Slow governments kill businesses, livelihoods and lives

Slow governments kill businesses, livelihoods and lives

Representative image/PTI Photo

How do I begin? Can any of us, from our positions of privilege, indulge in writing about reviving the economy or seeking help for individual sectors, such as automobiles, housing or aviation, while millions of our desperate, hungry migrant workers are still trudging home along highways and many are perishing along the way, falling to a fate decreed by their own government, neglected by their fellow citizens? Can we be so presumptuous and naive as to believe that the economy can be revived when a third of our population – 450 million intra-state and inter-state migrant workers -- loses its livelihood overnight? It will be a travesty to embark on this vain venture of advising those in power on how to fix the economy or make our planes fly without first demanding from the government that it show genuine contrition, seek forgiveness from those who have been ill-treated and make amends by alleviating the immense misery and irreparable losses caused to them before talking loftily about reviving the economy.

Read: Coronavirus Lockdown: Flying in turbulent conditions

This preamble was necessary to set our priorities right, empathise with our poor and understand that businesses have symbiotic relationships and live and thrive in a vibrant and robust ecosystem. Whether it’s airlines or automobiles or IT companies, they cannot sustain or prosper in isolation. Even good healthcare, and in today’s context saving lives from the Covid pandemic, is dependent on a healthy, functioning economy. From the prime minister to the peon, from schools to roads, and from the cop to the soldier, everyone can be paid and provided for only if the economy is in the high gear of growth. If India has a vision to create a society with equitable growth, with a competitive economy in a globalised world and build a developed economy in the widest sense of that word, then the aviation sector -- airlines, air cargo, etc., along with road, rail and shipping -- is integral to that vision. The movement of people and goods is the lifeline of any economy. 

Road, rail and air travel are especially vital to the tourism sector, the largest employer in the unorganised sector in the world, including in India as most of our beaches, temples, palaces, forts, wildlife parks and mountains are located in the hinterlands.

They are the three wheels of tourism. And they have a ripple effect in generating employment for taxis, restaurants, eateries, hotels and home stays and the handicrafts sector. And all four, including shipping which is a big part of the supply chain, are currently stuttering. When the government is unable to come up with a bold financial relief package for the aviation sector or is unable to release funds through soft grants and loans to airlines, as has been notably done in the US and Western Europe, then the best way to revive aviation is to quickly lift the lockdown and restrictions and let it fly.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Indian aviation was in a time warp, strangulated by the Aircraft Act and Rules of 1934 and 1937 (when jet engines and helicopters had not yet been invented), like many British-era laws that India still follows such as the Official Secrets Act or the Sedition Act or laws governing industries. The surest and quickest way to give a fillip to aviation is to unshackle and loosen the grip of regulators over the airlines. Now more than ever, if Modi can invoke his 2014 election campaign mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, of ‘red carpet, not red tape’, of removing archaic laws instead of adding new ones, it will breathe new life into Indian industry in general, and aviation in particular. Otherwise, both the treasury of the government and the coffers of businesses will soon be empty. 

Whether it is about transporting migrants on trains and buses or re-opening airlines, as we have seen, it has all been a shameful mess. Let me cite an example. During the first lockdown period, a senior IAS officer from Karnataka posted in Delhi called me and requested urgent helicopter service for a friend in Bengaluru for medical evacuation. I told him my pilot would be ready within the hour to airlift the patient but there were a number of clearances required and many logistical issues, like police clearance for the technician and paramedic to reach the helipad, etc., that would impede the take-off of the helicopter although the lockdown rules allowed medical flights. I told him that since he was in government, if he could clear the bureaucratic hurdles, we could do the emergency evacuation. He could not, and the flight did not materialise. The moot point is, though the government notification allowed medical and cargo flights on paper, on the ground it did not work.

The resumption of flights on May 25 played out in a chaos, just like the Shramik trains carrying migrant workers. Airlines and passengers were not sure till the last minute if they would take off because many states were dilly-dallying and changing their stance. A number of flights were cancelled after people turned up at the airports. What could have been simple and smooth became convoluted. Utter confusion and lack of coordination reigns between the Centre and the states as they often work at cross purposes.

While the sudden lockdown was announced by the prime minister invoking the total powers of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, where states had to fall in line and had no leeway available to them in implementation, the lifting of the lockdown gave them discretion on many aspects, and they are not all acting prudently and in concert. In relaxing the lockdown, the Centre, keeping in mind the complexity of the ecosystem of supply chains and logistics, should have had detailed discussions and consultations with the states and ensured the seamless flow of people and goods by buses, trains and airlines across India, rather than leaving it to the individual states to make their own rules.

Detailed and thorough planning would have prevented a lot of misery to individuals, their loss of livelihood and the loss to the economy that were largely self-inflicted in the form of the lockdown. Going forward, we can revv up the economy faster if unnecessary regulation and red tape are swiftly done away with. That will help revive airlines faster than any relief package, which is in any case usually a chimera.   Slow governments kill businesses, livelihoods and lives. As Napoleon said, “In war, it is not cannons that win battles. It’s lightning speed.’’ It may be useful to bear this in mind even in the war on Covid-19.  

(The writer, founder of Deccan Aviation, pioneered low-cost airlines in India)

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