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Air India needs to be privatised; cooperation of employees important: Puri tells union

MUMBAI: The government has no option but to privatise Air India as it has around Rs 80,000-crore debt and needs the cooperation of the employees for carrying out the privatisation process, civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri is said to have told the airline unions on Thursday.

At a meeting with some 13 Air India unions in Delhi, Puri also said that the government was trying to address the concerns of the employees regarding issues such as job protection post-privatisation, a union representative said.

The unions, however, opposed to the legacy carrier going into private hands and stressed that the airline employees are capable enough to run it provided they get the government support, the representative said.

“The minister said that Air India has a debt of Rs 80,000 crore and no expert has a solution to that. In this situation, privatisation is the only choice left for the government,” one of the union representatives told PTI after the meeting, which lasted for an hour.

He also said that Puri sought cooperation from all airline unions in carrying out the disinvestment process of the national carrier.

Later Puri, who is the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, tweeted that he had a “long and useful” discussion with the union representatives and that the two sides will meet again in the next 10 days.

“Had a long & useful discussion with representatives of various @airindiain unions in the context of the forthcoming privatisation of the airline,” the minister said in a tweet.

“Unions expressed their concerns which were duly noted. We have agreed to meet again in the next 10 days to carry forward our discussion,” he said.

The minister also told the unions that the Air India Specific Alternative Mechanism (AISAM), headed by home minister Amit Shah, has met only once and he will take all concerns of the employees to it at its next meetings, the union representative said.

Last week, a senior Air India official said the airline might have to go out of business in the manner similar to the now-defunct Jet Airways if a new investor does not come on board by June.

Days later, Puri said the airline will continue operations till it was privatised.

“On our part, we flagged our major issues such as job protection, clearing off our dues held on account of 25 per cent reduction in wages/ allowances, a continuation of medical benefits, gratuity and provident fund protection, leave encashment, and passage benefits, among others,” he had said.

The union representative said the minister told the representatives on Thursday that he had already “committed” about the clearing of the pending dues in the Parliament and as far as the issue of job protection was concerned, the government will try to incorporate it in the Expression of Interest (EoI).

“The minister, however, did not give any specific date for the issuance of the EoI,” the union representative said.

On December 31, Puri said the government will try to come out with EoI for Air India sale in the next “few” weeks.

Civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola and Air India CMD Ashwani Lohani were also present at the meeting.

On issuance of free travel passes for retired employees after disinvestment, the minister was not “inclined” to continue the practice as it was found to be objectionable to most parties, as per the union representative.

However, the minister said he will revert on it only after studying the issue.

Employees of Air India are allowed a limited number of free travel on the airline’s domestic flights every year.

While disinvestment-bound Air India’s net loss in 2018-19 was around Rs 8,556 crore, its current total debt is around Rs 80,000 crore.

“Air India is running. Air India will keep on running. But Air India has to be privatised because it is incurring a daily loss of Rs 20-26 crore. This is taxpayer’s money that can be more profitably spent,” Puri said on December 31.

The AISAM has approved re-initiation of process for the government’s 100 per cent stake sale in Air India along with Air India Express and the carrier’s stake in joint venture AISATS.

In 2018, the government’s effort to sell 76 per cent stake as well as transfer the management control to private players failed to take off as not a single bidder turned up.