Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said in his independence day speech on August 15, 2009, that the government was giving careful attention to the problem of Air India and would resolve it soon. It is almost a decade since then, but the state-run airline continues to struggle.

The company made headlines for the wrong reasons during the United Progressive Alliance or UPA second term. However, in the last four years of Modi-led National Democratic Alliance or NDA regime, we are yet to see a turnaround story. The irony is that the parliamentary standing committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture has advised the government to review the decision to privatize Air India.

But the role of a parliamentary standing committee is only to examine, and the government is not bound to accept its recommendations.

UPA and Air India

In 2011 the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General or CAG pulled up the civil aviation ministry for its fleet expansion plan, which according to the report disproportionately raised Air India's debt liability. The company started reporting big losses, resorted to cost-cutting measures that eventually led to agitation by the employees including pilots.The turnaround plans by the government did not work.

NITI Ayog on Air India

NITI Ayog, the think tank of the NDA government, submitted a report stating that it was unviable to support the debt-ridden Air India. The report noted that the company is a nonpriority one in a competitive and mature aviation sector.

But NITI Ayog's role is only of coordination and its recommendation is not binding for the government.

Latest Developments

The NDA inherited a debt-ridden loss-making Air India from the UPA. During 2014-15, for each Rs. 100 earned by the company there was a loss of Rs. 28.4. Despite that, the NDA government took three years to take an in-principle decision to privatize it. The in-principle cabinet approval for disinvestment of Air India was given in June 2017.

It was also decided that a panel headed by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley would be formed to decide on the modalities of the sale. From media reports, it seems that the government is yet to decide on the modalities such as if the government would retain any holding in the airline or when the formal expression of interest will be out.The 2018 budget speech of the Union Finance Minister hinted that the process of disinvestment is just initiated.

Major political parties such as TMC, CPI (M) and even NDA ally Shiv Sena are strongly against the privatization. All trade unions belonging to both right and left-wing political parties are opposing the privatization move. The government has limited time till its tenure is over in early 2019.

But given the speed of the process, privatization of the "Maharaja" does not seem to be imminent.