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February 19, 1997


Citibank : One-in-a-million Ad

'Why should I allow Singapore Airlines into my country?'

C M Ibrahim Suddenly, he is the man of the moment. Even as Chand Mahal Ibrahim flew off to Bangalore to oversee the Janata Dal campaign in the by-elections in Karnataka, Delhi resounded with rumours that he would be relieved of one of his two portfolios in the forthcoming reshuffle. Ibrahim seemed supremely unconcerned. Both his ministries -- civil aviation and information & broadcasting -- were in the midst of separate storms. His opposition to the Tata-Singapore Airlines project had attracted the ire of Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Industry Minister Murasoli Maran. His draft Broadcasting Bill had most of the media up in arms.

In this interview with Sundaymagazine editor Vir Sanghvi, spread over two hours in his Bangalore home, he was only too willing to hold forth on both issues, and spoke with a rare candour.

Tata - Singapore Airlines

What are your objections to the Tata-Singapore project?

I am not against foreign investment. But foreign investment should be in areas where we need it.

I see civil aviation as having two aspects. Infrastructure as in traffic control and the building of airports. That is the first aspect. The second aspect is airlines.

We need to upgrade our airports and air traffic control to international standards. But we have not always got the results we wanted. We had given Raytheon a contract for an air traffic control system which was supposed to have been installed last year in Delhi. But it was delayed and now they are saying that it will be done in March.

We need investment in airports. Delhi has only one runway. We need somebody to build a second one. But nobody is coming forward for these investments.

My policy is clear. Where airports are concerned I will welcome even 100 per cent foreign investment.

But I am against airlines of another country coming and operating in our domestic circuit. No Western country allows a foreign airline to take over a domestic circuit. Even Singapore Airlines does not have foreign investment. Why should I allow Singapore Airlines into my country?

Are you doing this to protect Indian Airlines?

I am all for fair competition. But will the foreign airlines fulfil the social obligations that Indian Airlines does? I give 50 per cent concession to army jawans, students and senior citizens. Indian Airlines flies on non-commercial sectors. At a time of national emergency, Indian Airlines flies free.

Will Singapore Airlines do all this?

Supposing they agreed to do this, would you then approve?

No. Domestic private airlines should do this. The reason that Singapore Airlines wants to come is because they want to use our domestic services to feed their international services. Why should I allow it?

Supposing the Tatas came to you and made a proposal without Singapore Airlines.

Yes. Immediately. Why does Ratan Tata need Singapore Airlines?

He came to see me and I told him, 'I admire your family but why do you need to bring in Singapore? Do it yourself.'

I told Ratan Tata, 'Basically your are an Indian first and a businessman next. Don't forget that.'

I think I have convinced him.

No you haven't. They had a press conference at which they suggested they had convinced you.

Time will tell (laughs). Time will tell who has convinced whom.

But are your objections relevant? Delhi is full of stories that the decision will be made over your objections.

I don't think so. I have put my views before the Cabinet. But of course, the Cabinet is the final authority.

And there is a strong lobby in the Cabinet in favour of the proposal, starting with the industries minister.

People are trying to create problems between me and Maran. There is no disparity. If I had been in his place I would have done the same thing. There is no controversy. We both understand. There are no misunderstandings.

Are you sure? In his last day in office, the industries secretary accused the civil aviation secretary of being a malign influence in the deal. That seems to suggest at least one misunderstanding.

(Laughs) That is between the bureaucracy. Secretaries may fight. But Maran and I are not fighting. No controversy.

My position is clear. We want foreign investment in infrastructure sectors but I am uneasy about letting a foreign airline take over our domestic routes.

What about Jet Airways then?

They will have to divest. The two foreign airlines will have to shed their shares. There can be no compromise. The same rules apply to everyone.

If your are so keen on foreign investment in infrastructure, then why are you doing your best to stall the Tata-Singapore scheme to build a new airport at Bangalore?

Do you know what the scheme is? They have a concept called BOO. This means 'build, operate and own'. They will own this airport for life and we will be their guests.

Do you expect any government to agree to this? I have told them that the BOO concept exists nowhere in the world. I have suggested the BOT concept: 'build, operate and transfer'. They are saying no. We won't transfer if to you, we will own it.

Secondly, they want air traffic control in their own hands. Then, they want to be able to decide who to give landing rights to or not. They will also fix the landing charges. Our domestic airport also, they want closed down.

I told Ratan Tata, 'How can you even ask for all this? Go to the BOT concept and after three- four years if it doesn't work and you are losing money, then we can sit and review the project. But no government will ever agree to this.'

Deve Gowda did.

No he did not. The agreement for the airport with the Tatas was before he became chief minister. And even if he agreed as chief minister, he has to have a different perspective as prime minister.

With your kind of restrictive attitude, will the nationalised airlines improve?

Yes, yes, they are already improving. Look at Indian Airlines. After P C Sen got full powers, it has improved more. It has come from the red into the green. From next March it will be a zero-loss venture and from then on it will have profits. Alliance Air is already profitable.

I told Ratan Tata, give me three years and we will increase flights, change old aircraft and improve things. We need to make many changes. For instance, in Indian Airlines the retirement age for air-hostesses is 50 years. Now in private airlines it is only 23 or 24.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

C M Ibrahim interview, continued

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