Many moons ago, when our sweet little dupleix in Dover Lane was enlarged into a three storey house to make space for a tenant, our first tenant was an Indian Airline pilot. Similarly, many modern condominiums in our locality were being rented out to pilots and air hostesses. This was a mark of Dover Lane having arrived as a respectable colony in Ballygunje from its rather modest middle class veneer. The airlines are always looked upon as a creamy layer of the middle class; offering prospects and possibilities that are matched only by the IT, bureaucracy and the army. It has the class of being high salaried, elan of professional excellence and the allure of a closed group cadre. In other words, it has the best of all worlds notwithstanding the attraction of international travel with sops like free tickets for dependent members of the family. The pilots, who are the core of this sector, are on strike in India’s only public sector in the aviation sector, namely Air India.
The pilots strike strands women, children, the elderly, the sick, the infirm and the rest to an uncertain halt. Air travel has picked up in India after the opening up of our skies to competition and cheap tickets that run without meals on board has pushed prices of tickets down thus expanding the market into ever increasing consumer base. Despite the rise in competition, the national carrier has grown only in importance over the years, plying in zones where the private airlines do not find it economic to travel. The importance of the public sector is precisely this; the large capital base makes the public sector actually extend its operations into areas where the private sector cannot delve as the former constantly subsidizes its operations with previously held monopoly profits. Contrary to common sense constructions that competition is detrimental to the government, it actually helps the public sector consolidate its profits and sometimes even steer them away from the private sector players. The company data from the CMIE clearly shows that the companies in the government sector do consistently better than the ones in the private sector, though the erstwhile sick companies that the government had taken over do worse than both of the above. Were the public sector companies to be removed from operations, private players would have done enormously better in terms of market shares and turnovers.
The scam that is forever a possibility in the Indian scenario is thus the decimation of the public sector. The CMDs are easy targets for bribing so that they like Trojan Horses destroy companies from within. Were the CMD to defy the Minister in such destruction, he is ferreted out as being corrupt with charges of misappropriation of funds leveled against him. The story of Krishnamurthy of SAIL is a case in the point. The other very suspicious category is the BSNL; a company, which in the smaller towns just refuses to operate. My experience with the BSNL is ridiculous; they never send bills on time, they never attend to complaints and should anyone study their website for registering online grievances, she would find that the site simply does not operate. In all these cases, they purposely drive customers away so that they move to Airtel, a company that seems to be just waiting in the wings. The case of Air India is no different from the above.
The intention of the government is to destroy its own airlines that will sky rocket the profits of the private players. There have already been murmurs about Jet heavily bribing the national carrier to hand over operations. Praful Patel’s steps at merging a loss making international carrier with a profit making national company without merger of pay scales and perks was purposely geared towards generating this level of employee resentment. The arrogance of the Minister and that of the CMD in resolving the issues shows the intention of the government very well. This is yet another scam no less than that of the 2G spectrum. Privatization arrives with ever burgeoning wads of dollars in the Swiss Banks.
Public sector employment is really about a security of employment rather than fanciful salaries. The private sector salaries are much lower than the public sector on the whole. The private sector may have one single individual at an astronomical salary but the next rung languishes at packets that barely sustain a dignified middle class life. No wonder so many families are now double income with neither the time nor the money to have children. No single institution but private capital has so systematically destroyed the stability of the social institution of the family. The public sector has been more equal in salaries, attracted always the creamiest layer of talents, and been better at R&D because retention of talent has been higher, accumulated expertise through security of employment. The life of private sector has been much lower, companies have barely survived beyond three decades, less than the life of Amitabh Bachchan, or Dharmendra on screen, retrenched workers, locked out, and never been able to move up the knowledge chain to become price makers in any segment of international trade. Vis-à-vis the public sector, the private sector has only to be resigned to normal profits. Only with the public sector gone, the private sector’s stocks will shine helping it to scrape off the shareholder’s money and then scoot. In sectors where the public sector is absent namely the real estate and entertainment, stocks have tumbled, creditors have lost, properties been attached. The aviation sector gets all set for such unholy gains only if Air India is out of its way.
At the level of the common man, such moves are deadly. People have EMIs to pay, children to send to school, old parents to take care of and insecurity of employment and income can play havoc with middle class calculations. Eastern India had been torn asunder by the manipulations of large private companies all through the decades of the 1960’s when people had factories locked out, provident funds stolen, crashing them out of middle class existence into poverty. The rest of India managed this with self employment and no wonder then the 1970’s and 1980’s saw the growth of self proprietary units largely called as the cottage, tiny and small scale units. The opening up of the economy to the unbridled play of private capital wiped out the niche for these self employed swelling the ranks of the jobless. It is then a scandal that the NSSO rounds on employment reports a steady decline in employment over its various rounds since 1972 till 2008 !! The existence of the public sector created some steadiness in rules of hiring and firing and in the absence of the same will leave the ever expanding population of job seekers and the already employed into a mayhem of madness of uncertainty, anxiety, depressions, divorces and suicides. Slowly, the middle class will disappear, leaving India widely divided into a minority of the very rich and a sea of the poor, looking like Africa, or Latin America, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan or Zambia, or Ethiopia, or Greenland, or Dutch Surinam.
The pilots strike is an event that apprehends and resists such a downward slide in our society. It is up to my friends to take the case forward or to oppose it.