Shut AI down
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Hundreds of pilots at state-owned Air India went on strike on Thursday, forcing the airline to cancel flights, leading to cascading chaos at India's airports. The flashpoint, as before, is the demand from those pilots formerly with Indian Airlines that they be paid as much as those who were with Air India before the botched merger of those two carriers. The simple point that Air India is monstrously in debt and that it would be ridiculous to up already high salaries now seems to be one the government is unable to make forcefully enough.
Possibly the government's culpability in bringing Air India to this pass makes it speak softly in argument. The merger was poorly thought out; and the decision by an empowered group of ministers in UPA 1 to take on additional debt to purchase a new fleet is now being seen for the folly it was. That decision was born of the misguided belief that the Centre has a duty to "revive" Air India, a mantra that has been repeated by one civil aviation minister after another. We now, post-reshuffle, have a new minister in charge, Vayalar Ravi. The last thing that he needs is to have this albatross around our necks for the foreseeable future. The wise move for Ravi would be to acknowledge that past decisions have dug Air India into a hole of mismanagement and debt — Rs 40,000 crore deep — from which there is no escaping. Wiping out Air India's debt would cost several times more than the Centre spends on rural health annually. This is not an expenditure that a government can justify — especially on something in which the private sector has amply demonstrated its ability to satisfy the public's needs. Instead of throwing good money after bad, the time has come to stand up and say: yes, Air India must be shut down.
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