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A bumpy ride so far



Civil aviation in India ... nothing to smile about.

THE latest cabinet reshuffle in Delhi has one significant change: Shahnawaz Husain has been moved from the Civil Aviation ministry.

It is a significant move because it echoes similar changes at every cabinet upheaval: there is at least one minister moved out to a less important ministry. And everyone knows why he has been shifted: he has done so much damage in his present charge that the tolerance limits built in to the system have been crossed and there is no way to undo the damage without drastic surgery.

The civil aviation ministry seems particularly unlucky in its choice of ministers. First, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had appointed Sharad Yadav there; now Shahnawaz Husain. Both were unmitigated disaster.

As it happens, this isn't said with hindsight. Anyone with slightest knowledge of this particular ministry, would have known that it deals with a very complex subject involving international negotiations of the toughest kind whether in dealing with purchases of aircraft or mutual landing rights; labour issues which may be Indian, but at once taken on international colour; a decision-making process which must be quick to take advantage of flexible situations, yet far-sighted enough considering the enormity and long-standing effects of each decision.

Was Yadav able to handle these issues? No. Did he ever look as if he could handle these issues? No. Did Shahnawaz Husain look as if he could handle these issues? No. Did he ever look as if he could handle these issues? No.

Between them, in fact, they stymied the privatisation of Air India; and Indian Airlines. They gave away landing rights they never should have without much tougher bargaining. They delayed vital decisions on purchases or leasing of aircraft. And recently, a bill was brought forward of much breath-taking stupidity that you began to wonder whether even the IAS men who man each ministry had been standing too close to taking-off aircraft.

It's no doubt this legislation which got Husain the boot. For "security reasons", this bill would have handed over all ground-handling at our domestic and international airports from July this year to Indian Airlines, Air India and the Airports Authority of India.

The logic of this was difficult to find even if you looked for it long and hard. Who mans (or, more often than not, womans) ticketing and reservations desks? Local employees, almost always Indians, generally drawn from the same region. Why would the employee of Jet or Sahara be, then, more of a security risk than an employee of Indian Airlines? Even foreign airlines, such as British Airways, almost always use local staff for ground handling. Why would they be more of a security risk than those who worked for Air India? In fact, the handling already being done by the Airports Authority personnel is a letting example of what can happen when public sector employees are left unsupervised: loaders at various airports were found rifling through luggage, porters to fleece tourists and the men who check baggage through the x-ray machine, found to let through dangerous items like bullets and daggers and so on. (The last, incidentally, forced private airlines like Jet to institute their own, additional check on luggage).

Anyone who travels by air knows the difference private airlines made: fares got competitive, service got better, planes run efficiently. And you felt the difference the moment you arrived at the airport. (Sahara's people even unloaded luggage from your car and take it inside on a trolley). Husain couldn't take away competition in the skies, so he wants to do it on the ground and return us all to the bad old days when Indian Airlines had no competition and were complacent and indifferent.

Of course, security is a big concern in today's violent world, and it should certainly be at our airports, but there should be a method in how you enforce it, nor madness.

Madness is what you felt even from ministers who are considered astute and with a mind of their own. Sushma Swaraj is one such minister who has left one particular mess at the Information and Broadcasting ministry before she moved out. It's a mess her successor, yet another Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rising star, seems unwilling to clear up. He ought to, if the interests of the consumer matter at all to him.

The Conditional Access System (CAS) was supposed to be on the side of the consumer. At least that's what Swaraj led everyone to believe. In fact, it's on the other side, in the corner with the cable operator, and dead against the consumer.

The trouble with the cable system of watching television is very simple, and there is a parallel with the airline industry. That problem is, lack of competition: a cable operator muscles in on one particular area and then ensures that that becomes his own fiefdom, with no one else allowed to get in. so if your cable operator decides to charge you double of what he should or doesn't give you the channels you want, there's nothing you can do about. (Except, of course, to move into another area).

The shenanigans of some well-connected cable cooperators have gone completely out of hand. They charge you 100-200 per cent of a fair fees, they then don't pay the broadcaster for months. And while they collect money from every subscriber, they declare only about 10 per cent of the total number to the broadcaster thus depriving him of 90 per cent of his rightful revenue.

Now why should the subscriber and the broadcaster both be at the mercy of the middle-man? Apart from the ethics of it, why should the subscriber be forced to pay for bad service, and the broadcaster not get the money which would make him less dependent on advertising revenue and greater income to improve his programming and service? The CAS bill will, in fact, vest more power in the hand of the operator. It will end up by costing the subscriber even more than today while giving him no greater choice. It will do nothing for the broadcaster. It will make the operator enjoy even greater choice. It will do nothing for the broadcaster. It will make the operator enjoy even greater monopoly and it will make his profitability even greater.

So why was this introduced in the first place? We all know that it's political compulsions which make the Prime Minister appoint certain people to certain positions. Very rarely does competence or specialisation or knowledge enter the picture. The net result, as these two bills show, is disastrous for everyone, except for a few vested interests. The result is certainly bad for the country.

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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