The striking pilots of Air India appear willing to fight to the finish. The strike may be unpopular with the general public. But it would be a serious mistake to assume that the pilots are protesting only because of low wages. The issue is much bigger. It concerns us all. And the solution to the crisis that suggests itself to this scribe is also much bigger. It could liberate this nation from the unholy relationship that has evolved between big government and big business that is depriving the nation of its assets through unabashed corruption.
Consider the plight of Air India. In 2005-2006 the airline showed a profit of Rs 75 crore. By 2010 it was losing annually Rs 8,500 crore! It has already been subsidized by the tax payer’s money to the tune of Rs 2000 crore. It has slipped to the fourth position of airlines and has a market share of only 15 percent. Yet it boasts of the largest fleet of aircraft - 165 planes. “The only solution to this never ending problem is to privatize the airline,” one former civil aviation minister who did not wish to be named has been quoted by the media.
No wonder he did not wish to be named. Privatization was the name of the game, wasn’t it? Deliberately mismanage and ruin the airline so that it could be sold to private interests! That sale could rake in huge bribes to government officials. The AI pilots Union alleges that the government is deliberately ruining the airline in order to justify its privatization. But by a strike that will paralyze the airline is not the Union playing into the government’s hands? The Union has a strong case. But it must put its muscle where its mouth is. It should throw a challenge to the government which takes the issue to the people.
How might that be done?
Quite simply the Union should offer to take over the airline in the name of all its employees and run the airline itself. The controlling share of the company’s equity may be given to the workers in adjustment against their bonus spread over the years. Air India in that event would be run as a cooperative or as Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship or as the Workers’ Sector that was proposed by this scribe in 1982. May one remind readers that in 1982 the Ekatrit Kamgar Tabdili Andolan (EKTA) had been formed to propagate the Workers’ Sector of industry to radicalize the system?
The EKTA approach paper proposed a share of the ownership, profit and floor level participation in the management by all workers. In the event strikes would become superfluous. Professional CEOs from outside could be elected democratically by the workers. The CEO would not be accountable to ministers or tycoon families but to employees. It would usher industrial democracy. Enlightened self-interest helps citizens elect governments. Would not similar self-interest help employees elect top management? Investment would be raised by the unit like any private corporation from all available sources domestic and foreign. The Workers’ Sector unit would compete with its private business counterparts. In this concept market economy would continue at the macro level, but allow units in the open market to establish direct ownership by workers at the micro level. Big business and Workers’ Sector would compete in the open market.
While this scribe was the Convener of EKTA its distinguished committee members who signed approval of its approach paper comprised of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Chandrashekhar, Madhu Dandavate, Devraj Urs, George Fernandes, Karpuri Thakur, Dr Bhai Mahavir and LK Advani. Alas, these leaders lacked sufficient commitment. The proposal fell by the wayside. Now the AI crisis offers a new opportunity.
Worldly wise experts dismiss the proposal as being impractical. Workers are incapable of running business, they say. Why not test the proposal? Why are the government, big business and India’s elite scared of the competition? Let the market decide which model prevails. Freedom to set up both models should always remain. After seeing how Amul and Mother Dairy have performed this scribe is confident of the result. Will the AI Pilots display similar confidence? If they do they could blaze a new ideological trail for India.