Mumbai: The Air India’s staff colonies in Kalina bore a deserted look on Saturday, the day that the Bombay high court (HC) had set as a deadline for nearly 1,600 resident families to vacate their homes.
At 7pm, most of the homes in the four colonies, spread over 184-acres of land south of the airport, adjacent to the Mithi River, are dark. A few elderly men amble about the avenues lined with sweeping mango, jackfruit and jamun trees, but there is none of the bustle and camaraderie of a vibrant neighbourhood.
A few residents left after availing of Air India’s Voluntary Retirement Scheme rolled out in June this year, which gave retirees an ex-gratia amount as monetary support. However, the scheme has not been offered to employees of the two subsidiary companies, AI Engineering Services Ltd (AI ESL) and AI Airport Services Ltd (AI ASL), though they are expected to vacate their premises all the same.
At last count, 565 families continue to live in the colonies, a majority of whom are lower category workers, said MP Desai, Aviation Industry Employees Guild (AIEG) secretary.
On October 7, 2021, the residents – employees of Air India and its two subsidiaries, AI ESL and AI ASL – were asked to vacate within six months of the airline’s sale to Tata Sons, which was completed in January this year.
Last year, when employees were first instructed to leave their homes, they were also instructed to sign undertakings which would penalise them heavily for failure to vacate on time, including a ₹15 lakhfine, levying of rent at twice the market rate, and disciplinary action under the companies’ service rules including loss of retirement benefits.
One resident who continues to live in the colony and spoke to Hindustan Times anonymously for fear of reprisal said, “I did not want to sign the undertaking. We did it only out of the fear of being transferred or losing our jobs. We were told it is in our interest to sign the undertaking. I would have preferred to take voluntary retirement, but as an employee of AIESL, I do not have any such option.”
“For fear of action as per these terms, over 1,000 families have already packed up and left,” said AIEG general secretary George Abraham, who is also a former resident of the Old Air India Colony.
“Just one year ago, there was a lot of life here. There was a sense of fraternity. People would gather around with their friends in the evenings. Children would play in the compound. That community spirit has disappeared,” Abraham said.
The fight to stay on
Just days before they were asked to vacate, on September 29, 2021, the Centre had issued a directive to the managing director of Air India indicating their intent to commercially exploit the Kalina property to pay off debts of nearly ₹51,000 crore of the airline.
The employees responded by issuing a strike notice in November 2021, which was seized in conciliation by the labour department. In June this year, the deputy chief labour commissioner, Mumbai, declared the conciliatory proceedings to have “ended in failure”, prompting residents to approach the Bombay HC the same month.
Which they did. But to their disappointment, the HC has so far declined to provide any relief on vacation beyond September 24 — keeping in mind that the Ganpati festival in Mumbai would then be well and truly over. The HC is due to hear the matter again tomorrow. It has also asked the Centre to refer the dispute to the Central Government Industrial Tribunal, which the Union labour ministry declined in a rare instance, saying this is not an “employment matter”.
The employees have now once again approached the HC against this decision of Centre, but not before the colonies have become more than half empty.
The AIEG along with the Air Corporations Employees Union (ACEU) and the All India Service Engineers Association (AISEA), have been engaged in a legal battle against the order to vacate these quarters, and union leaders said this will affect blue-collar workers the most.
“Most of the pilots and ground crew, who are better paid as Air India employees, have chosen to leave. Many felt pressure to take the retirement scheme. But there are many maintenance and housekeeping staff, helpers, sweepers, cargo handlers and service technicians for whom life has been completely disrupted. At least 120 employees, out of the 565 remaining residents, have also taken loans from their employer and are getting zero salary. They don’t have the money to go anywhere else,” MP Desai of AIEG said.
A labour issue
Over half the remaining residents are employees of AI ESL and AI ASL, which, notably, have not yet been privatised and are still run by the government.
According to Abraham, this makes it a labour issue that ought to be resolved under the Industrial Disputes Act. “It becomes totally untenable to change their service conditions, which clearly give them the right to housing,” said Abraham.
As per Air India’s service rules, employees are entitled to housing until retirement at age 58. “Now, the residents are being asked to vacate their homes to suit the interests of the Mumbai International Airport Ltd., which was taken over by the Adani Group in 2021,” said Ashok Shetty, advocate for the above unions.
Such a move on the part of Air India and its subsidiaries, Abraham and others pointed out, amounts to an arbitrary change in the employees’ service conditions, and is a violation of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.
“This is in complete contravention of Section 9(A) of the Industrial Disputes Act, which says that any employees need to be notified of such changes well in advance. Prior intimation was not given in any manner,” Shetty added.
For now, residents are not worried about forceful evictions. Following the rules of the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1958, the Central government would have to first appoint an estate officer to inquire into the claims of each individual resident before ordering eviction. An estate officer has not yet been appointed in this matter.
“We are not living in a slum. They cannot push us out of our homes by force. But the joy of living in a secure community is something that we will not get back, even if we are allowed to keep staying here,” said another resident, also on the condition of anonymity.
A spokesperson for Air India directed inquiries to the office of the executive director, corporate affairs, who did not immediately respond on Saturday. A spokesperson for the MIAL, which has been seeking possession of the land on which these colonies are located, declined to comment.