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Of HMT & Air India: SAVE TIMEKEEPER, NOT MAHARAJA, By Shivaji Sarkar, 21 March, 2015 Print E-mail

Economic Highlights

New Delhi, 21 March 2015

Of HMT & Air India


By Shivaji Sarkar


Signs of the Government settling down to business are emerging. Hiving off nine loss-making public sector units is apparently a good decision. However, there is a surprise that the largest loss-maker Air India (A-I) is not in the list. At the same time, it is a nostalgic loss to see the HMT Watches – the timekeeper of the nation, which brought pride to “made in India” is also slated for closure.


While questioning the decision on the entire issue, we do need think hard and be sensitive to our heritage. Everything old is not gold, but it needn’t be junked unceremoniously. At least, the decision on HMT Watches calls for a review. It is a remembrance of an era that brought pride to the nation.


The country and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are trying to re-establish after decades the same ethos with “make in India” campaign. The HMT Watches started functioning way back in 1961 with the collaboration of Citizen Watch Company of Japan. Wasn’t that then the beginning of “make in India”? In fact, HMT Watches needs not only to be preserved but also be allowed to be kept alive and made functional, particularly its manufacturing hand-wound and automatic watches, now a craze in the US and the West.


The question would be wouldn’t the effort then involve costs—in monetary terms? It may or may not but preserving such heritage units gives impetus to the legacy of the country. Even in terms of a sum, it would not cost more than Rs 700 crore, for one time, against pumping in about Rs 5000 crore a year for the endless sinking pit of Air India.


Unmistakably, we need to learn from Europe. The continent has preserved many factories that were the harbingers of industrial revolution, more than three centuries ago. These are now all part of industrial archaeology. In comparison, cities such as Kanpur and Ahmedabad have many palatial textile units, which can be part of that industrial heritage.


A case which would be worth drawing the Government’s attention to is the oldest salt farm in Ston in Croatia, functioning since early 14th century. It still harvests sea salt and sells it as a souvenir. While undoubtedly it is expensive to produce salt in the traditional way, the society has chosen to maintain it for its pride. In cooperation with the organization “Eco heritage task force” Ston invites young people from the US, South America, the Netherlands and other regions to the farm. During the “Gathering Salt Summer Camp” they learn about the oldest salt farm in Europe and participate in additional educational programmes, including learning Croatian. It is the largest salt works in the Mediterranean and processing is the same way. The admission ticket to it is a mere $ 1.76.


Isn’t the concept wonderful? Why then, cannot this ancient civilization of India also take pride in the recent past? It must. Governments fail, but let us not forget that these are in continuity and many do a lot. The HMT, synonymous with accurate time in India, had given the Swiss a run for their money. It changed the watch market and made Asia proud. Possibly few know that Mrs Indira Gandhi, then as Congress leader and daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was its brand ambassador, shortly before the 1962 General elections.


In all this debate, it is indeed a surprise that the Government decides to continue with the white elephant, sorry “Maharaja” that is draining the country. It requires Rs 30,000 crore of Government money to keep it flying. It would continue to make losses for the next decade. On the contrary, the HMT Watches had a loss of mere Rs 694.52 in 2012, even with all accumulation it is about Rs 700 crore even today.


It now plans to sell about 70 acres of land in north Bangalore for as much as Rs. 700 crore. HMT and its units hold 200 acres in Bangalore and around 1,500 acres across Hyderabad, Pinjore in Haryana and Kalamassery in Kerala. In reality, the continuation of HMT would not cost the Government a bit.


If it functions once the Government decides to pay for its losses and allows it to operate on a token basis, its hand-wound watches can fetch a minimum price of Rs 1 lakh in posh markets in India and the West. It can even make the factory a tourist destination and charge gate money. The losses in all probability would be wiped off and the modern living industrial monument would pay homage to the efforts of a nascent nation.


According to Minister of State for PSUs GM Siddheshwar,  the seven PSUs slated for closure have total losses of about Rs 3139 crore. In addition, Hindustan Photofilms has a loss of Rs 1561 crore and Hindustan Cables Rs 885 crore. The total comes up to Rs 5385 crore.


The companies to be revived as per BIFR proposals include Scooters India, Tyre Corporation and Hindustan Antibiotics. These would be revived as a joint venture with the private sector or through disinvestments. This raises yet another question as to whether we should really not call the shots for Air India - a shame rather than the pride of this country. Those responsible for this   poor state unfortunately continue to still drain the Government. Are we rewarding people for their inefficiency?


Possibly, the others slated for closure such as HMT Bearings, Tungabhadra Steel Products, Hindustan Photofilm, Bharat Opthalmic and Bharat Yantra Nigam, Hindustan Cables and Spices Trading Corporation were areas where normally the Government should not have gone into in the first place. Despite that their total losses are considered dirt in comparison to Air India.


Indeed, companies have their productive life. Closing them down is sensible at times. The yardstick, however, has to be the same for all big or small. It is not prudent to inject life-saving drugs to a dying Air India. Let it die. Institutions such as HMT Watches have a different value. Let us save it and kill Air India. It would be the most sensible decision. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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