It is worse than the proverbial “selling the family’s silver to pay the grocer’s bill”. The decision to dispose of the landmark Air India building at Mumbai’s Nariman Point, at one end of the celebrated Marine Drive (reportedly among the world’s most highly-priced real estate), marks the driving of another nail into the Maharaja’s coffin.
For it confirms that all hope has been virtually abandoned of en economic revival of the once greatly-acclaimed international carrier. True that the headquarters of the airline moved to more politically-convenient and less-expensive New Delhi some years back, and it retains only three of the 23 floors at Nariman Point, yet the proposed sale of the building only points to how successive governments have run the carrier into the ground after it was nationalised.
One turning point came when the last of Air India’s in-house professionals was replaced by a bureaucrat as its chief executive; another was the still-dubious decision by Praful Patel of the UPA to merge the domestic and international carriers ~ opening the airways for private sector players to exploit.
When Air India received its first Boeing 747 the Jumbo jet was hailed as a “Palace in the sky”, now the crumbling edifice has come close to biting the dust ~ even the Archaeological Survey of India will not be in a position to protect the palace. The failure to attract a single bid for disinvestment effectively articulates the Rs 52,000-crore debt burden the Maharaja carries on his drooping shoulders and withered frame.
The plan to sell the Nariman Point property actually tells a Rise and Fall tale. It was a luxurious building with offices, conference rooms and dining facilities of five-star class. The collection of art ~ what role did it play in operating a commercial carrier? ~ was the object of much envy. Clearly the cow was being milked by bureaucrats who did not know a cockpit from a thrust-reverser, but everyone enjoyed themselves ~ including the political VIPs who seldom paid their travel bills.
Why just VIPs, even the staff bled the carrier dry, as a visit to a pilot’s home would testify, or would a stewardess’ carry-bag as she headed home after a flight. Imported goodies ~ Scotch and cigarettes included ~ were there for the taking. And the “taking” remains rampant even when the derecognised Maharaja is almost penniless ~ has there been any fall in the daily allowances and overtime bill? The culture of loot has persisted through all the negative balance sheets.
It is small comfort that the next owner of the building ~ the Jawaharal Nehru Port Trust is the front-runner ~ will retain the name of the first building to boast an internal escalator. The NDA-government has little time for sentimentality, projects itself as hard-boiled in such matters as junking the Planning Commission and UGC. So will it agree to the iconic building being renamed after the port?