NEW DELHI: Minister for civil aviation Hardeep Singh Puri on Tuesday told the Rajya Sabha that Air India, saddled by a Rs 60,000 crore debt, would face closure if not privatised. Replying to a debate on the Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020, Puri also countered opposition’s allegations of favouritism behind Adani Group winning bids for operating and developing six airports including Thiruvananthapuram, saying that there was a 19% gap between Kerala government’s and the winning bid.
The Aircraft (Amendment) Bill – which seeks to improve India’s aviation safety ratings and provide statutory status to regulatory institutions including DGCA- was passed by voice vote soon after Puri’s reply. The Bill proposes to raise the fines for violations to Rs 1 crore from Rs 10 lakh.
Puri assured the House that domestic civil aviation operations would return to pre-Covid levels by the end of the year. He also praised the Vande Bharat mission, under which 16 lakh people had been evacuated/repatriated from all over the world, that too at fares far lower than what other airlines are charging.
Earlier, responding to concerns raised by MPs like CPI’s Binoy Visvam regarding the move to privatise Air India, Puri said that members should understand that the choice for the government is really between privatisation of the national carrier and closing it down.
“If we could help it, we would keep it with us, but with a Rs 60,000 crore debt, the choice is not between privatisation and non-privatisation….the choice is between privatising and closing down. We are confident that the airline, in running condition, doing extremely well, will be given to its new owner in order for Air India and its flag to be kept flying,” he said.
Refuting allegations by Congress’s K C Venugopal that Adani Group had won bids to develop and operate 6 airports in violation of norms and against advice by some of its own ministries and departments, Puri said no competitive open bidding could take place in past 15 years due to the prior experience clause. “I am making a limited point, we are progressing from a limited number of players in the airport sector, to expanding and opening it out to global entities,” he said.
He added that while the country’s busiest airports at Delhi and Mumbai account for 33% of traffic, the six airports awarded to Adani Group account for just 9%.
Talking about Thiruvananthapuram airport bid in particular – raised by Venugopal and Viswam – Puri said the issue was discussed among the government of Kerala, NITI Aayog and empowered group of secretaries. “Kerala said they would participate provided they could obtain right of first refusal (ROFR), that is, if their bid came to within 10% of ROFR, it will go in their favour. When the sealed bid were opened, this gap was 19.3%,” he said while noting that Adani was already running a successful port within a proximate distance of the airport.
Puri also countered Congress leader Vivek Tankha’s figures on India’s falling safety ratings, saying DGCA was awarded the ICAO president’s awarded in 2019, placed in Category I by most international regulators and its record of accidents per million flights was 0.82 as against global average of 3.09 in 2019.

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