Ironically, the Indian government was initially proud of the Tatas and the way they were running Air India. It was the only shining jewel India had when the British left in 1947.
Tata Sons emerging as the winning bidder for the debt-ridden, loss-making Air India, is much more than history coming full circle. For the Tatas, Air India was not a business, it was their dearest baby that was snatched away by the villain — in this case, the sovereign government of India.
Ironically, the Indian government was initially proud of the Tatas and the way they were running Air India. It was the only shining jewel India had when the British left in 1947. Having launched Air India in the 1930s, JRD Tata hoped free India would help Air India scale newer heights. It was not to be.
After Independence, Pan American and Trans World Airlines, along with KLM, Air France, etc. began flying to India. But it was Air India that flew the diplomat Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, to Moscow as independent India’s first Ambassador. She wrote glowingly of the airline’s standards of service.
JRD had proposed to the government that an international service be started under a sister concern, Air India International. To his pleasant surprise, the government agreed — and Air India International’s first flight to London took off in June 1948 with JRD himself on board.
Air India was gaining in popularity, and the government was keen to see it grow. So Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, the minister for communications, suggested a postal service connecting the four corners of India, with Nagpur in the centre of the country as the hub for overnight sorting. It was a good idea — but JRD pointed out that night landing facilities needed to be set up before Air India could look into the proposal. The government disagreed — and it was adamant.
After the end of the war, the United States had offloaded many Dakota aircraft into the market, and industrialists of all stripes had jumped into aviation, with or without experience of running such a business. In India, where barely a few companies could survive, more than a dozen airline companies came up. JRD called a meeting of Air India, Air Services of India, Airways (India), and Indian National Airways to jointly oppose the idea of an overnight postal service.
Kidwai, who was hell bent on starting the service, was extremely upset. He went ahead and launched a new service called Himalayan Aviation in 1948. In response, JRD wrote an open letter to the minister, demolishing his claims about profits. A furious Kidwai determined to teach JRD a lesson. Seeing things going out of hand, Nehru stepped in and publicly declared that the Tatas were doing a fine job, and that Air India had been praised widely for its efficient and friendly service.
To defuse the situation, the prime minister suggested setting up a committee to look into JRD’s proposal. The committee, under then Chief Justice of Bombay High Court G S Rajadhyaksha, reprimanded the government for having issued licences without thinking of economic feasibility. “Where four companies cannot survive, indiscriminately issuing licences to a dozen more is arbitrary,” it said. JRD’s stand was vindicated, but the government was antagonised.
Soon began a clamour for Air India’s nationalisation. In an interview to the Associated Press, JRD said nationalisation of any sector was not good for the country — it would lead to politicisation, which would be disastrous. Bureaucrats working for nationalised companies reported to the concerned ministry, and could never take independent decisions. He sent a copy of the interview to Nehru hoping the prime minister would have second thoughts. Nehru did nothing.
Soon, as JRD had feared, two companies, Ambica Airlines and Jupiter Airways, declared bankruptcy. Finally, the day arrived in 1952 when all the aviation companies were to be merged into one and run by the government. As a last ditch attempt, JRD suggested forming two companies: one for the domestic sector, the other for international operations. He worried that all companies would be measured by the same yardstick, and he did not want Indian aviation’s reputation to be ruined outside the country. But Nehru and his government did not want to listen.
JRD appealed to the government to appoint an independent committee to compensate the companies which were being merged. That too was rejected. JRD was deeply disturbed. But it wasn’t over yet.
At a meeting with the minister for communications, Jagjivan Ram, JRD asked: “Do you think it is easy to run an airline just the way you run other departments? You will see for yourself.” Jagjivam Ram replied coolly: “It may be a government department, but we want your help to run it.” This was rubbing salt into JRD’s wounds — to first gobble up his enterprise, and then ask him to run it.
The meeting ended inconclusively.
Nehru tried to pacify JRD, but it was of no use. The government did not pay the Tatas their rightful compensation. Soon began Air India’s slide. The rest, as they say, is history.
When Chou survived, AI plane and crew did not
At the time the first Afro-Asian Conference was held in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, Chinese planes could not fly long distances. Nehru, who wanted to impress Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, was keen that Air India fly him in from Hong Kong.
Air India’s Kashmir Princess flew to Hong Kong to pick up the Chinese leader. But Chou did not show up, and after waiting for some hours, the aircraft took off for Bandung with some junior Chinese bureaucrats and technicians. Over the South China Sea, a time bomb went off and caused a fire on board, and despite the best efforts of Captain D K Jathar and chief stewardess Gloria Berry to land on the water, the aircraft crashed into the sea, killing 16 of the 19 people aboard. A shattered JRD went to meet Capt Jathar’s wife in Bombay and asked Capt Vishwanath, who was originally supposed to have operated the ill-fated flight, to leave immediately for the crash site.
Chou got in touch with Vishwanath and asked, “Were you not warned?” “No,” Vishwanath replied. “But the New China News Agency warned us,” said Chou. “Then why did you not tell us? Why did you put the lives of the crew and eight of your own citizens at risk?” Vishwanath asked. He received no answer.
Two years later, as the nation celebrated the silver jubilee of Indian civil aviation on October 15, 1957, President Rajendra Prasad praised JRD for helping place India on the world’s aviation map. He was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.
Girish Kuber is Editor of Loksatta, and the author of The Tatas: How a Family Built a Business and a Nation (HarperCollins India, 2019)
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