Air India: The BEST Buses of the Sky


Air India: The BEST Buses of the Sky

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Once again, a three-lettered acronym has got the country talking, and for once, it isn’t GST. The Union Cabinet has approved new reforms for foreign direct investment or FDI, and while everybody is speculating how long until they can be crushed in a stampede at their local Walmart, spare a thought for good old Air India. The reforms allow for up to 49 per cent FDI in the national carrier, adding fuel to a privatisation fire that has been burning for months now. As the Maharaja stares down the barrel, perhaps he can draw comfort from his kindred spirit.

Who might that be?

Name a public transport service with employees who are famously inept, has a mountain of crippling debt, and a travel schedule that can’t be kept. If you answered Air India, you’re right. If you answered BEST, you’re right as well! The two public transport services, once proud relics of our past, are turning into decrepit antiques before our eyes. Should the airline and bus service become obsolete, it would be a sorrowful loss of vintage coolness. For decades on either side of Independence, BEST and Air India have plied their trade, ferrying Indian travellers to their destinations no matter how unruly or boisterous they get en route.

There was a time when things were different. The big red bus of the BEST was just as iconic as London’s double-deckers, and fliers were actually excited to travel on board an Air India craft. Today, so many of the buses are used by Mumbai’s gardullahs to enact street-theatre versions of Requiem for a Dream and an Air India ticket is something only sadistic admin people use to book your official travel. Now the two public undertakings limp along in the 21st century, as relevant as LK Advani in the new millennium. We know the BJP can’t really let go of the original Hindutva poster boy, so can the fabric of Indian social life let go of Air India and BEST?

Even if the two services were to be privatised, it would be a shame if they lost their signature character and stopped serving their unique brands of inconvenience.

We’ve all got our memories of the two of them. From the airhostess who might have graduated from the school of I Don’t Give a Fuck for how she ignored you, to the bus conductor who denied having any change despite carrying a jingly satchel that weighed him down. Thankfully for Air India and BEST, these memories have the added benefit of being rose-tinted, so we think back on them fondly rather than with the irritation we first experienced them with. No Mumbai traffic jam would be the same without a big red bus blocking the path of three cycles, 12 motorbikes, and 20 cars. Similarly, an Indian airport wouldn’t be an Indian airport without posters of the Maharaja bowing down to welcome passengers to the most uncomfortable flight of their life.

As the new FDI norms might spell the end of Air India as we know it, we can only hope for nostalgia’s sake that the airline takes a page out of BEST’s book. The resilient bus service has been teetering on the precipice of collapse for a few years now, but has tenaciously hung on for dear life, just like all their passengers.

Even if the two services were to be privatised, it would be a shame if they lost their signature character and stopped serving their unique brands of inconvenience. Because while we can’t live with them, we wouldn’t know how to live without them.

When it comes to Air India and BEST, there have never been two organisations more worthy of the saying, “Tedha hai par mera hai.”