The price of running the once iconic brand—Air India—is now an estimated Rs30,000 crore of tax payer’s money. Forner ED Jitender Bhargava’s inside account: Descent of Air India
India is woefully short of whistleblowers, especially in the vast public sector, beset by corruption and waste. Honest officials, who stand up to venal politicians and pliable IAS officers, are bound by official codes and do not speak up even when they are shunted from one post to another.
The cost of all this is borne by the citizens when the exchequer periodically pays for a public service utility (PSU) company bailout or re-capitalises banks. When that happens, there is some media discussion, mainly restricted to the business press, but the ordinary person remains largely ignorant of the vicious confluence of issues—red tape, corruption and lack of accountability—that leads to losses and bailouts.
Jitender Bhargava, who has been the face of Air India for over two decades, provides an inside account of how the airline was killed, in his book Descent of Air India. It is a story that needed to be told because the fall of Air India mirrors our gradual decline from a newly independent nation brimming with hope and enthusiasm to the economic mess we are in today. The legendary JRD Tata (JRD) and his marketing whiz called Bobby Kooka made Air India one of the best airlines in the world (its ‘hawai sundaris’ included Maureen Wadia and Parmeshwar Godrej, among others) but the rot that set in after its unceremonious nationalisation by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a few decades to show up as big losses.
Over the decades, the government asked JRD to continue as chairman and, later, as a director, but ignored his anguished letters that pinpointed what was going wrong. The importance of Mr Bhargava’s story is not merely in the fact that it highlights how Air India has sunk to the point of irrelevance and is likely to stick us with a whopping bill of Rs30,000 crore for keeping it alive and restructuring it. He does a bigger service by writing about how every tough chairman who cut losses or generated profits was viciously punished by the political establishment and any director who raised objections was unceremoniously removed. Stopping the personal loot of the national carrier was seen as a crime.
Read the full report here, Money Life