An auto-rickshaw ride in times of a grounded airline

Cogencis, Friday, Apr 26

By Chiranjivi Chakraborty

MUMBAI – Two minutes into my ride, and the auto-rickshaw stops at a busy traffic signal. The driver looks a bit distracted, fiddling with his phone.

"Sir, yeh message dekh kar bataenge kya likha hai… (can you see this message and tell me what's written)," says the driver, a man in his early 40s, handing over his phone to me, with the screen showing a message on WhatsApp. "It must be from Jet (Airways) employees."

It's not a great feeling to read someone else's messages but I had to help him out and there was certainly some anxiety on the man's face. So, it is a message sent in a group of Jet Air employees.

It appears that the sender is one of their managers. The message implores company employees to assemble at Terminal-2 of Mumbai's international airport for a meeting next day on the way forward for the beleaguered airline.

Obviously, the man who is driving my auto-rickshaw has a connection with the airline. "I was a senior ground staff officer at Jet (Airways) till last week," says Kamal (name changed on request). "Now, I'm an auto driver."

His drooping shoulders, nervous demeanour and the discomfort with routes and landmarks make sense now. 

Kamal tells me he has been working as a ground staff member with Jet at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport for 13 years. Life has been satisfying till now, he says.

Oblivious to how the rumblings at the debt-strapped airline would pan out, Kamal bought his first house on the outskirts of Mumbai not too long ago.

An ardent supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies, Kamal has taken a loan to realise his long-cherished dream of owning a house. 

"I lost my job on Sunday," he says with an awkward smile that tries to hide the grim reality he was staring at.

He hasn't even had a chance to see his new home yet. What he's seen are only pictures and graphics shared by his family.

Going to see the house doesn’t even appear exciting in Kamal's current frame of mind and neither can he find the time for it, as he's lumbering to make ends meet driving around his auto-rickshaw.

And now, it appears he will most definitely miss paying the next equated monthly instalment on the home loan.

So how did he get into driving autos? It actually didn’t take long to make the decision, he says. Just a day after losing his job, Kamal took to driving a rented three-wheeler on the roads of suburban Ghatkopar. There is no time to lose; he has to keep the home fires burning.

So why did he not apply for the same job at another airline? One, that he doesn’t have the luxury of time. More importantly he will never get back his position. "I will have to start all over again," Kamal says. "At a new place, I will have to slog from the bottom again."

"I can't pay EMI with a salary of just 14,000-15,000 rupees. You see, I was senior here (Jet Air)," Kamal says with his round face revealing almost a hint of pride.

By now, the journalist in me is getting distinctly uncomfortable. Just how disconnected we, the media, are with the human side of Jet Airways' saga – the building up of the crisis bubble in Jet, once India's largest private carrier and its bursting, taking in its fold the fate of over 25,000 employees.

In the financial muddle created from the near bankruptcy of Jet Airways, labour has been left out of the conversation. Mercilessly so.

I'm reminded of some words I'd read on labour and capital.

Abraham Lincoln, the iconic President of the US had famously said labour was superior to capital because "…capital is only the fruit of labour, and could never have existed if labour had not first existed."

Karl Marx's words hit home the point in a more scathing manner – "Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks," the Communist proponent said. 

Coming back to my encounter, I had little to offer as advice.  

"Perhaps the airline's lenders will soon find a buyer and he may get to keep his job…," I weakly try give him solace. I could hear a hollow ring to my own words – for not too long ago, similar words were spoken for another crashing private carrier, Kingfisher Airlines. We know the fate it met. 

I am surprised by the spark of hope in his eyes, which I see in the rear-view mirror. He nods. Apparently, the employees are trying to mobilise 4 bln rupees, enough to keep the airline in the air and staff on the books.

"Umeed hai (there is hope)," Kamal says as he switches off the ignition at my destination point.

As I pay him, I feel sombre. I offer my hand to him. The firm handshake tells me that unlike the investors of Jet Air, he has not lost hope…

Wiping sweat off his forehead, Kamal smiles and disappears into a mesh of yellow and black on the busy Mumbai street.  End

Edited by Ranjana Chauhan

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