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Opinion: DGCA fiasco highlights need to resolve conflicts of interests in civil aviation ministry

The abrupt removal of India’s chief civil aviation regulator, the Director General of Civil Aviation, Mr. E.K. Bharat Bhushan, earlier this month, once again brings forth the cross-workings within the ministry of civil aviation, caused by contradictory roles, many of which are driven by political agendas, and the urgent need to re-structure this mammoth ministry to correct the malaise.

Indian civil aviation minister Ajit Singh. PIB Photo.

Mr. Bharat Bhushan, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1979 batch from Kerala, who took over the role of DGCA from Mr. Syed Nasim Ahmad Zaidi in December 2010. He enjoys the highest levels of respect for his integrity, ethics and generally apolitical decision making.

The reasons behind his sudden dismissal have fuelled speculation on the reasons. Within aviation industry circles, there is a strong sense of certainty that Bharat Bhushan was done in, partially due to a political turf war between the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and in large part due to his strong ethical stand on a variety of issues plaguing the industry.

During his tenure Bharat Bhushan brought in stringent measures to prevent airlines and the DGCA itself, from compromising on safety. He prosecuted a variety of flying schools and government officials in the fake pilots scam, and took on two holy cows, Air India and Kingfisher Airlines. He has repeated told both the financially plagued carriers to shape up and pay employees overdue salaries saying that safety could be adversely affected by a demotivated staff.

Post his departure, news reports have appeared showing his purported note to his successor Prashant Sukul that he had prepared for taking action against cash-strapped Kingfisher Airlines on safety grounds. The cat has been set amongst the pigeons with the ministry saying it cannot find the note and will ask Bhushan for the note.

This wrangling is nothing new. The civil aviation is a behemoth with many departments and entities under it, most of which, have contradictory roles and by the very nature of their function, work at cross purposes to each other. Even in Utopian conditions it is impossible make all these roles co-exist within one ministry and still perform true to their charter, and at optimal levels, and this is the Government of India, one not highly rated on governance.

The ministry itself is a policy maker, but also an airport operator through Airports Authority of India (AAI), and airline operator through Air India (AI). Within AAI, there are airport operations and a monopoly air traffic control, navigation, and communications system which is used for further cross-subsidy.

Global competitiveness have forced aviation operations to operate on extremely high levels of efficiency, not the forte of any government. This naturally demands some concessions for government run operations, and the Indian airline industry is already sick thanks to skewed policies designed to protect AAI and AI.

In its natural role, the ministry is a promoter of air travel which requires easing of regulation, but via the DGCA it is also the regulator and in most cases, also the investigator. You will observe that I have deliberately left out the role of enforcer or prosecutor. The most basic rules of administration demand a separation of policy formulation, operation, regulation, audit, investigation, and enforcement. In all publicly listed companies there is always a separate audit committee within the Board of Directors.

Yet ministry officials are routinely shifted across roles. Let us take the current acting DGCA Mr. Sukul. He is a Joint Secretary in the ministry. In addition to the regulator, auditor, enforcer role at DGCA, Mr. Sukul is also a member of the board of Air India, an airline, the DGCA has to regulate, audit, and enforce the rules on. Similarly, the joint DGCA Mr. Anil Srivastava, is also the Chairman and Managing Director of state owned helicopter operator, Pawan Hans Helicopters. These are conflicts of interest at the most basic level. We have to be delusional not to expect compromises being forced on these and other officials within the ministry.

On these obvious conflicts of interest, the civil aviation ministry seems to be a law unto itself. It has ignored calls from no less a body, than the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which is the government’s apex body for high level bureaucratic appointments, and headed by the Prime Minister, which had asked the ministry to relieve Anil Srivastava from his leadership of Pawan Hans to resolve the blatant conflict of interest.

A lot of this cross working was exposed in the report on the crash of Air India Express Boeing 737-800 VT-AXV at Mangalore Bajpe airport in 2010.

Despite significant short-comings none of the ministry controlled entities were faulted. AAI, the airport operator, which did not construct frangible buildings at the runway, as required at every major airport in India, nor the DCGA, which conducts the inspections, and ensures these facilities before approval, were both let off with the gentlest of slaps on the wrist, for not performing their duties.

The question before us, is what caused these officers to under-perform? Which of these four C’s is most plausible? (in)competence? callousness? corruption? conflict (of interest)?

It is imperative that Indian aviation be protected. Various entities within the ministry need to be made truly independent and taken out of its control.

The recommendation, in the crash report, for an independent investigative board, remains a distant dream. The board may come one day, but we can be certain, that a truly independent board, not reporting within, controlled by, and therefore subservient to the civil aviation ministry, and its political shenanigans, will never be implemented.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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