I am here to course-correct'

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

Vayalar Ravi, Civil Aviation Minister: We are trying to improve personnel integration and, through that, fulfil the aims of the merger. - C.RATHEESH KUMAR

Vayalar Ravi, Civil Aviation Minister: We are trying to improve personnel integration and, through that, fulfil the aims of the merger. - C.RATHEESH KUMAR

Interview with Vayalar Ravi, Minister for Civil Aviation.

VAYALAR RAVI, Union Minister for Civil Aviation, has been closely associated with trade union activities for most part of his half-a-century-long political career. When he took over as Civil Aviation Minister in January 2011, he asserted that there would be no forsaking of this orientation towards labour rights.

So, when the Air India pilots' strike started in the last week of April, the focus of interest was on how the trade unionist Minister would balance his different concerns. After the 10-day strike and after initiating a process for addressing the demands of the pilots, Ravi himself is of the view that he has been able to live up to his pronouncements. Speaking to Frontline, he elucidated upon the process of addressing the issues relating to the national carrier. Excerpts from the interview:

At the end of the Air India pilots' strike, you have initiated a number of steps to address their demands and also the larger issues faced by the national carrier. What are the broad parameters of this process and what is the time frame for completing it?

The process is essentially based on the premise that the principal issues faced by the national carrier at present have been caused by the merger of Indian Airlines and Air India. The merger was carried out with the good intention of running a large national carrier profitably. Unfortunately, this has not happened basically on account of the incomplete integration of employees, especially senior officers, of the two institutions. This caused several issues, including the issue of productivity-linked incentives [PLI] cut, which were not resolved until now. Decisions such as the one on PLI cut were unilaterally advanced by a former head of the airline. Now, we have formed an expert committee headed by Justice D.M. Dharmadhikari, will would go into all these outstanding issues. The committee is expected to complete its task in a time frame of four months.

You referred to the unilateral actions of the airline's senior management. Is there an understanding that the government, especially the Civil Aviation Ministry, will be able draw the guidelines for the functioning of the airline and that they will be followed in letter and spirit?

I am all for freedom to all public sector units, including Air India. But that does not mean the Ministry has no role. Ultimately, the civil aviation industry is one in which huge costs and overheads are involved. So, the management needs to address the issue of profitability, viability and maintenance of schedules. Especially in the current era in which the national carrier has no monopoly and has to compete with other airlines. This involves invoking and promoting business talent and efficient organisation. And when the Ministry asks questions on the functioning of the airline vis-a-vis these parameters, the management is bound to answer them to the satisfaction of the government. I heard a former Chairman of Air India saying that no Minister interfered when he was holding the reins. I am afraid I do not agree with the vision that is sought to be advanced through such statements. I am not here to intervene in order to control but to course-correct, when required, on behalf of the people who build and strengthen the national exchequer.

The very same management factors cited by you are being invoked by some civil aviation experts to call for total privatisation of the airline. How do you view this?

I am of the view that those who call for privatisation of the national airline are promoting vested interests. What is the guarantee that privatising will ensure profitability and better service? Is that our experience and the experience of the world in relation to all private enterprises in the civil aviation sector? And over and above this, how will a privatised management address the larger concerns that the national carrier has towards the people and the country? Clearly, those who advocate this line are seeking advantage for themselves. This is merely an extension of the philosophy of neoliberalism, which wants to confine the government to mere collection of taxes and managing the army and the police. I do not subscribe to such policies. I believe that the government has a role to play in protecting the interests of citizens. The advocates of neoliberalism have even started expressing opinions on issues such as food security and are calling for dismantling the public distribution system [PDS]. I am not for such liberalisation.

But do you not think that the larger policies of your own government and particularly those followed by the Civil Aviation Ministry in the past have contributed to the generation of such arguments?

The Prime Minister has been very clear that this is a national carrier and it cannot be run like a private airline. My predecessor has also maintained that there is no compromise on the status of the national carrier. But that does not mean the issue of profitability can be overlooked. And to address this properly we need to overhaul our work culture dramatically, especially among the higher management and officers.

There is a view that the current issues can be resolved through the de-merger of Air India and Indian Airlines.

Right now, we are not looking at such proposals. I am told that in some foreign airline, which is very successful now, the process of integration took as long as 25 years. So, one need not panic at our situation. What we are trying to do is to improve human personnel integration and, through that, fulfil the aims of the merger. The newly formed committee is expected to come up with proposals to make this possible. Certainly, this period, when the committee is functioning and formulating its proposals, is very crucial.

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