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Andy Mukherjee

India’s Big Privatization Win Comes Two Decades Late

New Delhi finally offloads Air India onto the Tata Group, bringing a welcome end to a socialist experiment that destroyed a once-innovative carrier.

An Air India aircraft at Mumbai’s airport.

An Air India aircraft at Mumbai’s airport.

Photographer: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty

Drop in at Air India Ltd.’s Mumbai office in early 2001, and you might have come across an elderly, white-jacketed man winding up the clock. With 17,400 employees and just 24 planes — three times the staffing level at major U.S. airlines — silly tasks like timekeeping in the headquarters had become someone’s job description.

Still, optimism was in the air back then. With India seeking to sell its national carrier, half a century of accumulated sloth was about to be shed. And yet, the privatization plan collapsed, and took 20 further years and billions of dollars of wasted capital to be reassembled again. Finally, when the global travel industry has been ravaged by a pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed to let Air India go.