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Former Air India executive director Jitender Bhargava. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Former Air India executive director Jitender Bhargava. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

(Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Air India never had a culture of speaking up: Jitender Bhargava

A former employee spills tales of cronyism and greed at our troubled national carrier in a new tell-all book The Descent of Air India

Former Air India executive director Jitender Bhargava’s new book The Descent of Air India (Bloomsbury India, 499) hits the stands this week. Bhargava, 61, who worked on the book for two years after his retirement, narrates the story of the airline’s decline over the years and the personal greed of a few that caused its slide. He spoke about the book and its subject in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Why did you think a book on Air India was warranted?

When you look at the transition of Air India from the iconic status it once commanded to its current state, I felt it was a story worthy of narration. There were numerous questions that arose: Why did the airline fail to maintain its premier airline status, when did things go wrong, why did they go wrong, why were corrective actions not taken, who were responsible, et al?

People, particularly those who had patronized the airline or were anguished at its current fate, I thought, had a right to know because Air India was not any company, it had been an institution. Last decade hastened Air India’s descent. Air India’s survival was made doubtful by personal greed of a few.

I had sensed the declining fortunes of the airline pretty early after joining it in 1989. Coming after working in both private and public sector companies there were several management issues that struck me. Many of them can be subjects of possible case studies. Air India, for example, had a culture wherein one man at the helm could decide its destiny with other stakeholders, including those in the senior management, virtually having no role.

Unfortunately, this is true even today. Every incumbent chairman gives the company a new orientation distinct from what his predecessor had laid down as priorities. In 1989, Rajan Jaitley had decided that the corporate identity needed to be changed. The change wasn’t appreciated and it had to be rolled back soon after his exit. As this had happened soon after I had joined, I realized that this was a different company. Everyone spoke about the past glory but nobody spoke about the present or the future.

They were reticent about what was happening in the organization or how it was being managed. I soon realized why it was so. Management personnel never wanted to be on the wrong side of the chairman because he decided their destiny in terms of promotions, postings, etc. Succession planning was alien to the organization as was mentoring of managers who were to don senior positions in subsequent years. This created an environment which wasn’t just suitable for a company transiting from a monopoly to a competitive era.

Former aviation minister Praful Patel oversaw the airline for some 7 years before it had to seek government equity in 2010 for the first time since 1932. The government auditor came down hard on him.

I don’t think any one will dispute the fact that Praful Patel had a major say in most decisions taken during his time as civil aviation minister. (Then chairman V.) Thulasidas, for whatever reasons, was only too keen to allow decisions being taken by Delhi. Whether it was the aircraft acquisition, merger (with Indian Airlines) or many other big expenditure decisions which harmed Air India financially were taken without proper thought or detailed discussions within the airline. A handful of Air India officials did lend support for questionable reasons. What also surprised me was though we had (banker) N. Vaghul on the board as an independent director, he did not red flag any of the decisions which had a huge financial bearing and led to eventual crippling of Air India.

Both board members, V. Subramanian and Sunil Arora, who voiced concerns over the affairs were asked to leave. Was it an early indication for others to fall in line?

Yes absolutely right. Overall, it was a sad commentary on how the airline was being managed.

Why did no one speak for nearly seven years that Praful Patel was there?

It could be on two counts—either fear or lack of full knowledge. CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India), the two parliamentary committees—Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture headed by Mr Sitaram Yechury and Committee on Public Sector Undertakings, headed by V. Kishore Chandra Singh Deo—had brought out facts but they were perhaps not taken to its logical end. There has also been a petition in Supreme Court filed by Prashant Bhushan on Air India issues. Further, Air India has never had a culture of any one speaking up.

What role did former Air India chairman Thulasidas play?

I don’t think he did anything for which he should be remembered except that Air India suffered the most under his tenure. He had assumed charge at a critical stage when the competition was growing but he did nothing eventful. I had, in fact, written numerous letters to him demanding that work practices be changed so that we can offer a top-class product to passengers once new aircraft join the fleet. He attended to the hardware issues like seats, audio visual systems, etc by visiting vendors but did not act on improving the work culture or practices which were critical to Air India’s success and retrieving part of the damage caused due to the placement of order for 68 aircraft which the airline could neither afford nor had the potential to gainfully deploy.

What was the role of lobbyist Deepak Talwar during that time? His name came up in Parliament as being Praful Patel’s Man Friday?

Yes, Deepak Talwar was deemed close to Praful Patel. No denying the fact. His companies did do business with Air India. Some of them had also come under the scrutiny of Central Vigilance Commission.

In at least one case, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) has been investigating the purchase of some equipment which Air India had shown as proprietary when it wasn’t and had, therefore, placed an order without going through the tendering process. I have quoted a conversation of mine with him where he describes Thulasidas in certain words and his successor Raghu Menon in certain ways. And Talwar had said that Raghu Menon is not being cooperative (as his predecessor was).

So you are saying the whole system was managed?

Yes, many officials played ball. There is no stakeholder who is above board or can be said to have played its part in Air India’s interests—UPA-I and UPA-II, the PMO for not acting even when they were told about it, EGoM for ordering aircraft, Praful Patel, bureaucrats in aviation ministry, the board members that have not played their role, the chairmen, senior management, and the unions who never tried to block them.

Some of the senior management personnel provided legitimacy by manipulating proposals or justifying them. Interestingly, quite a few of them were beneficiaries subsequently by getting post retirement jobs. Air India’s current state has thus been a consequence of the collapse of systems that are otherwise supposed to work.

You said you had sensed the decline early yet you stayed with the airline for next two decades despite knowing it was slipping?

As I was convinced about the bleak future of the airline even in the early 1990s, I almost decided on quitting Air India to join Essar. It was in 2003-04 again that I submitted my application under the voluntary retirement scheme. V. Thulasidas, the then chairman, however, could sweet talk me into withdrawing the application on an assurance that he will ensure that Air India was not marginalized, the product was upgraded, work practices changed so that Air India could withstand competition. I rue the decision because I had placed faith in false assurances. Thulasidas did not achieve anything of what he had promised. The subsequent failure to sign wage agreements that protected company’s interests on work parameters can be termed as one of the causes of today’s pitiable financial state of Air India.

What role did unions play?

Another weak link was that the unions held great sway on the management. They could strike at will, ground a flight when they wanted to, without the slightest realization that they were inconveniencing passengers and given the choice they will ditch the airline. The way the unions were handled left me baffled.

I had come from Coal India and seen my chairman M.S. Gujral, a former railway board chairman, take on the notorious Dhanbad mafia. He used to often say unions are never strong it is the managements which are weak. This was embedded in my mind. So when Yogi Deveshwar, the then Air India chairman, placed me as the head of the inflight services department, I acted tough with the cabin crew union and introduced quite a few changes deemed critical in upgrading the product. This naturally earned me the union’s ire.

As Deveshwar had by then quit and Brijesh Kumar, an IAS officer, had assumed charge transferred me out of the department at the Union’s behest—without even showing the basic courtesy of discussing the issues with me. If the management officials have been reluctant to take on the unions one can find an answer here—they don’t get support of the chief executive and stand penalized. I, however, refused to change and irrespective of consequences did what I felt was in the best interests of the organization.

What were the vigilance officer doing during these times?

The irony is that the vigilance chief more often than not look the other side or are not allowed to function by the incumbent chairman. As the vigilance chief is a deputationist their commitment to the company is also lacking in terms of protecting company’s long term interests.

There were, however, some exceptions. Both V. Subramanian and Sunil Arora as Board members voiced concerns on certain key issues. Only if heed was paid to what they had said, Air India wouldn’t have suffered the fate it eventually did. They were, however, made to pay a price for speaking on behalf of the airline. It is ironic that those who were complicit by their silence got rewarded.

How do you judge Arvind Jadhav?

He came with a total analysis of what was wrong with Air India but had no solutions for it. He would be remembered more for revealing the true state of airline finances, hitherto surreptitiously kept under wraps, which was indeed commendable, than for performance which was lacklustre any way. If Air India registered its highest loss of over 7,500 crore in fiscal 2011-12, a good part of the blame should be placed at his door because in the wake of diminishing market share, he made Air India a low-fare airline even though it’s operational costs were high.

How do you rate aviation minister Ajit Singh for Air India?

The doling out of 37,000 additional seats to Abu Dhabi was one terrible decision from the industry’s point of view. It may have benefited Jet Airways in India but it’s adverse impact will be felt by other airlines and airports. Singh has also showed a lack of vision for Air India. The national carrier shouldn’t have been specifically debarred from getting FDI by foreign airlines. Air India does need a joint venture partner to bring the requisite change in its functioning.

A lot of people say Mr. Bhargava should have raised all these issues when he was employed with the airline?

It needs to be appreciated that employees in all companies are governed by a certain code of conduct and you can’t transgress it. One can oppose the management only up to a point but not beyond because you can be labelled a rebel or invite disciplinary action. I am sure that once the book is out the people in the former category will still maintain that I am glorifying my role in the book whereas some of the many letters that I wrote to the incumbent chief executive have been referred to, or included, with the objective of lending credibility and making it clear that the views I have expressed in the book or have been expressing in the media were not post-retirement after thoughts. I can proclaim that I was never a silent spectator in Air India.

Do you think Air India is becoming irrelevant?

I would hate to say that! I am eternally optimistic though one cannot overlook the fact that less than one in five passengers now patronize Air India and this number will go down as foreign carriers are given more seats and new airlines start.

Its more a question of whether the government, as the airline owner, is sincere in ensuring that Air India survives. From its actions it does not appear so. The government needs to have a vision for Air India. With market environment becoming increasingly hostile and set to become even more hostile with the entry of AirAsia India and Tata-SIA in the coming months, the government needs to act. What it wishes to do and how? In what time span? These questions need to be spelt out. There can be no magic wand that can bring a change in its fortunes. Action, action, action is needed. Rather than piecemeal decisions or periodic infusion of funds, a comprehensive view needs to be taken.

Why are people still going back to Air India now as it now stabilizes a bit after a shocking decade?

There are numerous positives of Air India which cannot be ignored. Besides the fact that Air India aircraft offers better seat pitch, the cabin crew can be exceptionally good at times. The food served on board has always been a hallmark. With renewed emphasis being laid on on-time performance the negative impressions of the past can be erased. However, an airline management cannot be seen lacking faith in its own product by marketing it on the basis of “attractive" (read low) fares than the strength of the product. Air India needs to do much more because once more capacity induction takes place due entry of Air Asia India and Tata-SIA in the coming months the real test will come.

Where will Air India be five years from now?

It is difficult to predict but what can be said with confidence is that the period ahead will be extremely difficult. The government is of the erroneous belief that finance is the only issue hindering Air India’s progress. The reality is that Air India needs across-the-board changes which includes strong visionary leadership, change in unions’ attitude, reworking the business model and an environment which is free of political meddling.

The airline should be left to professionals to manage it. I have often maintained that it is not the government ownership which is hampering performance but political interference in its day-to-day functioning. Decisions being taken without considering the ground realities. We also can’t overlook the fact that even as a government-owned airline under JRD Tata’s leadership the airline was performing exceptionally well till 1978. The distinguishing fact being that it was then managed by professionals.

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