When you enter the Air India Housing Colony in New Delhi’s Vasant Vihar area, the first thing you see at the gate is an old and battered sign saying “Aapka dil se swagat hai (a heartfelt welcome)”, which seems quite ironical now considering the government, which had put up that sign nearly 50 years ago, is now asking the colony’s residents to vacate their homes.
Inside the society, you are surrounded by five-storeyed beige and red buildings that haven’t aged very well, having lost their coating of paint and with the windows and balconies showing signs of wear and tear.
Despite the gloomy first impression from the outside, from the inside, these apartments are very pleasant and well maintained, mostly due to the money spent by the Air India employees residing in them.
“I have stayed in this apartment for nearly 10 years now and every year for the last five years I have spent around Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 refurbishing things like water pipes, electrical systems, etc., and now I am preparing to leave and move to (Delhi’s southwest sub-city) Dwarka,” a senior cabin crew of Air India living at the society told Moneycontrol on condition of anonymity.
Most others residing here too have spent money refurbishing their homes for years now, but now have been told to vacate their apartment six months after Air India is sold, or pay damage charges of Rs 10 lakh.
The government’s move is part of its plan to divest its 100 percent stake in loss-making Air India and monetise the airline’s non-core assets including its residential properties, both in Delhi and Mumbai.
The difficulties moving out
The biggest concern according to nearly all 20 of the residents of Air India’s Vasant Vihar housing society that Moneycontrol spoke to, is the dent in their monthly finances due to a higher outgo in rent as the rates for flats they plan to relocate to were higher than the housing allowance provided by the airline. An attendant problem is children’s education.
“We are planning to move to a new apartment in Noida as rents in Delhi are very high and we cannot afford them. Because of this, we have to look for a new school for my kids in the middle of the academic year,” said a senior engineer who has been living in the Vasant Vihar complex for nearly 12 years.
He added that with the Rs 20,000 or so he gets as house rent allowance, it is nearly impossible to find an apartment in Delhi for his family of five. Even his new apartment in Noida would cost him Rs 28,000 which would take a bite out of his monthly budget, he said.
The government’s move to evict them also took many Air India employees by surprise. “We were told by senior management that the government will either come up with new accommodation for us or increase our house rent allowances, but neither has been done till now and there has been no communication with us either,” member of the ground handling staff told Moneycontrol.
On October 13, a section of ground staff and engineers of Air India wrote a letter to the management threatening to go on strike from November 2 over being asked to give an undertaking by October 15 that they would vacate the staff quarters.
The Air Corporation Employees Union, Aviation Industry Employees Guild and All India Service Engineers Association have all threatened to go on strike from November 2.
Some of the staff have also raised concerns about the moving expenses, brokerage charges to dealers and their past dues pending with Air India as well.
Earlier this month Air India’s pilots had written to the management seeking restoration of salaries stating that the disproportionate pay cuts carried out during the last 18 months should be rolled back with the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Air India has a total of 12,085 employees of which 8,084 are permanent and 4,001 are contractual. Air India Express has 1,434 employees.
Government’s discussion to address concerns
On its part, the government said it is actively discussing ways to address the concerns of the staff. “The ministerial panel on Air India has in the past agreed to most demand of the Air India’s employees and we are discussing ways to help employees relocate as well,” an official involved in the process told Moneycontrol.
He was referring to the government’s decision to in principle agree to Air India employees' demands to bear the cost of liquidation loss on account of the transfer of the provident fund to the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation from company-owned trusts, the inclusion of employees in the central government health scheme, and encashment of leaves.
As part of its deal to sell Air India to the Tata Group also the government has ensured that Tata Sons will have to retain all employees of the airline for one year as part of the share purchase agreement signed for the sale of Air India.
The Tata Group will have the option to offer employees of Air India a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) if they look to retrench employees after one year.
The official added that the government has come up with multiple plans to help Air India’s employees.
One proposed plan involves helping employees find suitable accommodation on rent, subsidise the rent lease amount in the range of Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000, bear the brokerage charge and pay a tariff for transporting household goods, people aware of the matter told Moneycontrol.
“It has been proposed that a committee would be formed to carry out market surveys and find suitable accommodation. It has been decided that in case the company enters into a leasing agreement with a landlord on behalf of employees, no house rent allowance and licence fee would be paid by it,” an official said.
Another idea is for the government to take on three months’ rent for the new apartments.
The government is also working on a plan to reinstate the salaries and allowances of Air India’s pilots in a phased manner and is also looking to offer some shares of Air India before handing it over to the new owners
But a final decision on this has yet to be taken.