Offering a lift to the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy, one who is very popular, has won a famous mandate and is often referred to as one of the most powerful men in the world, would be an honour to almost anybody. Doing it more than once would undoubtedly make you feel very privileged. But if you are a cash-strapped, deep-in-the-red air carrier like Air India, it could prove to be a burden.
And so it happens that the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, owes Rs 134 crore to the airline for chartered flights he embarked upon no less than 10 times between June and December 2015. The company has raised the invoices to all these trips but as has become the norm, the bills are yet to be cleared. It is not to say the PMO will not pay - it always has in the past - but there would be a delay, and in any business that costs money. The interest itself would be sizeable.
"This is a cash-strapped airline that does not make money. Why is there such a delay on the part of the highest office in the country to settle these bills? Who bears the cost of the interest?" says Lokesh Batra, a retired navy commodore who has become an RTI veteran. "Ideally, the PMO should settle each of these bills within a month of receving the invoices."
The PMO itself has been cagey about revealing expenses of each of Modi's foreign trips. RTI applications yield truncated replies, and reasons like "bill under process" or "bill not received" are liberally used. The fresh details came to light after a separate RTI was filed by Batra directly to Air India.
The PMO website mentions details only till the Prime Minister's Australia and Myanmar visit back in March 2015. That invoice of Rs 22.6 crore along with seven others including four from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's tenure dating back to September 2013 was cleared on January 29 this year. The total amount disbursed was Rs 147.9 crore. The delay in payment ranged from 14-29 months.
The airline reported an operating loss of Rs 2,636.10 crore in 2014/15 and lags the targeted financial parameters laid down in the turnaround plan drawn up in 2012 when it got a bailout package of Rs 30,000 crore.
"You cannot blame delay in payment from the Prime Minister's Office for this. In the overall context when the airline is burdened with so many inefficiencies, Rs 134 crore is nothing. And it is not as if payments are not made at all. The bills are always settled," says a former Air India chairman. "You can say to some extent that it is an irritation. But that is the way bureaucracy and the government functions here. It does not get any awards for swiftness."
For an airline surviving on the taxpayer's money, every drop should count.