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As Privatisation of More Airports Hits Runway, Jittery AAI Staff Plans Protest Action

Ahead of the next round of privatisation set to kickstart from April, the unions have given a call for a one-day dharna on March 31, followed by lunch hour demonstrations every Wednesday.
AIrport Privatisation

Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Multiple union bodies representing different class of employees of the Airport Authority of India (AAI) have planned to intensify their campaign against privatisation and launch an agitation against handing over of airports to private players.

Under the banner of the Joint Forum of Unions and Associations of AAI, the unions have urged the Centre to roll back its plan for privatising more Indian airports.

To begin with, the unions have given a call to stage a one-day dharna on Wednesday, March 31, in front of all AAI establishments, including the airports controlled by it and the regional headquarters. This will be followed by lunch hour demonstrations every Wednesday.

Having earmarked an ambitious target of raising Rs. 2.5 lakh crore through asset monetisation in the upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year, the Narendra Modi-led Central government has given a green signal to privatise AAI-owned airports in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, as announced last month by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her Budget Speech.

Consequently, the Ministry of Civil Aviation identified 13 AAI airports to be monetised through the OMDA (Operation, Management, Development Agreement) model, as per an Indian Express report.

Among these, the AAI board had approved the leasing of six airports – Bhubaneshwar, Varanasi, Amritsar, Raipur, Indore and Trichy – earlier, while seven more airports – Jharsuguda, Kushinagar, Gaya, Kangra, Jalgaon, Jabalpur, and Salem – were reportedly shortlisted recently.  

The AAI plans to bundle the airports in the latter group with the former one before offering it to the prospective bidders. This decision is in line with its proposed new model to club a profitable airport with a non-profitable one, before putting them on the block.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation is hoping to raise Rs. 20,000 crore through sale of assets under the upcoming round of privatisation that is set to kickstart from April.

The Centre has already privatised six airports – Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Mangalore, Jaipur, Guwahati, and Thiruvananthpuram – last year. Besides, the government is also now looking to divest the remaining equity stakes held by AAI in the Delhi (26%), Mumbai (26%), Bengaluru (13%) and Hyderabad (13%) airports.

While the airport privatisation push may have enthused investors, it has sent jitters through the AAI staff. If past experience is anything to go by, employees will be the “worst sufferers” of the privatisation process, the unions argue.

“The Centre is going ahead with the handing over of more airports to private companies, despite the unions raising concerns numerous times regarding the change in their service conditions post-privatisation,” Balraj Singh Ahlawat, convenor, joint forum, said on Tuesday.

Citing an example, he said: “Due to the substandard terms and conditions that were offered by the private operator after the Delhi and Mumbai Airports were privatised, majority of the staff refused to opt for service under them. However, AAI managed to absorb them since quite a few profitable airports were still under its control.”

Now, when these very airports too are set to undergo a change in their ownership, “there is no word over the fate of the huge staff of AAI,” he added.

Ahlawat, also a general secretary of Airports Authority Employees Union (AAEU), alleged that so far “no serious attempts” have been made to pay heed to the concerns of the employees unions and take them into confidence.

The office of General Manager (public relations), corporate communications at AAI declined to comment over the allegation when asked on Tuesday.

Moreover, with the aviation sector still reeling under the pressure of COVID-induced economic shocks, unions feel that a decision to invite private players to undertake airport operations is “not going to be a healthy bargain.”

“At a time when entire world and especially [the] Aviation Sector is struggling to come on terms, the efforts should have been [focused] on improvement through existing agencies like AAI and not pass on the responsibility to those private players who have very little experience of Airport Management,” said a letter dated March 22, addressed to the Chairman of AAI, by the joint forum of AAI unions and associations.

Employees Up In Arms in ‘20-30 Sectors’

Protests against the Centre’s policies are not just limited to few sectors, with multiple government employees’ unions arguing that privatisation of national assets is against the “interests” of citizens.

“There are over 20-30 sectors, including oil, defence, railways among others, where a struggle against privatisation has been waged by the respective employees,” Tapan Sen of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) told NewsClick. He added that the recently held “Anti Privatisation Day” received a huge response, adding that resistance against privatisation of public sector will be intensified.

“The common slogan of the employees has changed to ‘we will not allow the privatisation’. The Central Trade Unions will chart another national programme in the future,” he added.

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