In the early years of reform, I found myself, one day, standing next to a somewhat corpulent businessman at Netaji Subhas Airport, Calcutta, waiting for the bus to take us to our aeroplane. Ranged in a row in front of us was a fleet of shiny new private sector aircraft that had then just been authorized to give Indian Airlines a run for its money. His eyes glistening with joy, the businessman said to me, “Does it not make you proud to be an Indian'”
Did it' Does it' The main argument for the public sector trotted out in the bad old days of Nehruvian socialism was that there was a dearth of private-sector entrepreneurial talent and private sector resources in order to make the Great Leap Forward to economic development; hence the need for governmental mobilization of public funds from within and without the country to reach new frontiers of growth and diversification. Where, today, are all those private sector airlines we gazed at that day' East-West, Modiluft, Damania, NEPC' Where have all the flowers gone'
The great survivor has been Naresh Goyal’s Jet Airways. Apart from late-comer Sahara, it is the only private sector airline to have lasted the course. And from the look of it, Jet Airways will be with us for many more years to come — subject always to Arun Shourie and his cohorts not nobbling it along the way. For although one would imagine that as the single most striking example of private-sector enterprise in infrastructure, specifically the civil airlines business, Naresh Goyal would be Arun Shourie’s final argument for privatization. Alas, for some reason unfathomable to us who are outside the loop, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is doing all it can to cripple Jet Airways and get at Naresh Goyal personally. I suspect the root reason is that Goyal — like me — rather likes Muslims.
To return, however, to the gravamen of my argument, I did not reply to my businessman acquaintance then because I was left wondering what answer to give him. Why should an array of private airlines for the use of the likes of my corpulent friend and me make one proud to be an Indian' Should there not be much more pride in an India which invents, as two college boys have just done, a bicycle chain guard which prevents the rider’s dhoti from being caught in the chain — a diurnal problem for something like 200 million Indians who were a dhoti and ride cycles'
Is it not the metro which carries more Indians a day than all our civil aviation put together carries in a year which should be our real source of pride' Should we not be concentrating on larger numbers and cleaner, air-cooled or air-conditioned buses than the number and variety of fancy cars hitting our streets as the symbol of our economic maturity' Does not a Janata Shatabadi mean much more to many more Indians than ever-faster and sleekly better-serviced Rajdhanis' Which matters more in terms of women’s empowerment: 150 elected women MPs whom Sharad Yadav and his anti-parkati brigade are preventing from securing reservations in the Lok Sabha or the one million women, including some 25 lakh scheduled caste and scheduled tribe women, who have already been elected to positions and posts in the panchayats and nagarpalikas'
Can you remember when The Telegraph or any other middle-class newspaper commissioned a major story (or even a thundering editorial) on women in panchayati raj, as against justifiedly indignant comment on male chauvinism in Parliament House' Something has gone seriously wrong with the value system underlying our economic philosophy. When on the eve of Independence, Gandhiji invoked daridranarayana (god as the lord of the poor), it became the talisman for an entire generation of Indians. My generation of pop-eyed idealists thought in the early Sixties that Gandhi was Forever. Gen-Next, as I understand the newer crop is called, asks only, “What’s in it for me'” It is they who think Shourie and born-again Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh are their heroes because the National Democratic Alliance government have found Rs 15,000 crore to bail out the 2 million investors in United Trust of India but, in the name of the God of the Fiscal Deficit, baulk at putting out more than Rs.15,000 crore for food security, which is the present limit of the food subsidy for 300 million Indians struggling for survival below the poverty-line.
I usually travel Indian Airlines as a last despairing bow to my socialist youth. But I have of late had to spend so much time in the air that I have started filling my Jetair Frequent Flyer quota. Here is my evaluation of the two airlines: Jetair aircaft are newer, cleaner, more nattily maintained and far more attractive in their interior design. Their in-flight magazine — which is very good, in the same league, I would say, with the Indian Airlines inflight magazines — informs me that Jetair has an outstanding record of punctuality.
I am afraid my own limited experience of flying both airlines is that I have been delayed almost as often on Jetair as I have been on Indian Airlines on the routes they commonly fly. Perhaps I am being punished by some God of Privatization. And the food on Jetair is much more attractively served than on Indian Airlines, but there is little to choose by way of the doubtful quality of both. Drink, alas, is unavailable on either!
The really striking difference is in passenger handling and cabin crew. The smile is much broader on the Jetair crew. They are uniformly younger and smarter, slimmer, better dressed, better educated, much better versed in common courtesies, much better English-speakers, and very much more PLU than the Indian Airlines lot. As a consumer, I would much rather have the Jetair crowd looking after my creature comforts and little wants than Indian Airlines. Yet, I fly Indian Airlines when I can and Jetair only when I have to.
Why' Because as an Indian — rather than as an airlines customer — I am proud of an airline which in its choice of passenger handling and cabin-crew employees does not reject a woman because she is old or ugly or a man because he is fat and waddles; which does not think speaking English with a dreadful behenji accent is a disqualification; which does not prefer the convent type to the vernacular SC/ST; which leverages its workforce rather than its consumers. I have no doubt that Jet Airways is the better airline for consumers. But I think Indian Airlines is the better airline for India. I am glad there is place in our democracy — and our liberalized economy — for both. Happy birthday, 9W!