An Air India Airbus A320neo plane takes off in Colomiers near Toulouse, France. Image Credit: Reuters


  • So as the Indian national carrier funded by the tax payers is out on the block you would reckon that such a magnificent collection of around 8,000 pieces of priceless art would be part of the asset evaluation of AI for its bidders? 
  • Well you would be wrong. 

For the second time in two years this January, the Narendra Modi government rolled out the process to sell Air India - the state carrier, long considered the Crown Jewels of Indian aviation, which is now languishing.

The Modi government wants to make a 100 per cent divestment in AI and AI express, which have a combined debt of ₹ 60, 074 crore.

Expect all those who have visited the iconic Air India building in Mumbai have seen it first hand: AI has priceless art collection of 8,000 pieces.

These include paintings by M.F. Hussain, V.S. Gaitonde, K.H. Ara and Kishen Khanna. AI was considered a significant patron of the Progressive Artists Group in the 1950’s which comprised world famous artists.

Read more from Swati Chaturvedi

Artefacts include object d art, approximately 2,500, modern and traditional sculptures by artists such as B. Vithal, Pillo Pochkhanwala and P. Janakitan.

AI in its tax payer-funded treasure chest has a collection of exquisite and antique textiles in different fabrics - this includes the famous “Shringar” collection of costumes, which has been displayed both in India and abroad to high acclaim.

So as the Indian national carrier funded by the tax payers is out on the block you would reckon that such a magnificent collection of around 8,000 pieces of priceless art would be part of the asset evaluation of AI for its bidders?

Well you would be wrong.

Where is the art?

The art collection has disappeared from the evaluation as I conclusively investigated over months for this Gulf News Investigation.

I filed a Right to Information (RTI) application in February this year. RTI is an Act of Parliament, which sets out the rules and procedures regarding citizens’ right to information. The Act was made into a landmark law by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance Government.

In my RTI petition I asked the Modi government and the Ministry of Aviation the following:

Air India is reputed to have 8,000 art works including paintings.

1. When was the last valuation carried out?

2. What is the valuation?

3. Has this valuation been included in the sales prospectus of AI?

4. Has the art catalogue of the AI collection been included in the assets for sale or is it going to be sold separately?

After a wait or four-and-a-half months, I had my official answer, which confirms the shocking truth that my sources had been telling me.

The RTI reply said categorically that the major art collection possessed by AI has never been valued. This itself is shocking as this art collection was paid for by tax papers money. Shouldn’t the collection have been appraised by experts and transparently valued every year?

The RTI response said no valuation has ever been carried out of the collection and the art catalogue was not going to be part of the assets for sale of the airline. This is strange as the airline is bleeding tax payers’ money. Surely something that would add rare value to the sale should have been included?

The RTI was categorical that the AI art collection is not part of the sale prospectus of AI. This inevitably leads to the question that once AI is sold what will happen to the AI collection?

Air India ART RTI
The response given to the Right to Information claim about Air India's priceless art archives Image Credit: Swati Chaturvedi

Since the collection has never been catalogued or valued how will it be disposed?

Top level sources say the priceless AI art collection should be evaluated by experts in a transparent fashion involving international auction houses. In-house valuations based on the prices the artists command in the open market say the collection could be worth ₹ 500 crore or more.

The question remains why has the Civil Aviation Ministry and the AI board been so cavalier with the tax payers money?

The Modi government needs to step in and have an evaluation done and either add the collection to the assets side of the airline divestment, auction it on the open market or house the AI collection in the museum.

Says a top AI official: “It should not become the missing art collection.”

Swati Chaturvedi, Special to Gulf News-1592296808900