The Union minister explains why despite air bubbles, travel is not happening as freely as was expected, details the measures they are taking to help the troubled aviation sector, and denies any financial crunch for Central Vista project. The session was moderated by National Business Editor Anil Sasi
HARDEEP SINGH PURI: The figure (of domestic passengers) yesterday (August 24) was 98,800, so we have already reached 33 per cent of pre-Covid numbers. We are increasing domestic passengers at the rate of 5,000 a week. With Mumbai hopefully having Covid numbers under control, I’m hoping that after the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, we will open up Mumbai more; Bengaluru, Kolkata will be a little less sporadic. We will be looking to touch the 50 per cent mark before too long… By Diwali (November 14), we should be getting a bulk of our civil aviation traffic back in form.
ANIL SASI: With the coronavirus spreading in slum pockets in Mumbai and parts of Delhi, is there now a renewed urgency to undertake redevelopment of these parts in cities?
I think the pandemic has renewed our commitment to accelerating the delivery on these projects. This includes the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana under which in situ slum rehabilitation is one of the four verticals. Now, let me answer your question by actually turning it around. Supposing we did not have the interventions of the Prime Minister’s flagship programmes — the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation), the Smart City Mission — how would we have fared during the pandemic? The Swachhata campaign has been the most important among these schemes.
When we started, in 2014, the Prime Minister said from the ramparts of the Red Fort that it is his dream that by the time we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, which was October 2, 2019, India should be open defecation free. And look, apart from some urban local bodies in West Bengal, India is now open defecation free. And, we have not stopped at that. The Swachh Bharat Mission required two things. One is physical targets, that is you had to build a certain number of toilets — 67 lakh individual household toilets, and five to seven lakh community or what are called public toilets. Those physical targets were met long back, but it required something in addition, which was behavioural change. Now that behavioural change has come and that change has in fact manifested in all our programmes.
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The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana has its origins in the Prime Minister’s desire that by the time we celebrate our 75th anniversary as an independent nation, every Indian, no matter where he or she lives, should have a home which they can call their own, and it should be in the name of the lady of the house. We were supposed to build 1.12 crore units, and we have already sanctioned 1.07 crore. Sixty-seven lakh have already been grounded, and about 35-36 lakh units have been handed over. But during Covid we have also realised that it is not just residents who want to own homes. For the migrant working population, we have come up with a new scheme, the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes. This means building dormitories and one- and two-bedroom homes for these workers. Not everyone wants ownership… The Smart City mission, 62-63 per cent of the projects have already been tendered.
AMRUT covered 70 per cent of India’s urban areas. It’s been followed by the Jal Shakti Mission. All the schemes are doing well and our capability to face the challenges of Covid-19 has been helped by these schemes, particularly by the Swachh Bharat scheme.
ANIL SASI: The free travel that was envisaged under the air bubble agreement has not happened in some jurisdictions. As India’s Covid-19 caseload continues to rise, do you see restrictions on Indian travellers flying abroad intensifying?
As the Civil Aviation Minister, I have to ensure that we have air services for those who are able to travel. The restrictions are placed by countries individually. Now, for instance, India started with a mandatory 14-day quarantine (in the early days of the pandemic). Now, if you are carrying an RT-PCR test result, and you have taken the test (not more than) 96 hours before travelling, you can go through the green channel. This is the sovereign right of countries. When the air bubbles were introduced it had nothing to do with restrictions at the other end. Many countries such as the United States now don’t have restrictions. They had it for a while and then they lifted them. The United Kingdom did not have restrictions, but then Spain opened up in the holiday season, there was a spike, and they reintroduced the restrictions… The air bubbles are designed to make sure that passengers can get from Point A to Point B… We have air bubbles operational between India and the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany… You have two flights to London every day by Air India. At times, we have four-five flights between India and various cities in the United States. We are trying to move towards normalcy.
I saw in one place that a number of people (on a flight) were found positive and that country wants to suspend flights… When I heard the news, I told my secretary, civil aviation, that if we are insisting that people coming in show RT-PCR test results, then I would also encourage people going out from India (to get tests done)…. If you are carrying 280 passengers in a plane, and six or eight of them turn out to be positive… Let’s get a realistic perspective on the number. Many people are asymptomatic. We can go a step further and insist that they also have a test done prior to embarkation and we will do that.
ANIL SASI: The aviation sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. Do you think, perhaps, they could have got some sort of support from the government?
… What are the costs that an airline incurs? Let me give you one example: We rationalised the use of airspace. The flying time between Mumbai and Srinagar was 90 minutes; it was reduced by 16 per cent. So, the fuel consumption also goes down by 16 per cent. What is the highest cost component for airlines? It is aviation turbine fuel.
We have done this, but we are also not averse to doing everything else. The Finance Ministry has told our banks to lend a helping hand… If somebody has taken loans, and there is some cushion provided, the airline industry also benefits. Many of the airline industry’s assets such as planes are in the hands of lessors and lessees. Now with a surplus of planes, and very little activity, those lessor-lessee rates are being renegotiated and that brings costs down. We reduced the GST rates on aircraft MROs (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) from 18 per cent to five per cent. In January this year, the (discontinuation) of fuel throughput charge (FTC), along with the rationalisation of air space, ensured that Rs 230 crore is saved every year by airlines.
Different airlines are in different financial positions. There are some which were under strain even prior to Covid. There are others that are a little more comfortable because they are tied to bigger business establishments. My own firmly held view is that savings by airlines etc will come by as soon as operations resume. Even with Air India, despite the financial strain, with Vande Bharat flights etc, they could make some earnings from June onwards. We have taken many meetings; we are navigating our way forward.
SHINY VARGHESE: In a Covid world, where going digital is more sustainable than having more buildings, how are we placed on the Central Vista project?
This is a project which is designed to rationalise space in a comprehensive manner. We have government buildings strewn all over the city. We are spending Rs 1,000 crore a year on rent for government buildings despite the fact that we are the land owners. It is not efficient utilisation of space. So, the idea is to redesign the Central Vista in a manner to ensure efficient use of space with more public space, more greenery. Earlier, there was a lot of misconception around it, that we were changing the historical nature etc. None of that is being done. All the iconic buildings will remain exactly where they are. Right now we are focusing on one specific part of the project, which is an additional new Parliament building. Anyone who is familiar with the Parliament building knows that it is not even a safe building… Very soon there will be a website to explain the contours of the project and people can send their opinions.
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NIRUPAMA SUBRAMNANIAN: In the early days of the Vande Bharat mission, Air India was accused of profiteering from a humanitarian crisis. A lot of people wanted to come home and the air fares were very, very high. Could it have been handled any other way?
When the Vande Bharat mission was started, the experience was very difficult. We had to quarantine air crews… The highest fare charged was an economy class fare of Rs 1 lakh in the India-North America sector. Secondly, the fare charged by all the other airlines for a similar journey was at least three times higher. From the Gulf to India, we were charging an average of Rs 13,000, when our own private and chartered carriers were charging Rs 22-23,000. On the Houston sector, our fare was Rs 1,03,000. The US carriers were charging Rs 3,00,000. So our fares were much lower. Air India can be accused of everything but profiteering. It’s an airline which in March 2020 had a debt of Rs 60,000 crore, and when we go into privatisation of Air India, that’s the debt that the bidder will have to deal with. Total number of passengers carried back (to India on Vande Bharat flights) is close to 1.3 million. These are on Air India. Then there are people coming in by charter flights, land routes… This is the largest humanitarian evacuation mission carried out anytime, anywhere in the world, and at the most economical rates.
SOURAV ROY BARMAN: Earlier this year, the Delhi Metro had written to the Centre stating that it is not in a position to repay Rs 1,400 crore to Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs asked them to reach out to the state government for assistance. What is the way forward? Does the Metro need a bailout package? Is there a plan to restart the service?
Mangu Singh (the Managing Director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) and Delhi Metro have been ready to start operations for two months now. Mangu Singh says give me two days’ notice and we will start. I think everyone agrees now, the Central and state government as well as the Delhi Metro people, that the time has come to resume services….
On financial issues, everybody is in difficulty, you, me, your newspaper, my government, everybody. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to get out of it. Some things you solve straight away, some things you negotiate. Of all the metros in the country, Delhi Metro is in the healthiest state. It is the only Metro which was able to pay its loans on time… The fare increase (of 2017) has ensured that Delhi Metro is in the pink of health. With Covid, everybody has been affected. We will take views of all stakeholders. We are in favour of revival of economic activities to the fullest.
RITU SARIN: On the Central Vista project, is there a delinking of the Parliament project, which you have said will be redesigned by 2024, from the other components, maybe because of a financial crunch or Covid?
The Central Vista project contains a number of individual segments and components. There is no financial crunch. Each government department has to provide its own resources. When you are making Parliament, you know where the resources will come from. It’s just that each of these are in a different stage. It has to be done systematically. For instance, I cannot be party to a system where people are moved out of government offices till the next offices are ready… Vayu Bhawan, Sena Bhawan, Nau Sena Bhawan etc will move when the new places are ready. So, all these are timelines. It’s not as if anything has been shelved… Each of these taken together will add up to the overall Central Vista.
PRANAV MUKUL: The Kerala government has refused to cooperate in the privatisation of Thiruvananthapuram airport. How will the Airports Authority of India and Civil Aviation Ministry proceed now?
First, they turned around and said they are against privatisation. If they’re against privatisation, they should not have participated in this. They are already running two privatised airports (Kochi and Kannur). Some people have suggested that there is an angle, regarding the person who has won the bid. That also does not seem to be right because that economic entity is running a port 20 kilometres from there.
So, my short answer is that they (the Kerala government) have an experience in privatisation, they wanted to participate, they participated, they lost the bid and, therefore, we have proceeded. (In the tender process for the privatisation of Thiruvananthapuram airport, Adani Enterprises outbid Kerala government entity KSIDC by more than 19%, which resulted in the state becoming ineligible to match the winning bid — an option that it could have exercised if its bid was within 10% of the winning bid.)
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: You were posted in Sri Lanka when the relations with the neighbouring country were not great. Now, we are seeing uneven relationships in the neighbourhood. As the Civil Aviation Minister, do you think more communication in the neighbourhood at this time would be one way to keep the relationships going?
It was an interesting time because something very fundamental was being attempted. We were looking at reconciliation of what was loosely called the ethnic problem. The India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 captured the essence of Sri Lanka as a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. It was a far cry from the Sinhala Only Act,1956… Rajiv Gandhi, who was then the prime minister, extended the good offices of India and an attempt was made and the rest is history. What is the situation today? Again, that is for my colleague S Jaishankar (to answer)….
Will more air connectivity with the countries in the neighbourhood help? It would. We are already looking at air bubbles with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan. And we are in a very advanced stage with many of them. (Air bubble with) Maldives has been established. Kushinagar (in Uttar Pradesh) has been declared as an international airport. We are hoping to bring Buddhist pilgrims in from Sri Lanka so that they can do the circuit — Kushinagar, Varanasi, Gaya, Sarnath, Lumbini etc. This is a long-standing demand not only from Indian pilgrims but also from people in our neighbouring countries.