Stink Operation

airport1.jpgStrike 1. March11. IGI airport. AAI unions. Surprisingly, flights on time. So a strike? Impacts? Strike 2. Breath-holding views. Inconvenience deeply regretted. Action? Demands met. Strike 3. Lasting less than 48 hours. Out. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) unions called off their largely ineffective ‘non-cooperation’ strike on Thursday evening but without getting any firm commitment on their demands. The union had held a relay hunger-strike at all 126 airports across the country on Tuesday to press their demands. The strike was hardly able to affect the working in the IGI on a large basis. The passengers in the domestic terminal were almost unaware of the consequences laid by the strike. However, at the international terminal, it was a different story. The AAI employees who went on strike were the ones working at pump houses, aerobridges, cargo, telephone exchanges and other attendants. So with no cleaners, the terminal looked no less, in fact worse, than a local railway platform. So much for going for the luxury of traveling by air! The scenario was similar to a flood of garbage through which the passengers had to swim their way out. The toilets smelled awful with toilet paper and other ‘stuff’ lying around and obviously no one to clean up the mess. Even as the staff was not permitted to clean, the employees on strike went and littered the place purposely; opening taps in the bathrooms and emptying dustbins everywhere. The other, comparatively ‘cleaner’ problems were the long wait for passengers to be able to claim their baggage due to lack of staff to operate the conveyer belts and the flight information display system not in function. While the pandemonium set loose in the airport, over a 100 union members took out a march outside the domestic terminal, shouting slogans against the civil aviation minister and prominent leaders of the ruling party. So what exactly was the crux of the strike? The union had been demanding a re-look at the shutting down of existing airports at Bangalore and Hyderabad as and when the new green-field airports come up there. A green-field project is one where a private entity or a public-private joint venture builds and operates a new facility, entering into Build-Own-Transfer (BOT) or Build-Own-Operate (BOO) contracts for this purpose. AAI gets nearly Rs. 450 crores from Bangalore and Hyderabad airports and once they close, only a fraction of that amount, in terms of charges of ATC services, will come from the new airports. They also demanded to continue the employees’ present permanent jobs with the state-run AAI and refused to join private airport operators like Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL) and Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL). The AAEU also alleged that the Government granted the terminal handling to the private parties sidelining the assurance that except city side all functions will be carried out by the AAI employees.With this overview of the demands, it can be clearly seen that the AAI union does not quite agree to the privatization of airports due to the threat it lays on the amount of management and power enjoyed by the union currently. But the concern is that if privatization of the airports is a pre-requisite for the development of the country or it can be done away with as the union demands. Private participation in public infrastructure presupposes an environment different from that when government exclusively owned and operated the facility. The need for private investors to achieve predetermined levels of financial performance translates into developing systems to identify and manage risks inherent in these projects. It is noteworthy that the green-field airport projects, such as the Bangalore International Airport, account for just 10 per cent of global investment in private airport facilities.It is also significant to note that while many Government-controlled airports may not have recovered their operating costs, the use of capital goods assures a reasonable return on investment. The country is `crying for infrastructure’. At this juncture, where the country needs to keep pace with the developing world and move along an upward sloping progress, airport privatization is a bold move by the Government with far reaching implications. Public-Private Participations (PPPs) work well in a beneficial business and a legal environment. It is to the Government’s and the investors’ advantage if such an environment can be created without delay. Since everything comes with its pros and cons, privatization too needs to be given room for its shortcomings.So the finale to the strike? Well, the aviation minister Praful Patel took less than 48 hours to realize the solution to the problem. The minister promised and compromised with the demands put forward by the union and guaranteed that in future no such agreement shall be entered where they have to shut existing airports in order to set the path for new private ones. However, the strike was called off only on a word of promise, not a firm commitment. With the union being assured to be allowed to resort to the same, if their demands were not met, I’m not sure if the Government will be able to defy the old saying- ‘Promises are meant to be broken’. Well, I hope they only prefer avoiding another sticky rather stinky situation. For now, there is a lot of mess to be cleaned up. Tania Gupta

[Image courtesy:]