A penny in time

If the judge, jury and executioner in a case are one and the same, how likely is it that justice will be delivered? That, in a nutshell, is where the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India finds itself with regard to air safety.

Let me explain. In almost every country, the body that investigates aircraft accidents is a highly specialised one with trained investigators. As and when an accident occurs, investigators arrive at a hypothesis on the possible reasons based on clues gathered at the site or from recovered parts. 

All possible hypotheses are examined in detail and rejected till the most likely one that ties in with all other evidence remains. The most probable cause is established and recommendations are made based on this to reduce recurrence.  The recommendations have to be implemented by the regulator and it is held responsible for the failure to do so. In the US, for instance, the regulator is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the body that investigates accidents is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority is the regulator and investigations are conducted by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. In most developed countries, recommendations made post an accident are taken with utmost seriousness and are usually binding on the regulator. 

India however has been doing its own thing in this regard. Till 2010, safety rules and regulations were prescribed by the DGCA — both for airlines and industry personnel. It was the DGCA that tried to ensure — without probably having the wherewithal to do so — regulations were complied with. As and when, such regulations were not followed and a mishap occurred, the DGCA would ask a panel of experts to investigate. Recommendations submitted would be examined and those accepted would be implemented and the rest ignored. As a former director general of civil aviation told me once recommendations that could be implemented with relative ease would be implemented and the rest overlooked.

In 2011 — in the aftermath of Air India plane crash in Mangalore in May 2010 — the government realised it needed a dedicated set-up to investigate accidents and set up an Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau but this effort has remained largely on paper. 

While working on an article on safety for this newspaper, I discovered to my horror that India’s annual budget for the DGCA is a mere Rs200 crore. Contrast this with the $17.5 billion allotted to the FAA for the year 2019 by the US government. This despite the fact that air traffic growth in India has been among the highest and is crossing double digits almost every year. India is expected to cross the UK and be the third largest in the volume of traffic by 2024. This single statistic to my mind highlights why the DGCA is unable to perform as it ought to. 

India does not have many trained investigators but it is not as if some of the required technical expertise doesn’t exist. India’s aviation sector has over the years nurtured highly competent aircraft engineers but the DGCA doesn’t always have the money to hire such talent. As such, circulars and civil aviation requirements (CARs) issued by it are often not heeded by the airlines and the industry in their entirety. Many investigation reports have been gathering dust for years together.

So here’s my suggestion: Let the money saved from selling India’s national carrier (annually around Rs4,500 crore) go into setting up and financing two credible safety organisations in India — a new DGCA and an accident investigation body with trained investigators — that work in tandem. This is the single biggest favour the government can do to the sector in general and the air passengers in particular.

Last, while we are at it, let’s rename the DGCA. The moniker has been used and abused so much that we could do with a new epithet altogether (as far as names go America’s Federal Aviation Authority is no slicker!). How about calling India’s new DGCA Safety First ? If you have a better idea, do write in.

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