“We risked our lives and operated the Vande Bharat flights during peak COVID-19. Now, we are being abandoned like this, it all seems worthless,” said a Delhi-based pilot with Air India. Along with 350 families of Air India's employees, the 43-year-old stands at the risk of being evicted from his Vasant Vihar house come January 2023.
The Air India colony located in south Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, and spread across 30 acres, has been home to several Air India employees – such as flying staff, engineers, and other technicians – since the ‘70s. While fresher apartments have facilities like an elevator, older quarters carry the typical aura of an era bygone.
In January 2022, the Talace Private Limited, a Special-Purpose Vehicle of Tata Sons, took over Air India, and around 800 families of the employees living in the colony were told to vacate their homes. Employees living in society in Mumbai's Kalina faced the same direction as well.
On 9 August 2021, the Centre had decided to allow the employees to continue staying in the company’s residential properties after its divestment “for six months or till the property is monetised, whichever is earlier,” as per the Group of Ministers (GoM) decision on Air India’s disinvestment.
This has impacted the lives of Air India employees living in two colonies in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar and Mumbai’s Kalina. They were asked by the Central government to vacate their official accommodation by 26 July 2022 or face penalties and lose their retirement benefits. The employees had moved both the Delhi and the Bombay High Court against this order and the matter is now sub judice.
After the takeover was announced in January this year, a press release by the Tata group quoted Mr N Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons, stated, "We are excited to have Air India back in the Tata group and are committed to making this a world-class airline. I warmly welcome all the employees of Air India, to our group, and look forward to working together.”
The residents, however, claim that the ground reality is rather different. Many alleged that the security in the Delhi colony has been reduced, the electricity has been cut, and water supplies impacted. The Quint spoke to some residents about the uncertainty that looms over the families.
‘ELECTRICITY, WATER AND SECURITY CUT’
The residents of the Air India colony in Vasant Vihar, and in Mumbai's Kalina, claimed that on 3 October, “basic needs were suddenly cut-off.” A resident, on condition of anonymity, told The Quint, “A huge padlock was put on the main water supply house. It is a specialised pump which requires an expert to manage it. We cannot do it. We didn't know what to do.”
Residents said they reached out to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Parmila Tokas for help. "She came by evening and made some calls to restore the water supply to our homes," said a resident of the Vasant Vihar colony.
"It is clear that you are using strong arm tactic to evict the colony residents without following the due process of law," said the letter sent by Air India Colony Bachav Samiti to the top management of four companies, including private carrier Air India and Air India Asset Holding Ltd (AIAHL), reported the Times of India.
"We would like to know within 24 hours whether the said action has your consent and concurrence. In case we do not receive any response from you within the stipulated time, we will be constrained to file a police complaint and if required move court/forum," the letter added.
The Times of India report further added that the letter alleged that a deputy general manager and senior manager of Air India at the behest of AIAHL ordered private contract workers concerned to not operate pumps that supply water to residents of airline's Mumbai and Delhi staff colonies.
An Air India spokesperson said, "We would not like to make any comment on this as the matter is sub judice.”
“When Air India is taking the house rent allowance (HRA) and maintenance from our salary, and the case is sub judice as well, so why are such steps being taken? Electricity was cut from the public areas of the colony such as the streetlights and parks," said Jaba Sen, the general secretary of the Residents Welfare Association (RWA), Air India Colony.
Sen, 41, who is a stewardess, added, “We all work late hours. The whole point of giving us accommodation near the airport is to ensure our safety.”
The colony is located around five km away from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi.
Sen said, “Many of us are single parents here who have young children and elderly parents staying at home. Air India has reduced the security guards. Many streetlights don’t work since they cut our basic supplies on 2 October. We knew these guards for years. Now who is to look after our family then while we are gone on long-haul flights?”
Another resident of the society claimed that many families have already vacated and only around 350 families now remain. A resident, on condition of anonymity, claimed, “The security guards who had been working here for years were removed and new security staff was brought in after the takeover. These guards were like family, and we were at ease about leaving our families under their surveillance.”
‘TRANSFER ORDERS BEING ISSUED TO INCREASE PRESSURE’
Along with Air India's permanent flying staff facing the eviction order after the Tatas took over, employees of Air India Engineering Services Limited (AIESL), have also been asked to vacate the premises.
It is to be noted that AISEL employees are still very much under the Central government. This branch was not given over to the Tata Group. However, as residents of the colony here, they too have been facing the pressure to leave, they alleged.
The engineers alleged that they are being given transfer orders to remote locations with immediate effect to set an example before the other employees who are refusing to leave. “Usually, the transfer process takes a week, I have been asked to leave within two days,” said an employee.
Another employee added, “All this subtle pressure is taxing. Ye responsibility wala kaam hai, yaha 19/20 ka matlab hai passengers ki jaan ke saath khelna (This work comes with a responsibility, even a small mistake can cost passengers their lives). We need to be well-rested while we are on the job, be it a technician or a pilot.”
About relocating or buying homes, many employees claimed that their “salaries have not been revised for at least 15 years because of the company's bad financial conditions.” A resident, on condition of anonymity, told The Quint, “We have no control over the rents and the prices of the flats in Delhi. Under such circumstances, it’s almost impossible for us to buy or rent a flat in the vicinity of our children’s schools.”
Most of the employees working and living here are not from Delhi. As per Delhi government’s rules, parents must enroll their children into schools which are under the three-km radius of their house. “I’m being paid Rs 60,000 a month and I have my parents, wife, and son dependent on me. If we move out of here, I will have to shell out Rs 30-35,000 for a house, on top of paying school fee in south Delhi. How will I manage my other expenses?” an engineer said.
Another perspective put forth by the residents is of their age group. “We are all under 45 years of age. We are not entirely freshers, nor are we close to retiring. Where do we go now? Our skillsets are very niche to aviation,” said an aircraft technician.
‘CHILDREN MOST AFFECTED BY UNCERTAINTY’
As the parents suffer through this situation, their children have also picked up on the mood. “My son asks daily if we will move out today. I have no answers,” said Sen.
Another resident chipped in and said, “Even if we were to move out now to cheaper areas, who would enroll our children in the middle of the session? My daughter is going to start her boards next year. How should I disturb her now?”
A 12-year-old boy told The Quint that he has no friends left to play anymore in the society. “Earlier, all the playgrounds would have active sports associations formed. I was part of the football and the basketball team. Now, with less children and uncertainty over the public areas, our coaches have also stopped coming and disbanded our associations,” he claimed.
Residents claimed that a reduced number of housekeeping staffers means the grounds, the courts, and the swing sets are being neglected.
Sen added that the latest court order on their plea after the hearing on 13 October has asked the Central government to file a rejoinder in the case over the employees' eviction within the next two weeks. "This process will drag on for a long time," she said.
“It's our humble prayer to the government to kindly consider our plea sympathetically and to please allow us to stay in the same colony or to provide some alternate arrangement near the colony till our retirement on humanitarian grounds. All we want is to complete our parental duties towards our children peacefully,” added another resident.