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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Sell Air India and move forward

Three things that remind me depressingly of the socialist times in which I grew up

Written by Tavleen Singh |
May 1, 2011 1:45:18 am

Three things that remind me depressingly of the socialist times in which I grew up. The Ambassador car,the Ashoka hotels and Air India. Whenever I encounter these symbols of that dreary old India,I remember the tawdriness of those times. Images come back of surly Indian Airlines hostesses dumping cardboard boxes of stale food in front of me. Memories revive of that smell of lavatories that was ever redolent in the atmosphere of our state controlled airlines and government hotels. As for the Ambassador car,what memories it brings. I cannot count the number of times I have been stranded in an isolated rural spot because the engine of the car heated up or its fan-belt broke. India,mercifully,has changed since then but these three symbols of Nehruvian socialism remain defiant.

The Ambassador car remains the rattletrap it has always been,government hotels continue to be shabby and smelly and Air India continues to be a national disgrace. This is something the airline’s pilots seem oblivious of or they would not dare to go on strike the way they did last week. Not only does nobody want to pay them any more money,there is a national consensus that it is time that Air India was either closed down or sold. It is not the business of government to run airlines or hotels,it is the business of government to govern and God knows how little of that there is around.

Indian taxpayers have been much too generous about the profligate habits of those who govern us. On account of our dedication to socialist economic policies,we have indulged the Indian state for far too long in its failed business ventures. As a consequence of this indulgence,we have a national carrier that has turned into a bottomless pit. Thousands of crore rupees have been poured into an airline that never seems to make money or provide halfway decent service except to politicians and high officials. It is this caboodle of freeloaders who refuse to allow Air India to be sold,so that it can continue to serve their personal needs.

Private airlines in India are today among the best in the world and even in recent hard times,have managed not just to survive but to thrive. You would have thought that Air India could have learned some lessons from their example and improved its reckless ways but this did not happen. Similarly,India has today fine private hotels that compete easily with the best in the world but the Ashoka hotels continue to be as bad as they used to be. If they still exist,it is only because high officials like to use them for purposes of freeloading and we taxpayers are expected to indulge their bad habits.

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When was the last time we heard the word privatisation? If my memory serves me right it was when Arun Shourie was Minister of Disinvestment in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. How ironic that the Prime Minister who we think of as the father of our economic reforms has been responsible for allowing us to go back to a time when we thought of public sector companies as the ‘family silver.’ In his first term,he could be excused for ignoring the need to sell off our so-called family silver. His government’s existence depended on the whimsical support of a bunch of communists whose ideology has remained unchanged since Stalin’s heyday. If he so much as mentioned disinvestment,he would have been threatened into silence. But,with communist support no longer the mainstay of his government,why does he continue to waste taxpayers money on failed public sector enterprises?

The bad behaviour of Air India’s pilots has given him a wonderful opportunity to make a new start. Close the wretched airline down or sell it and then close down the Ministry of Civil Aviation signalling the administrative reforms that have been promised since Dr Manmohan Singh’s first press conference as prime minister in 2004. There are at least ten ministries in the Government of India that no longer serve a useful purpose and they should be closed down without delay. Since the Planning Commission is mostly quite useless as well,how about giving it the task to list the ministries that have become irrelevant. If governance in India is to keep up with our rapidly changing times,administrative reforms need to be priority number one. And,only the Prime Minister can lead the way.

Dr Manmohan Singh has in his second term behaved like a prime minister in semi-retirement. Air India’s pilots have given him a golden opportunity to assert his wisdom as an economist and point out that government has to rid itself of such symbols of our lacklustre socialist past as the Ashoka Hotels and Air India.

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