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'IAS is still the tops'

By Kausik Datta
September 18, 2007 09:09 IST
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Vasudevan Thulasidas, the chairman of the merged Air India and Indian Airlines, has had a really hectic schedule over the past few months. He had to oversee the legal process of the merger, begin to take deliveries of over 100 aircraft for the merged airline (all aircraft will be delivered by 2011), and start non-stop flights to the US and to position the old Indian Airlines network as a feeder to Air India's international network. Not surprising then, that he works till 11 at night, writes Kausik Datta.

Since Business Standard is the host, and due to his back-breaking schedule, Thulasidas doesn't even want to order food at ITC Hotels' Kebabs and Kurries in Mumbai -- indeed, he says he's not a foodie and will eat anything I order. So, we start with a fresh lime soda, without sugar for him as he is a diabetic, and burrah kebabs (pieces of lambs marinated in yogurt).

The biggest issue for the merged entity, the 1972-batch IAS officer says, while taking a sip of his fresh lime soda, is to scale up the productivity of its employees. As a public sector boss, he is not allowed to go for a massive retrenchment of the kind you see in most such M&As, especially abroad.

But Thulasidas insists that even if he was allowed to do this, he wouldn't. "I don't like the idea of cutting jobs. After all, my employees are my greatest resources, not the aircraft," he says firmly.

As with most IAS officials who've joined the corporate ranks, either in the public sector or in the private sector, Thulasidas recalls stories from his early career and speaks of how they've shaped his life.

During his stint as a district magistrate in Tripura, he says, he was told of a political clash on a day when his driver was on leave. When he drove to the spot, he found many people had got injured and one had died during the clash between the CPI(M) and the Congress. There was no public health centre in the vicinity, and Thulasidas had to personally ferry all the injured persons, including the one who died, to the nearest district health centre throughout the night.

Snapping back to the present, he says he's convinced he'll be able to increase productivity in the new airline, and that his experience in Air India, where he joined in December 2004, showed that involving people, mostly the middle-management, generally bore results.

Soon after joining Air India, Thulasidas says, he told the middle management to formulate a policy for five years which he, later, discussed with the trade unions and then got it passed by the top management. The acquisition of aircraft in Air India, he says, took place in the shortest possible time and that deliveries were fixed in such as way that over 100 planes will be delivered by 2011.

But, I ask, surely things will be different in the combined airlines. After all, pay scales are different, seniorities are different, pilots who are used to flying on certain routes and on certain aircraft will be redeployed, and so on. Thulasidas chooses to answer that with a bit of philosophy, "If there is no problem with an institution, why would it need me or anybody in that case?"

The employees, says Thulasidas, all realise that merger is the best solution for them, given that both airlines are facing intense competition from national and international players. Thulasidas is convinced he can compete and thinks his PSU character can also be an added advantage.

According to the plan he's still to finalise, the merged airline will have six strategic business units (SBUs) -- one each for international, domestic, low-cost and cargo operations; another for ground handling and for Maintenance/Repair/Overhaul (MRO) operations.

Since I'm not convinced a public sector airline can change overnight, Thulasidas talks of his plans to do this -- "We are planning to appoint a reputed company to help employees in facilitating the change in line with international practices."

The main course -- murg zartar and roti -- arrives and I ask him how, given the intellectual environment of the time in Kerala where he comes from, he joined the IAS.

 "Existentialism was the most discussed topic amongst us after reading Jean-Paul Sartre in our youth. The influence of the so-called intellectual fermentation did not allow us to even think about joining the civil service or any other establishment for that matter," he recalls.

But after a brain-storming session with a leading professor in Hyderabad, he took the decision to join the IAS. "Initially, my friends did not talk to me. But let me tell you, I have no regrets," he asserts. Had he not joined the IAS, he would probably be a journalist. "Journalism was one of the options I considered," he divulges.

Given the vastly higher salaries, and levels of freedom to mould organisations, I ask if Thulasidas would opt for an MBA, were he to be venturing out into the world all over again.

"No," he says, without even blinking. For two reasons, he says. First, no other service, apart from the IAS, offers the same opportunity to work with different people in completely different work environment.

The second reason, I think, is quite ironic -- Thulasidas says the limitations under which a public sector manager has to function make the job a lot more challenging.

What is the big learning or achievement from his 35-year stint in the IAS? The ability to make people say what he wants to hear, Thulasidas says, while turning down dessert. But why don't I go ahead, he offers, while reminding me he needs to get back to an important meeting. I too skip dessert and call the meeting to a close. Did I call it to a close, or did he want me to? I leave with that question unresolved in my head.

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