incarceration of former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram shows the commitment of PM Modi towards a Clean India. The fact is that Chidambaram is not the only VVIP who needed to be brought to account, and hopefully others will follow in his wake. Corruption must be rooted out for India to achieve double digit growth, and an example needs to be made of those who have succeeded in almost sending Air India to the mortuary. The carrier needs to be stopped from going the way of Jet Airways, and should be nursed back to health to ensure that the Maharaja rules the skies the way this great airline once did. The Prime Minister and the Civil Aviation Minister need to ensure the return to health and glory of the Maharaja or the skies.