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Just when the privatization of Pawan Hans finally seemed ready for take-off after three failed attempts over six years, it developed a serious snag. On 29 April, the Centre’s Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had cleared the air carrier’s sale to Star9 Mobility, a three-way consortium led by Cayman Islands-based Almas Global Opportunity Fund (with a 49% stake in the venture to go with Big Charter’s 26% and Maharaja Aviation’s 25%). For reasons that remain unclear, the panel overlooked an order issued on 20 April by the Kolkata bench of the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) for action against Almas over its failure to pay off some creditors of EMC, an insolvent electricity carrier, as required by an earlier deal it made to acquire the latter. Accused of “wilful contravention of the approved resolution plan", Almas’s eligibility for the acquisition of Pawan Hans is now in doubt. The sell-off of India’s state-run helicopter service, halted this week, will have to wait for the air to clear.

That air is thickened by the fact that only sketchy data is available in the public domain on Almas’s finances, while the business record of its partners is patchy at best. This opacity led critics to wonder if the winning bidder for Pawan Hans had made the cut on a net worth of at least 300 crore. The government’s go-ahead last month suggests it was satisfied at that point in time with Star9 Mobility’s submissions on its financial status. Still, to the extent that the cabinet panel’s oversight of the NCLT ruling was a goof-up, it was a reckless one under such circumstances. At the very least, it reveals a failure of due diligence that our disinvestment programme can ill afford, given the political opposition it frequently faces. As civil aviation remains a somewhat ‘sensitive sector’ from a security point of view, private operators cannot be allowed into our skies without adequate scrutiny of their antecedents. Now that the credentials of Almas bear the smudge of an insolvency code violation, unless it is proven false on appeal, the ideal way out would be to restart the process and invite fresh bids.

Owned jointly by the government and state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Pawan Hans has done very poorly as a monopoly operator of civilian choppers. A delayed sale would thus be a setback for hopes of a market revival. With over 40 helicopters, it offers flights to various tourist destinations and pilgrimage spots in the Himalayas, apart from ferrying ONGC personnel on work. Its service network has hardly expanded since its 1985 inception. While regulatory hold-backs are partly to blame, lethargy on its part can explain why Indian demand for short air hops has long gone unfulfilled. Across the world, business travellers who are pressed for time can rely on urban chopper rides from airports to rooftop helipads, but our cities offer no such escape from traffic snarls. Decades ago, when we began opening our economy, GE’s chief Jack Welch had grumbled about valuable time lost in transit on a visit to India. It’s a sad comment on our neglect of short-haul conveyance that nothing has changed on this score since. To be sure, our latest drone policy envisions pilotless two-seater sky cabs. If all the enabling safety checks are met and fares are kept affordable to more than just the wealthy, these could transform air mobility. Even if air cabs are less than a decade away, however, we must not let helicopter services languish. Just as we need Pawan Hans privatized, we need this market revitalized.

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