The death of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash is distressing. The Prime Minister spoke for the nation when he expressed his anguish as he remembered the General’s “rich experience” and his “exceptional service”. The death of the senior most defence official of the nation, his wife Mrs. Madhulika Rawat and 12 others on board the Russian-built Mi-17-V5 chopper, in these unexplained circumstances, raises many worries and questions. Not the least of these is that they were travelling in a chopper thought to be well-equipped and secure, one of the kinds used in India for VVIP movement. ‘Russian Helicopters’, which manufactures them through a subsidiary company, describes these choppers to be “among the most popular helicopters in their class”. As the manufacturers say it on their website: “these helicopters were built incorporating a full-spectrum analysis of Russian helicopters’ operation in combat situations and conflict zones. It is these helicopters’ universality and high flight capabilities that make them among the world’s most popular Russian-made helicopters.” So here was a kind of safe bet at work.
No rushed conclusion or wild theories must follow this factual position; it would be prudent to wait for the official report of the court of inquiry that has been ordered. It is unfortunate that some sections have already begun speculating on the causes of the crash, their limited “analysis” sometimes coming with a definite political edge that sows confusion in the public mind and does disservice to the cause of a full and fair investigation. All sides must understand that this is not the place or time or subject to play politics with. One video doing the rounds even went on to play communal issues, picturing an ex-serviceman wearing his military cap, wading into what previous governments have done and diving into politics and religion. This is not the best way to analyse the crash or respect the memory of those who died.
The investigation team will have the difficult task of unravelling how and why a flight on a routine path with no hazards on the horizon might crash. given that there are no survivors. The hope that Group Captain Varun Singh, who survived the crash and was hospitalised with extensive burn injuries, will recover ended on Wednesday with news coming in that he passed away at the Air Force Command Hospital in Bengaluru. This crash is a special case, a VVIP accident involving the highest-level functionary, his family and his full security detail. It requires special handling and investigations. It cannot be clubbed with the other accidents that have happened in the past. But that said, there is no denying the fact that India’s flight safety record as seen in the services, is rather weak. There have been several crashes of training sorties and assorted missions, a subject raised again and again in various fora, including Parliament. In June 2019, the Minister of State for Defence Shripad Naik told the Lok Sabha that the Indian Air Force lost a total of 27 aircraft in crashes between 2016-17 to 2019-20 (as of 20 June 2019), with a loss of Rs.524.64 crore in 11 of the cases which were closed as of that date.
While the focus remains on the Indian Air Force and its safety record – flights by their very nature will involve a higher degree of risk – there is a general air that suggests that safety is not the best it can be for the men and machines operating at the frontlines in general. This has nothing to do with the political nature of the leadership and everything to do with a culture that appears less honed on the idea of standardised processes, systems and methods to check for fault lines and keep a high level of maintenance. Needless to say, this is linked to India’s operational readiness, and so safety and maintenance are not luxuries but a part of the investment required to keep the nation’s huge defence establishment fighting fit. Partly, it is the cost and availability of spares, given the growing threat perception, the variety of military hardware that India has acquired and the need to keep updating in a world of changing technology and rapidly escalating cost structures. On spares, a telling comment came in one report dating back to 2010-11 about the fairly high levels of Aircraft on Ground (AOG) for various helicopters alone: “It was noticed that each unit generally kept one helicopter as AOG for more than six months in order to cannibalise its parts. This indicated that the required number of helicopters were not in a readytofly condition, affecting their availability to the units for performing their assigned role.”
While the focus is on aircraft and therefore the Indian Air Force, other wings of defence also have suffered in what look like safety-related issues. Consider that in 2013, an Indian submarine sitting in the docks caught fire and went down, killing 18 crew. The mishap happened barely two months after the Russian-built sub underwent an 80- million-dollar overhaul. It was the most serious accident in recent times but not the only one. It may be shocking to note that between 2007-08 and 2015-16, Indian Navy ships and submarines were involved in as many as 38 accidents, primarily attributable to fire/explosion/flooding, according to an official audit report of 2017, which noted: “These accidents led to a loss of two naval ships and one submarine in addition to loss of precious lives. The Indian Navy since inception has no institutionalised framework to deal with safety issues.”
A landscape view of these events and episodes must question everything about current working practices and investment norms. Even more important, the culture must change to share more data and reports that can allow for an open and well-informed debate when things go wrong and accidents happen. This can happen in as many cases as possible without compromising security matters. Inquiries can be behind closed doors but reports must be open for public scrutiny, slowly but surely, and to the extent that national security is not compromised. There will be cases of equipment failure as well as human error – this difference also needs to be studied carefully and debated openly. The overall direction should be to ensure that the culture of high performance, high readiness and high diligence along with high safety standards is prioritised and supported.
(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)
(Syndicate: The Billion Press)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK