On October 10, civil aviation minister Ajit Singh told a private TV channel that the national carrier — Air India — will have to make itself “profitable or a subsequent government will have to explore at privatising.” The statement created a flutter reminiscent of the era of disinvestment when the hospitality sector giant India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) and many others were sold off.
As the head of ITDC, I was often amused at the irrationality of the excuses trotted out for justifying the sale of the family silver — governments should not be in the business of running hotels, the company facing huge loss and the government needs money — were the three major excuses trotted out, but without substance. The counter-arguments were: if the government can’t run even hotels profitably then can it run the nation, give us time and the company will be as profitable as those in the private sector; and if the aim is to maximise sale proceeds why not sell through an open auction and why attempt restricting post-sale operations.
Major properties were palmed off at prices that would not fetch even a decent house in the outskirts of Delhi. Unfortunately, the tremendous enthusiasm over selling the family silver overshadowed the need for sanity.
The theory that governments should not be running businesses and, therefore, get rid of them is inherently faulty. Running a business enterprise requires sound commercial sense. That is why private enterprises burn the midnight oil while selecting their chief executives. Had the same diligence been applied while choosing CEOs for State firms, the story of even the national carrier could have been different. With the might of the State behind it, the public sector has an inherent advantage over the private sector. Unfortunately, this advantage is now being frittered away.
Also, the latent strength of the Indian public sector enterprises lies untapped even after 66 years of Independence. It defies common business sense why many of these commercial enterprises set up with public funds and backed by the State perform so badly.
The reason lies in inept apex management as often the criterion for appointments lack merit. That the kinds of ownership and technicalities are mere peripheral issues and what matters is the commitment, zeal and integrity of the person in charge of these enterprises.
Air India and ITDC are textbook examples of inherently profitable business enterprises brought to the mat by inept managements. Contrary to public opinion, blaming political masters or the external environment for the ills of a company merely diverts attention and shrouds the real causes. The fact remains that the ‘companies act’ and the ‘memorandum of articles’ sufficiently empower the chief executives to ward off any hostile threats to the efficient working of the enterprise, yet in many cases the chief executives lack leadership traits besides showing undue eagerness to succumb.
Any commercial enterprise, be it the local paan shop or a multinational corporation, is only as good as its leader, or in other words the officer who heads it.
Unfortunately, most of the senior officers only look upwards and display extreme keenness to be identified as the blue-eyed boys of the powers that be. They achieve that goal but in the process the company they head often lose out.
Ashwani Lohani is a senior government officer and former, CMD, ITDC and MD, MPSTD The views expressed by the author are personal.