The way E K Bharat Bhushan was removed as director general of civil aviation (DGCA) last week points once again to the arbitrary ways of the United Progressive Alliance government. His appointment had been cleared by the appointments committee of the Cabinet, which is headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. According to the rule book, this committee alone has the power to rescind appointments made by it. In this case, it is not clear if Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh proposed Mr Bhushan’s removal to the committee, or if he removed him on his own. On July 3, when Mr Bhushan’s term as DGCA was extended, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) carried an announcement to that effect on its website. But on July 9, when he was removed, no such announcement was made by the PIB.
That Mr Bhushan was axed less than a week after his term was extended by the appointments committee shows the outsize influence coalition allies and regional satraps hold over this government, and Dr Singh’s reluctance to rein in ministers who run their ministries the way they like. Whatever be the other merits of such a decentralised approach, it is apparent that the prime minister – even after the 2G scandal – still courts the political dangers that come from allowing his ministers to tweak rules at their convenience. Mr Bhushan’s removal shows that little has changed in New Delhi’s corridors of power since the time of A Raja.
Such arbitrariness also leads to claims of undue influence, which a government can ill-afford. In this case, a day before he was removed, it was reported that Mr Bhushan asked his junior officers to prepare a file noting on Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines for the company’s failure to adhere to a recovery plan and pay its staff on time. Why does the DGCA need to poke its nose into the internal affairs of an airline? Mr Bhushan, it is claimed, was concerned that this could interfere with the airline’s safety. A show-cause notice would have followed the file noting. This would have been an embarrassment for Mr Mallya, who was earlier summoned by Mr Bhushan in March. One newspaper reported that the file noting was missing from the relevant documents shown to reporters by Mr Bhushan’s successor, Prashant Sukul! Yet all is not cut and dried; the civil aviation ministry has claimed that the DGCA under Mr Bhushan had given Kingfisher a clean bill of health, safety-wise. Other similar claims have been passed around: for example, that what really sealed Mr Bhushan’s fate was his refusal to defer for six months a rule banning the import of aircraft more than 15 years old, and his opposition to a non-scheduled airline importing aircraft on wet lease.
Mr Bhushan was an active DGCA. During his tenure, fake pilot-training certificates were investigated; action was taken against those found guilty; the licence-granting process was streamlined; and touts were put out of business. The racket of fake foreign degrees obtained by pilots was busted, and the examination system was computerised. Mr Bhushan also started the financial surveillance of airlines to make sure that they did not compromise on passenger safety. A VIP helipad in Mumbai was shut for three months because of its inadequate infrastructure. A regulator who makes powerful enemies should be protected by due process, not sacked at whim.