A Bill that gives three aviation regulators statutory powers and enhances the fine for violations from ₹10 lakh to ₹1 crore in a bid to improve aircraft safety, was passed by Parliament on Tuesday after a heated discussion in Rajya Sabha over privatisation of airports.
The Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on March 17, was passed by the Upper House by voice vote.
The Bill gives statutory powers to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security and the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau. Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri said the changes were necessary in view of the growth of the sector. The Bill empowers the aviation watchdog DGCA to levy penalties of upto ₹1 crore on airlines, airports and other aviation entities.
The amendments to the Bill also address several regulatory shortcomings that were highlighted by aviation watchdogs of the United Nations and the U.S., i.e the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the Federal Aviation Authority, during their audits on safety and security in the Indian aviation ecosystem. The changes include recognising regulatory bodies such as the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security and the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau- which were set up through various government notifications but didn't have a defined role under the parent Act, as well as air navigation services.
During the discussion on the Bill, Congress MP K.C. Venugopal in his maiden speech in the House hit out at the government over the privatisation of six airports that had been given to the Adani Group. He demanded an inquiry into the matter, saying it was “crony capitalism” and a violation of the rules that one company was given all six airports.
“Airports Authority of India has become AAA — Airports Authority of Adani,” Mr. Venugopal alleged.
BJP MP G.V.L Narasimha Rao responded by saying the “real crony capitalism” was prevalent in the UPA government’s tenure in the 2G spectrum and coal block auctions. He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objective was to make air travel safer and accessible to all sections of society.
Trinamool Congress MP Dinesh Trivedi said as a former pilot he understood the problems facing the civil aviation sector. He said there was need to do away with the entire Aircraft Act, 1934. On the impending sale of Air India, Mr. Trivedi said: “If Air India was not there, the private sector wouldn’t be there. So please don't sell Air India”.
Oversight over regulators
Former Civil Aviation Minister and NCP MP Praful Patel said the Bill was important as the aviation sector grows, the regulations have to be in line with international requirements. However, he said it was not clear how these regulators would be appointed. He also said there was a need to increase the number of airports in the country, citing the examples of the pending Jewar and Navi Mumbai airport projects that were approved in 2007 and 2005 respectively.
Referring to the Opposition’s critique that the Bill gave the government superintendence over the regulators, BJP MP Lt. Gen (retired) Dr. D.P. Vats said there was a need for “unity of command”.
“The government’s say should be final because the responsibility of the government is final,” he said.
Replying to the debate, Mr. Puri said Mr. Venugopal had raised concerns over the shortage of air traffic controllers and near misses, but the government had recruited 1,000 air traffic controllers in the past three years and was close to the target of 3,500 before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the process.
On the issue of privatisation, he cited the example of Delhi and Mumbai airport being privatised in 2006, leading to the AAI getting ₹29,000 crore in revenue that helped in developing airports in the country.
He said the six airports that were awarded in 2018 accounted for 9% of traffic, while Delhi and Mumbai accounted for 33% of traffic and earnings.
“Now, to talk in terms of six airports being given to one entity, let me just place this in perspective. When these two airports, Delhi and Mumbai, were privatised in 2006, all subsequent efforts at privatisation contained a stipulation to the effect that prior experience was necessary. So, we fell into a trap of our own making — not by this government, I don’t want to make this a political point — that unless you had previous experience, which means unless you had done either Delhi or Mumbai, you could not participate in the process, which, in effect, meant that for 15 years, no competitive open bidding could take place,” he said.
He said when the bidding for the Jewar airport took place none of the previous successful bidders could participate.
On the COVID-19 situation, Mr. Puri said domestic air traffic would return to pre-COVID levels by the end of the year.
Responding to criticism that Vande Bharat Mission flights to evacuate Indians stranded abroad had very high fares, Mr. Puri said: “I made it very clear right in the beginning that an air operation like this cannot be carried out through donations or the Gurudwara Langar Society; that has to be paid. The amount we charged was the lowest ever.”
On the privatisation of Air India, he said the choice was not between privatisation and non-privatisation, but between “privatisation and closing down”.