Grounded before take-off?

Everybody agrees that the civil aviation sector needs an independent regulator. It is on the nimbler points that the unity comes undone.


Sweta Ranjan | February 8, 2012

The civil aviation sector will soon have a new regulator. The civil aviation authority (CAA) will replace the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) sometime soon in 2012.

Though the CAA has already become mired in controversy over its formation and the selection of members, it is expected a welcome change from the DGCA. The well-meaning outgoing apex regulator had become limited in its functioning and ambit, being under the ministry of civil aviation. CAA, it is hoped, will have more autonomy and hence, greater authority in keeping a watch on the sector.

However, the need for CAA does not mean that the DGCA failed entirely. Interfering political masters have knocked some of its teeth off. As Jitender Bhargava, a  former executive director of Air India says, “The DGCA has its own weaknesses. Transparency, accountability and independence issues have not let DGCA grow and build its own culture and management hierarchy. That is not to say that it has failed.”

After the Air India Express crash in Mangalore in May 2010 in which 158 passengers and crew members were killed, the clamour for an independent regulator had peaked. Thus, the proposed CAA is expected to take over the responsibilities of the DGCA in areas like air safety, airspace regulation, setting aviation standards, licensing of airlines, pilot, air traffic controllers and consumer protection.

While the need for an autonomous authority with more flexibility in functioning and faster decision-making powers is indeed pressing, the buzz is that the idea of having the CAA has not gone down well with civil aviation officials.

The draft CAA bill has many debatable provisions. One of the contentious points is the eligibility criteria for the head of CAA. As per the draft, “The chairperson will be a person who is or has held the post of secretary to the government or an equivalent post in the central government.” Critics fear that a head who has already served in the government may not be able to do justice to his duties. A senior pilot, who is also an expert on the aviation industry insists the post should be held by a professional, like a senior pilot with years of knowledge and experience or someone with good technical knowledge of the industry.

The civil aviation secretary Nasim Zaidi, the architect of the CAA bill, is scheduled to retire on July 7 this year. His name is already popping up as a favourite for the post of CAA head. Critics say putting a former government servant at the helm would lead the proposed watchdog down the path DGCA took over the years.

On one hand, M N Chaturvedi, a former regional deputy commissioner with the bureau of civil aviation security, says, “We must welcome the CAA as all over the world, this is the trend of functioning. We needed a comprehensive and autonomous body to regulate civil aviation industry in India. I think the controversy regarding the top post is baseless. I believe we should go by what the draft bill suggests as a pilot has only the knowledge of operations but security related issues are not his forte”. Bhargava, on the other, says, “The authority should be headed by anybody but a bureaucrat. A bureaucrat can never be independent. The Indian civil aviation industry requires a person who has a mind of his own and one who can perform his functions without any fear or favour. It is difficult for a bureaucrat to ensure safety of all the airlines and follow the compliance of rules.” 

Another controversial point is the age of retirement of the CAA chair. Unlike other agencies, the bill lays down 65 years as the retiring age. An aviation expert, unwilling to be quoted, says, “Such jobs are not for those who have achieved superannuation. It should be handled by an active person as it is a hands-on job.”

However these issues are worked out in the future, the point of note is that the sector needs a watchdog with more teeth.



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