"Why are you calling me? What is there to know about a Kingfisher Airline employee?" snaps Sujata Nair. She is one of the nearly 1,500 people still on the Kingfisher Airlines (KFA) payroll who are desperately clinging to the hope that the "king of good times" will eventually pay them their dues. After relenting to talk about life after KFA, she talks of an incident, "My father underwent dialysis. It was only then that we learnt KFA had stopped paying our medical insurance premiums," she says. "I had to borrow from friends to pay the hospital bills."
The line appearing on the homepage of KFA's website (flykingfisher.com) seems to sum up the life of Nair and the airline's other employees: "We have suspended all future bookings till further notice". At the end of 2012, Vijay Mallya's airline crumpled under a Rs 7,000-crore debt burden. Many employees, who have pending wages of Rs 25-50 lakh each, hope that the court or the government will direct Mallya to pay them because "he has the money".
Over 75 per cent of KFA employees have found jobs after accepting huge pay cuts. "Seniors took a hit of 40-50 per cent. Even people with salaries of Rs 25,000 had to accept jobs for Rs 12,000," says Vikas Sharma, who claims to be better off because he lives in a joint family. Many who are still officially employed with KFA are doing contractual work or part-time jobs to look after their families. Some have become real estate agents, others are working in call centres, and yet others have taken up temporary positions in hotels.
Nair has just received a job offer from a hotel after being unemployed for two years, but she isn't happy. She has been promised a salary of Rs 20,000 per month, 60 per cent less than her last KFA salary of Rs 50,000. "This is how industry has been treating KFA employees since the company closed down. They know we are desperate…so the offers are demeaning," she says.
Anjan Deveshwar, an engineer who has been leading the employees' efforts in Delhi, says pilots and ground engineers are the worst affected because being idle for a lengthy period deactivates their licences. It has been 23 months since he got his last salary and Deveshwar, who has a 15-month-old son, has struggled to make ends meet. After exhausting the family's fixed deposits and selling jewellery, Deveshwar now plans to sell his apartment in Kolkata, which he had bought in better days. "It has come down to this," he says wryly. He joined Air Deccan in 2004 and had continued with the company when it was bought over by Mallya. Deveshwar spent over Rs 10,000 to travel to Chennai at short notice for an interview with an airline. But he did not land a job. "More than 50 people appeared for these tests and there were two or three openings," he says.
He runs a twitter account 'Crucify Vijay Mallya', posting comments and news on Mallya and his empire. His twitter description goes like this: "An Aircraft engineer, victim of Vijay Mallya. If we common men support each other and unite we can punish high profile criminals, law can take care of petty ones." He also often attacks Mallya and his son, Sidharth, with sarcastic and taunting tweets.
The parents of Anjali S. retired recently, adding to her financial problems. "Two years ago, there were four working members in the family, now the entire financial pressure is on my husband," she says. She found some contract work with Air India last year, which brought temporary relief. She and some friends have started a real estate agency. "Building a business in this market is quite difficult. I have few clients and the business at best is erratic," she says.
Rajesh Kumar Srivastav, another Delhi-based KFA employee, has been luckier. After being jobless for nearly 20 months, he was recently hired by another airline. Recalling the trauma of recent days, he says, "Gaadi tak bechna pada (We even had to sell our car). We have tried everything. Kahin se positive response nahi mila (We didn't get a positive response from anywhere)," he adds.
EMIs, or equated monthly instalments for the loans taken haunt many. A senior employee now rents out a house he had bought in Mumbai's suburb of Mulund. Of the Rs 20,000 he gets, Rs 8,000 goes to pay the rent of his house in Dombivli. The family survives on the remaining Rs 12,000. He has also sold his ancestral land in the Konkan region to pay off a part of the loan. Some pilots who had taken loans for accreditation courses have even taken up jobs in call centres to pay EMIs.
With the entry of new players like AirAsia and Tata SIA, there's renewed hope. But many admit that their specialisation narrows choices for them. "There are, at best, two jobs matching my profile in each airline. So it is almost impossible to get a job in the industry," says Sharma.
What hurts these people is the lack of sympathy in quarters that could fight for them. "We went and met all the top leaders of the last government. But none of them extended any help," says an employee. Deveshwar adds that they even pleaded their case with Sachin Pilot, then the minister for corporate affairs. "He promised us that notices would be sent under the Companies Act. But he later told the media that there were no such plans." They intend to raise the issue afresh with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
Amid the gloom, the employees allege disinterest - some describe it as fraud - in the manner in which the KFA management has dealt with their woes. "We were shocked to realise that the company was deducting taxes from salaries, but not depositing them with the government. I asked my wife to resign immediately. Do they want employees to go to jail?" says the husband of a former employee who quit in October 2012.
Things have turned worse since then. Nair says she received her last salary in March 2013. It was a mere Rs 4,000. The company reportedly deducted taxes twice, even after she had submitted documents to show tax-saving investments. Frustration is writ large on the face of an employee as he argues, "The total wage bill is estimated to be Rs 300 crore. Why can't Mallya just pay us instead of buying expensive players in the Indian Premier League?"
Ironically, KFA CEO Sanjay Agarwal was paid Rs 3 crore in 2013, as recorded in the defunct airline's balance sheet. Some KFA employees allege that 30-40 top employees have been put on the books of United Breweries and are getting paid every month. Asked to comment on these charges, KFA spokesperson Prakash Mirpuri says, "Various employee-related matters are currently sub judice. It would, therefore be inappropriate for KFA to comment." Charging many former and current employees with going to the media with conflicting claims, he says, "Suffice it to say that KFA has assisted and continues to assist employees to the best extent possible despite the fact that operations remain suspended."
Sushmita, wife of KFA store manager Manas Chakravarti, killed herself in October 2012 at their New Delhi residence. Her suicide note, written in Bengali, said: "My husband works with Kingfisher, where they have not paid him for the last six months. I am committing suicide due to the financial crisis." The suspended lives could start anew if things are worked out. But what of the lost lives?
Some names have been changed on request