FLY HIGH, AIR INDIA

FLY HIGH, AIR INDIA

   New Delhi June 2    The national airline is part of modern India’s heritage and must not be sold for a few pieces of silver

Air India is probably one of the most potent and iconic symbols of contemporary India. Generations have grown up admiring its logo, the welcoming maharaja, a stately figure stooping to usher passengers onto his flying machines. Arguably the maharaja fell on bad times in recent decades: A bloated employee base, ageing aircraft, inadequate number of routes, along with complaints of poor amenities and service combined to take the lustre off this once-hallowed brand. Managerial profligacy and political interference resulted in the steady drainage of its resources too. With a huge debt burden on its head, the Government decided it could not continue to fund the airline’s mounting losses, especially the massive backlog of interest payments. Despite reservations expressed by many well-meaning sections, the authorities attempted to sell off what is undoubtedly a national inheritance.

It is therefore a happy denouement that none came forward to buy the carrier which pioneered air travel in India. It would have been a travesty of the faith reposed in the Government had this national heirloom been grabbed by some fly-by-night operator and its assets cannibalised for private gain. Air India has been built with the love and sweat of thousands of its employees and patrons that did not desert it in the worst of times. Most Indians have fond memories of being greeted at the entrance of its planes’ cabins with a courteous namaste and savouring desi khana — especially when travelling in and out of the country. That Indian movies and music feature prominently on its entertainment menu add to its attractions.

Although other airlines too have innovated with Indian cuisine and entertainment, the feeling is never the same. It is often said that Air India is inefficient and has failed to keep up with modern business practices. There is some truth in this complaint. Others argue that the idea of a state-run airline is an anachronism today, pointing to the examples of the privatised British Airways and the now extinct Pan Am.

A privately-run operation running solely on the profit motive would obviously be devoid of a soul and relegate compassion to the bottom rung of its priorities. Which private airline would fly sorties ferrying relief material to places struck by natural calamities or fly out to distant countries to rescue stranded Indians? Will tomorrow’s children feel any sense of pride upon seeing any odd plane flying above their homes the way one feels upon sighting the Air India logo on a plane?

These arguments may be rubbished as maudlin sentiment unbecoming of our commercially cut-throat times. But there is a place reserved for sentiment associated with every national icon. Don’t we get goose pimples when the national anthem is played or the tricolor unfurled?

Some national institutions, Air India among them, define modern India. They are not junk relics of a discredited socialist past. Along with major dams, gigantic steel plants, world-class highways, our national airline is an integral part of today’s India story. The lure of filthy lucre should not be temptation enough to part with a limb of the nation’s heritage. Air India is wealth created by the people of India; it must, therefore, remain public property.