Airport Workers Strike: Need For Taking the Bull By its Horns!

[This write-up is a sequel to the one carried in March, 2006 issue of Liberation, Privatisation Takes Off! Labour Rights Crashland!, on privatization of Delhi and Mumbai airports.]

Around 14000 employees of Airport Authority of India (AAI), led by the Joint Forum of Employees Unions of AAI, struck work on 11 March midnight, continued until 13 March evening protesting the proposed closure of existing airports operating in HAL, Bangalore and Begumpet, Hyderabad in view of inauguration of new Greenfield airports in Devanahalli and Shamshabad. The strike was withdrawn a day ahead of inauguration of Shamshabad, Hyderabad airport by Sonia Gandhi, the Chairperson of UPA.

The strike was withdrawn after getting an assurance from the Minister of Civil Aviation Praful Patel that the existing airports in Bangalore and Hyderabad will not be fully closed and will be used for defence purposes and in case of exigencies, while workers will not be affected. This strike was a dilution or a climb down from the stand of unions which went on strike in 2006 demanding withdrawal of privatization of modernization and subsequent hand over of airports of Delhi and Mumbai to private companies. The dilution started with refusal to use the term ‘strike’ even, and with diplomatically calling it a ‘non-cooperation’.

Neither the union nor the Left parties, on whom the government is dependent for its own survival, protested the civil aviation policy that prevented any airport operating within 150 km radius from the location of the new airports, or the agreement that allowed such a clause. This clause in the agreement has become an obstacle in the way of planning a new airport in Greater Noida, closer to Delhi as well. Perhaps, the only exception was Mysore and Hassan airports functioning within 150 KM near Bangalore as it was included in the agreement itself. Making closure of existing airports a precondition for opening new airports is against the competition policy of the government, and is also not a wise decision from the angle of national interest. There are international conventions to the contrary and one instance is London where five airports are functioning in the same city. As for the issues raised in the backdrop of the strike, the government has only assured that AAI will be given more opportunity and will be allowed to build and operate airports on its own in the future and not in case of Bangalore and Hyderabad for which the workers went on strike. In fact, the Minister has been successful in persuading unions to withdraw the strike without achieving anything substantial because using existing airports for defence and purposes of exigencies amounts to closure as that cannot fetch much revenue.

The worst is that the first ever ‘Aerotropolis’ (Airport City) and an agreement for first ever privately owned airport in the country has been signed by none other than the West Bengal government led by the CPI(M) and the Left Front (LF) which claims itself to be the champion of anti-privatisation struggles. The West Bengal Government has appointed West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) to be the facilitator for the proposed Aerotropolis to be developed in the Durgapur region by a Special Purpose Vehicle called ‘Bengal Aerotropolis Project Limited (BAPL)’ which has assigned the job of building the airport to the Changi Airport, Singapore with connections with the infamous Salim Group of Indonesia. The project is to acquire more than 2300 acres of land which would incorporate an airport, industrial and IT Park, Logistics hub, retail complex, hospital and housing complex. The land would be acquired by the WBIDC and be handed over to BAPL on a lease of 99 years. Opposing privatization elsewhere and signing an agreement for privatization in its own land: this is the doublespeak of the CPI(M).

The government has a clear-cut policy for the aviation industry that nurtures the needs of a miniscule minority in society who are neo-rich and elite while leaving the overwhelming majority of the poor and downtrodden in the lurch. The government is planning to have 100 operational airports by 2008 and 500 big and small airports across the country in the near future, say, in the next 10-12 years, in order to cultivate the needs of elites. The idea is to have an airport in each district. This idea appears to be too ambitious given the level of disparity that exists in the country. The disparity is also amply evident from the geographical extent and concentration of industrialization and urbanization in the country. In spite of relatively greater urbanization because of comparatively increased capitalist development in the country, only 24 airports share 94% of the total air traffic in the country, till date, out of which 16 key airports offer international services while the other eight connect the domestic sector. Only 6% of total air traffic is spread over 36 smaller and regional airports. In such a scenario, dreaming of an airport in each district without attempting for a uniform and even growth of various backward regions spread across the country is an absurdity. Getting obsessed with higher growth rate that is always bloated and illusory in the backdrop of heavy flow of foreign capital and lopsided development of services sector and that generally do not reflect the real state of affairs of the economy and the living conditions of the masses is not a healthy sign of growth.

Moreover, according to the government, India needs $475 billion for infrastructure in next five years, of which $130 billion has to come from abroad in order to sustain the growth rate of 9-10 percent. Hence, the government is consciously devising many projects that can attract foreign and domestic corporate investment. In such a backdrop, providing a level playing field to government agencies like AAI is only a mirage. We are witnessing such a level playing field giving way to slow and gradual death of PSUs in various sectors like telecom. The instance of ITI and BSNL are certain cases in point.

But, unfortunately, the Left-led trade unions and their parties who are in a position to decide are invariably relenting without challenging substantial and real issues of policies. Whatever protest of any magnitude is raised by the ‘official’ Left inevitably turns into a losing battle because they protest only about the ‘level playing field’ while agreeing to concede privatization in principle. Silent withdrawal of various strike calls issued recently, be it in railways or in telecom, be it the recent chain of strikes in airports, are indicative of the weakness of the ‘social democratic’ Left in the country. The social democratic Left make the objectively emerging waves of workers resistance and struggles toothless when it is not targeted against the fundamental and real issue.
The need of the hour is the resurgence of the Left that can cope with the objectively emerging workers and peoples struggles.

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