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Rs 30,000cr for pilot’s kin? Rahul Gandhi not alone; ‘paying off the dead’ part of Indian mindset that cares least for safety

Rahul Gandhi may well have been crass and thoughtless in his comments about saving Rs 30,000 crores and giving them as comfort pills to the families of Indian Air Force pilots who die in crashes. But, taking emotions out of it and putting aside, for a moment, the opportunistic criticism of these remarks by Smriti Irani who accused him of equating death on duty with money, Rahul is not alone. It is the official Indian way to ameliorate grief and loss and whether it is on the civvy street or the military the next of kin of those who have lost their lives are given this financial comfort.

One sees political luminaries going in for the insensitive optics every single time, so let’s not just castigate Gandhi for his comments because the country does nothing else but fling money to camouflage its official sins of commission and omission.

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Irani criticises equating death with money, yet she produces no rabbit out of her hat to tell the public what else does this government do to make the lives of the Indian Air Force pilots safe. If I sound shrill it is because I have lost two family members in exactly these circumstances and totally relate to the message currently doing the rounds on the social platform rounds. Nidhi Bahaguna, a pilot’s wife, perfectly describes the post-crash scenario:

All aviators are young, in their 20s or 30s. They have young wives and very young children. Some leave behind pregnant wives. Most of the time, the day starts as routine, quick byes are said early in the morning, plans made for evening and the aviator goes off for a routine sortie. Some engine part malfunctions, rotor blades may stop, aircraft may collide — and worlds come crashing down!

The scared children are picked up from school; the commanding officer with his spouse breaks the shattering news to the wife, and suddenly her life changes forever. Terrified, the children hold on to the shattered mother’s hands. If the wife is pregnant, she has suddenly been left adrift. And, if the pilot was a bachelor, the parents are informed on the phone while the entire base is plunged into deep sorrow. The young wife, mostly in the 20s or 30s, is suddenly faced with difficult choices, and the children, who till a few hours back were carefree and playful suddenly become serious.

Does Rahul even realise that for the widows or parents of the dead aviator, the most difficult moment is signing the papers for insurance and other benefits? They break down and cry. Many see it as blood money and often refuse to sign and have to be counselled. And here, Rahul is offering them the same blood money as an incentive to cancel the Rafale deal.

Let’s be honest. One can make a great argument for using these fiscal sops as a deflection for not doing the job right or improving the situation and ensuring that these men and women did not die in vain. Every time an air accident takes place, a pompous committee with a senior judge who knows nothing about aircraft or air safety is set up. And years later when the recommendations come out, they get lost in the wilderness and nothing is done to implement them. Nobody cares. Over 100 recommendations in civil aviation are rusting in their own glory today.

The Gandhi dynasty was no different and after the 1971 War, the failure to make our transmodal infrastructure safer has been across the board. Our voluntary enslavement to the then Soviet military arcade kept us on the backfoot for spares and maintenance.

Ironically, in commercial aviation, the Air Accident Investigation Board, borne out of the DGCA, is also part of the Ministry of Transportation and not an independent body like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington. Ergo, the same lot who is responsible for air safety is also responsible for air accident investigation. Why would they find themselves guilty?

Our far too frequent railway accidents, our road transportation where buses fall regularly into rivers and ravines — all these have no ending and are lost in the mists of time.
But back to the military. Even when the dubious MiG-21 nicknamed ‘flying coffins’ were part of India’s frontline force, they dragged their feet, and Rahul did diddley. The Gandhi family was holding the controls. In the past five years, the BJP has been holding the yoke. The Indian Air Force has lost 31 military aircraft including MiGs, Sukhois, the Mirage 2000 and the Jaguar not to mention the ageing choppers that fall out of the sky. It is estimated that the IAF has lost 170 pilots in the past 30 years, a dismal record largely because of a lack of spares and fatigue from age.

Just to illustrate the point. In 2017, a Mi-17 V5 helicopter fell near the Chinese border likely due to metal fatigue. All seven on board were killed in the incident. Does anyone recall the conclusions of the inquiry? That is it. There is no follow-up. No calling to account. And no step forward. Perhaps Rahul is right: cold cash is all there is to offer.

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 17:46:48 IST

Updated: February 11, 2019 — 7:22 pm
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