The doctrine of separation of powers implies that each pillar of democracy – the executive, legislature and the judiciary – perform separate functions and act as separate entities.  The executive is vested with the power to make policy decisions and implement laws.  The legislature is empowered to issue enactments.  The judiciary is responsible for adjudicating disputes.  The doctrine is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution[1] even though it is not specifically mentioned in its text.  Thus, no law may be passed and no amendment may be made to the Constitution deviating from the doctrine.  Different agencies impose checks and balances upon each other but may not transgress upon each other’s functions.  Thus, the judiciary exercises judicial review over executive and legislative action, and the legislature reviews the functioning of the executive. There have been some cases where the courts have issued laws and policy related orders through their judgements.  These include the Vishakha case where guidelines on sexual harassment were issued by the Supreme Court, the order of the Court directing the Centre to distribute food grains (2010) and the appointment of the Special Investigation Team to replace the High Level Committee established by the Centre for investigating black money deposits in Swiss Banks. In 1983 when Justice Bhagwati introduced public interest litigation in India, Justice Pathak in the same judgement warned against the “temptation of crossing into territory which properly pertains to the Legislature or to the Executive Government”[2].  Justice Katju in 2007 noted that, “Courts cannot create rights where none exist nor can they go on making orders which are incapable of enforcement or violative of other laws or settled legal principles. With a view to see that judicial activism does not become judicial adventurism the courts must act with caution and proper restraint. It needs to be remembered that courts cannot run the government. The judiciary should act only as an alarm bell; it should ensure that the executive has become alive to perform its duties.” [3] While there has been some discussion on the issue of activism by the judiciary, it must be noted that there are also instances of the legislature using its law making powers to reverse the outcome of some  judgements.  (M.J. Antony has referred to a few in his article in the Business Standard here.)  We discuss below some recent instances of the legislature overturning judicial pronouncements by passing laws with retrospective effect. On September 7, 2011 the Parliament passed the Customs Amendment and Validation Bill, 2011 which retrospectively validates all duties imposed and actions taken by certain customs officials who were not authorized under the Customs Act to do the stated acts.  Some of the duties imposed were in fact challenged before the Supreme Court in Commissioner of Customs vs. Sayed Ali in 2011[4].  The Supreme Court struck down the levy of duties since these were imposed by unauthorised officials.  By passing the Customs Bill, 2011 the Parliament circumvented the judgement and amended the Act to authorize certain officials to levy duties retrospectively, even those that had been held to be illegal by the SC. Another instance of the legislature overriding the decision of the Supreme Court was seen in the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2009 which was passed into an Act.  The Supreme Court had ruled that the price at which the Centre shall buy sugar from the mill shall include the statutory minimum price (SMP) and an additional amount of profits that the mills share with farmers.[5] The Amendment allowed the Centre to pay a fair and remunerative price (FRP) instead of the SMP.  It also did away with the requirement to pay the additional amount.  The amendment applied to all transactions for purchase of sugar by the Centre since 1974.  In effect, the amendment overruled the Court decision. The executive tried to sidestep the Apex Court decision through the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2010.  The Court had issued a writ to the Custodian of Enemy Property to return possession of certain properties to the legal heir of the owner.   Subsequently the Executive issued an Ordinance under which all properties that were divested from the Custodian in favour of legal heirs by a Court order were reverted to him.  The Ordinance lapsed and a Bill was introduced in the Parliament.  The Bill is currently being examined by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs. These examples highlight some instances where the legislature has acted to reverse judicial pronouncements.  The judiciary has also acted in several instances in the grey areas separating its role from that of the executive and the legislature.  The doctrine of separation of powers is not codified in the Indian constitution.  Indeed, it may be difficult to draw a strict line demarcating the separation.  However, it may be necessary for each pillar of the State to evolve a healthy convention that respects the domain of the others.  

[1] Keshavananda Bharti vs. State of Kerala  AIR 1973 SC 1461

[2] Bandhua Mukti Morcha  AIR 1984 SC 802

[3] Aravali Golf Club vs. Chander Hass  (2008) 1 SCC (L&S) 289

[4] Supreme Court in Commissioner of Customs vs. Sayed Ali (2011) 3 SCC 537

[5] Mahalakshmi Mills vs. Union of India (2009) 16 SCC 569

The Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was passed by Parliament on August 4, 2021.  It amends the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India Act, 2008.  This Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha during the budget session this year in March 2021.  Subsequently, it was referred to the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture, which submitted its report on July 22, 2021.

Typically, cities have one civilian airport which provides all aeronautical services in that area.  These services include air traffic management, landing and parking of aircraft, and ground handling services.  This makes airports natural monopolies in the area.  To ensure that private airport operators do not misuse their monopoly, the need for an independent tariff regulator in the airport sector was felt.  Hence, the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) was established as an independent body under the 2008 Act to regulate tariffs and other charges (development fee and passenger service fee) for aeronautical services at major airports.  

For the remaining airports, these tariffs are determined by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), which is a body under the Ministry of Civil Aviation.  In addition, AAI leases out airports under the public-private partnership (PPP) model for operation, management, and development.  Before AERA was set up, AAI determined and fixed the aeronautical charges for all airports.  It also prescribed performance standards for all airports and monitored them.  Various committees had noted that AAI performed the role of airport operator as well as the regulator, which resulted in a conflict of interest.

The 2008 Act designates an airport as a major airport if it has an annual passenger traffic of at least 35 lakh.  The central government may also designate any airport as a major airport through a notification.  The Bill adds that the central government may group airports and notify the group as a major airport.  Thus, when a small airport will be clubbed in a group and the group is notified as a major airport, its tariff will be determined by AERA instead of AAI.  Note that AERA will not determine the tariff if such tariff or tariff structures or the amount of development fees has been incorporated in the bidding document, which is the basis for the award of operatorship of that airport.

The amendments under the Bill raise some concerns regarding the grouping of airports and the capacity of the regulator.

  • Grouping of airports: The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill states that government will club together profit-making and loss-making airports and offer them as a package in PPP mode to the prospective bidders.  This may be a policy decision to revive loss-making airports.  With the passage of the Bill, AERA will treat a group of airports as one entity.  One of the ways in which tariffs may be structured for the grouped entity would be through cross-subsidies.  This would involve compensating loss-making airports with the revenue generated from the profit-making airports.  If such a model is used, it may increase the cost of services to the end-consumers of profit-making airports or could reduce the profitability of such airports.  The experiences from other sectors such as electricity show that cross-subsidisation may lead to pricing problems in long term. 
  • Capacity of the regulator: AERA was created to provide a level playing field in the aviation sector and resolve the conflict of interest that arises with AAI both operating and regulating tariffs at airports.  During the examination of the AERA Bill, 2007 by the Standing Committee, the Ministry of Civil Aviation informed the Committee that AERA should regulate tariff and monitor performance standards only at major airports.  Depending upon future developments in the sector, and as the regulator built its capacity, other functions could be subsequently assigned to the regulator.

As of 2020, there are 125 operational airports in India (includes international airports, customs airports, and civil enclaves).  The number of airports under the purview of AERA increased from 11 in 2007 to 24 in 2019.  For the remaining airports, tariffs are still determined by AAI.  In the last five years (2014 to 2019), air passenger traffic increased from 11.3 crore to 34.9 crore (which is an annual growth rate of 10%).  Till 2030-31, air traffic in the country is expected to continue growing at an average annual rate of 10-11%

Before 2019, an airport with annual passenger traffic of at least 15 lakh was considered a major airport.  In 2019, the AERA Act was amended to increase this threshold to 35 lakh.  The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the 2019 Bill stated that the exponential growth of the aviation sector has put tremendous pressure on AERA, while its resources are limited.  Therefore, if too many airports come under the purview of AERA, it will not be able to perform its functions efficiently.  Consequently, in 2019, the number of airports under the purview of AERA was reduced.  Now, with the passage of the 2021 Bill, AERA will have to again regulate tariffs at more airports as and when notified by the central government.  Thus, the capacity of AERA may be needed to be enhanced for extending its scope to other airports.

Table 1: List of major airports in India (as of June 2019)

























Source: AERA website as accessed on August 2, 2021; PRS.