By Sudarshan Charka
Suppose you bought a refrigerator at the “Diwali Sale” on one of the e-tailing websites. Your purchase is confirmed, you are relieved you don’t have to hear your wife’s nagging about your penny-pinching habits, your wife is happy she can display the side-by-side feature at her next kitty party. Suddenly, the e-tailer informs you that the delivery of the product depends on the Indian government allowing imports of Chinese goods into India. If the shipment containing your order is allowed, you will get it. If not, you can say goodbye to your money.
That’s in a nutshell the condition of Indian travelers during the pandemic. The government announces a lockdown at four-hour’s notice that keeps getting extended — and even after it is officially withdrawn, there’s no clarity on what rules apply, and where. In fact, there is a free-for-all, with no common national policy for anything, including travel.
You might decide not to take the risk of infection and drive to your destination, however far it may be — but find each state in between having different laws regarding entry and exit, or no clarity at all, which is a signal for local law enforcement to be gratuitously heavy-handed — leading to unprecedented delays.
You might choose rail — and find that the few trains that are running have stopped providing sheets and pillows, and have no pantry — if the train actually begins its journey in the first place.
In all this free-for-all lassiez faire, the biggest shock awaits you in air travel. You buy a ticket in advance, and then find that the Centre is mulling a new lockdown.
Meanwhile, the destination state forms policies for allowing incoming passengers into their city based on point of departure. As a result, you are either unable to take the flight, or the flight gets cancelled. And that’s when the “fun” begins. For all your hardships, if you begin your travel by road or rail, you are likely to conclude it and reach your destination.
If not, you can choose to drive back to your place of departure, or get refunded by the Railways. Small mercies.
But with air travel, if you fail to conclude your journey during the pandemic for no fault of yours, you might not even get refunded.
It took a Supreme Court order on October 1 for airlines to consider refunding tickets bought for the period March 25-May24 (Lockdown 1), whose flights got cancelled. Six days later, aviation regulator DGCA issued guidelines regarding refund of tickets, instructing airlines to return every last paisa paid by the customer. (Remember, all this is for the Lockdown 1 period, not for flights cancelled, rescheduled or delayed afterwards due to innumerable subsequent changes in restrictions at ports of entry — such as Mumbai and Kolkata currently not allowing passengers from Delhi to embark due to spike in Covid numbers in the Capital, leading to airlines urging Delhi-outbound passengers to take hopping flights via 1-2 pit-stops.)
And this is not all. In classic Atmanirbhar small government (no governance) style — where governments lead by example in defying court orders — few of the airlines have actually returned the money they collected for tickets sold before March 25, thus far.
The one which has — Vistara — is accused of having held back the GST component of the price paid by consumers.
With fresh talks of nationwide lockdowns in the air, what it means is that if you are an air traveler, you have two options — buy a ticket at prohibitively exorbitant rates as close to the departure as possible, to offset any chances of sudden law changes derailing your travel — or buy it in advance and take a chance.
Chance? If it sounds like a lottery, it’s because that’s what it effectively is. Buying a ticket at a “reasonable” price in advance is a gamble, because you never know what externalities may affect your travel plans — but you know with a fair degree of certainty that in case the flight doesn’t take off, you won’t be refunded.
If it does, your eventless arrival at your destination is the reward — the profit you make on your investment in the lottery ticket, if you may.
With commercial flight laws already heavily loaded in favour of airlines operators even before the pandemic, and the further retreat of the government subsequently, Jaipur and Mumbai’s satta markets could soon start speculating on flights taking off.
No wonder, MoS for Finance Anurag Thakur has been batting to legalise betting of late. India’s “small” and “strong” government never ceases to amaze.
So what if foreign investors are likely to shun a lawless country — India’s homegrown billionaires are here to fill in the gap — by buying up national and nationalised assets on the cheap.
It is as if India is trying to retrace 19th century US history in search of its dream of becoming Vishwaguru. The age of robber barons and the California Gold Rush is here — can global domination be far behind?