By B. Sivaraman
One of the prevailing myths about high-wage high-tech workers in India is that they are only concerned about their pecuniary benefits. The other associated myth is that their propensity to resort to direct action to safeguard their rights and interests is inversely proportional to their salary level. Both the myths have been smashed by the commercial pilots—especially, from Air India and its subsidiaries—time and again. The latest such display was in the middle of August in the context of their exemplary services to the Kerala flood victims.
What is significant is that the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA) suspended their stir over the delay in payment of wages and non-payment of flying allowance and postponed their decision to go on strike to render this selfless service. They had even offered to work without payment to render their services to the people of Kerala, which is significant considering that a co-pilot earns Rs.5 lakhs and a captain Rs.7 lakhs per month.
Thanks to torrential rains, the highest in 50 years, the Cochin civilian airport was totally marooned and was officially closed on 14 August. While defence aircrafts and helicopters were immediately pressed into service to rescue the people marooned, no less significant was the service rendered round-the-clock by the commercial pilots of Air India and other airlines in carrying relief material and evacuating the stranded passengers from Cochin Air Force base from 16 August onwards in numerous sorties and in diverting the Cochin flights to Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode airports till Cochin Airport resumed operations, thanks again to day-and-night work of the airport employees there. It was a splendid display of selfless sacrifice rather than selfish pecuniary cravings. But the Air India pilots and other airport employees remained unsung heroes.
However, the Air India pilots remained assertive on their rights all the same. The wages of Air India employees were delayed for five successive months. The pilots and cabin crew were not paid their flying allowances, which account for 70% of their take-home pay. The ICPA threatened to go ahead with their decision to suspend operations. The management buckled in and paid the flying allowances and salaries on 22 August. It was a major victory for the ICPA and they revoked their decision to strike.
ICPA general secretary Praveen K. Keerti said, “There is no permanent settlement on the issue of delayed wage payments as the management had not officially replied to our letter nor has invited us for talks. In future the same story might resume all over again because the basic problems giving rise to the financial crisis—like idling of Rs.25,000 crore worth of aircrafts for want of spares—were not addressed.”
Air India’s assets have been valued at Rs.30,000 crore but its debs have swollen to Rs.50,000 crore! In August 2004, the controversial decision of Praful Patel, the then Civil Aviation minister in the UPA, to indiscriminately increase Air India’s shopping list of aircrafts precipitated the existential crisis for the Maharaja. On 1 December 2017, the Supreme Court directed the CBI to complete in the next six months its probe into allegations of irregularities in purchase or hiring of 111 aircraft for Air India for a whopping Rs.70,000 crore. But the CBI under the NDA has not completed the investigation.
Also tax evader Hasan Ali was caught with $8 billion unaccounted money in Swiss banks, the kickback he reportedly got as a conduit in the Boeing deal with Air India. This startling information was part of a 2007 Enforcement Directorate (ED) chargesheet. But the Income-Tax Appellate Tribunal set aside these charges and now Khan is guilty of tax evasion only to the extent of Rs.3 to 4 crore!
Well, Khan might have got a reprieve but not Air India. It doesn’t have the money to pay salaries in time or the dues of suppliers such as Airbus, Honeywell, Meggit International, Goodrich, Hamilton, and Wesco Electrical etc. leading to the shortage of parts resulting in the grounding of Rs.25,000 crore worth of planes leading to a huge loss.
The Modi government first decided to privatise the loss-making Air India and even appointed Rothschild and Ernst & Young as executioners. But the government suspended the idea due to opposition from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who wanted Air India to be sold to an Indian corporate house. Tatas are still in talks with the government to take over Air India but they won’t take over the huge accumulated losses and would insist on government waiving its huge loans. Under such uncertainty, the AI pilots might have won a battle but the war would prove to be protracted. (IPA Service)