By Sandeep Bamzai
Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh is Mr Indecision.
On Wednesday morning, he wanted to hire 100 pilots to fly Air India birds, he was even looking at hiring expat pilots for the job.
By late evening the same day, he was inviting the agitating pilots back, saying that there will be no victimisation. He told the pilots — Come back to work… Don’t alienate passengers… Come back in good faith. All this left me perplexed. Was it the minister’s indecisiveness or was I missing a trick here? For 31 days now, the Indian Pilots Guild has been holding the country and its people hostage. Their whims and fancies dictate when we can fly or not. Not only are they overpaid and how — at Rs 8 lakh per month plus $ 2000 as flying allowance for the commanders — but they are itinerant and shameless at another level.
What amuses me in all this ballyhoo is the stand taken by the able minister, he wants to hire fresh pilots, is even talking of training another 90 of them and then finally veers around to welcoming the striking pilots by offering them an olive branch. Recalcitrant pilots have held India to ransom many times before, the recently released Justice Dharmadhikari report attacks the very core of the problem, which is the serious salary imbalances between two alien cultures.
Air India and Indian Airlines, whilst both public sector carriers had their own organisation and work credo. More importantly, they had different salary and pay structures. Air India pilots traditionally were better paid because they flew long haul flights. The ill fated and hurried merger without working out human resource integration issues has proved to be the bane of the airline.
Kishore Chandra Deo, now a minister in the Union Cabinet, but earlier chairman of the highly critical Committee on Public Undertakings ( COPU) was most direct in his report on the shotgun wedding five years ago.
Deo’s committee in its caustic remarks stated, “ The merger is a kind of marriage between two incompatible individuals having wide variances with hardly any meeting ground.” COPU had even recommended fixing of responsibility on agencies and individuals that arrived at such a whimsical decision and sought suitable action to prevent intangible loss being caused to a state run company.
These are strong words from a parliado mentary committee. A committee which no one paid heed to. And like with everything else in this country, the elephants and camels were brushed under the carpet.
Top echelons of Air India management even today will tell you that the merger was the only way for the two struggling airlines to survive. Perhaps, but then it needed to be thought through, with tent poles and milestones in place.
To think that even after five years of the merger, nothing has moved on the HR front is criminality and nothing else. The aviation business just as other service industry business is people intensive. It has to have a common work ethic, a common objective, a common idea.
When its birth was fractured, there was no way it would succeed. CAG in its report on the airline’s misfortunes is uncannily similar to COPU’s report. A familiar ring. The merger has been described as ill timed and the exercise was undertaken strangely from the top, rather than by the perceived needs of both these airlines, with inadequate validation of the financial benefits. Therein lies the rub. Great idea, lousy timing and imperfect execution. Ajit Singh is a complete votary of state support for state run entities. Excellent. The time has come for Ajit Singh to decide the way forward for the beleaguered airline. There are innumerable plans and ideas which require implementation, he has been unable to parliado that. From creation of strategic business units to voluntary retirement schemes to HR integration to partial lockdown so that the Augean stables can be cleaned, he has failed abysmally.
Instead, he has managed to get the government to commit yet another massive lifeline for the greedy airline which at times resembles a bottomless black pit that sucks money for a living.
All he has been able to do other than that is get into a firefight with airline pilots who are seemingly indefatigable. I guess, if you are earning a crore plus salary, you can afford 31 days of strike time. At all times knowing fully well that the airline management will take them back like earlier instances. All over a plane essentially. The Dreamliner is at the very kernel of this edition of the joust. Air India pilots don’t want erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots to fly the Dreamliner. What will they do when their salaries and allowances will be streamlined under the Dharmadhikari recommendations? Will they go on strike again leaving the airline and passengers in strife? Ajit Singh has to move decisively here and now, he needs to take a call, this waffling cannot continue. He has to understand that the airline has to be unfettered.
Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan and its mavens cannot run this airline, just as zamindars and jagirdars in Air India and Indian Airlines need to understand that bailouts are over. Till some semblance of professionalism and tough decisions are not ushered in, there is no hope for this airline and its employees. Air India is not an employment guarantee scheme. Its workers are mistaking it for MNREGA. Be bold minister, call it. Or consign yourself to the rubbish heap as the man who presided over the end of an airline.
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