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Double blow to airport staff

New Delhi, Feb. 2: Agitating airport employees came under pressure from two sides today when flights operated, but related services collapsed.

Late this evening, the Centre directed the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to invoke the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation Act, 1984, if there was a threat to disruption of services and to passengers and airport property.

The punishment for a person convicted under the law is life imprisonment.

Earlier in the day, Delhi High Court restrained the protesters from interfering with the smooth functioning of airports.

In an interim order on a civil suit filed by the AAI, Justice Swatanter Kumar ordered the agitating unions to ensure that demonstrations were not held within 500 metres of airport complexes.

The order applies across the country, but the context was the blockade by the protesters at Delhi airport, stopping passengers from approaching the terminal and causing huge traffic jams.

Directing the unions not to interfere with exit and entry, the court said they could continue with their protest without interfering with the working of airports.

If these two developments were a blow to the employees, the government was slapped with a suit by Anil Ambani’s Reliance Airport Developers.

It moved Delhi High Court, seeking an order setting aside the “arbitrary” tender evaluation process that resulted in the award of bids for modernisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports to its rivals.

Sources said the civil aviation ministry had directed the AAI to invoke the safety act, under which police can immediately arrest agitators after a simple FIR is filed.

It has been used only once in the history of Indian civil aviation in 1999.

The sources said it was an extreme step that would be taken only if it became absolutely necessary for the safety of passengers and airport property.

Civil aviation minister Praful Patel, secretary Ajay Prasad and the AAI management were not available for comment, but the sources said the decision had been taken because the industrial action was illegal as the employees had not given either a charter of demands or a notice to the management.

The decision would also have been influenced by the blockade in Delhi, which did not spare even VIPs like former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi and former BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu.

The Delhi High Court order also strengthened the government’s hands.

At the same time, however, the government offered to talk to the employees.

“We are open to talking to the employees on their grievances. I hope they will reconsider their decision,” civil aviation secretary Ajay Prasad said.

Earlier in the day, the Left parties had asked the government to start talks.

Prasad, however, made it clear the talks would not include “revisiting the decision” to privatise the two airports.

M.K. Ghoshal, the AAI workers’ union general secretary, said: “We are not unwilling to talk either, but I do not know with whom we have to talk. We have merely been given indications that the government wants to talk.”

Ghoshal said the workers would not relent till a clear assurance was given to them that privatisation would be rolled back.

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