On 23rd May 2017, an Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter plane, which was on a routine training mission reportedly went out of radar 60 km north of Tezpur in Assam. The Russia-made fighter jet, with two pilots on board, took off from Salonibari Air Force Station at 10:30 AM and has lost contact with the base camp at around 11:45 AM.
Tezpur’s Salonibari Air force Station, a strategic station, is located at a distance of 172 km from the China border, 146 km from the Myanmar border and 160 km from the Bangladesh border.
It is to be noted that on 15th March 2015 and 19th May 2015, two Su-30MKI fighter aircraft had crashed at Laokhowa in Nagaon district of Assam and Barmer district of Rajasthan respectively. In both the cases, the pilot and co-pilot have ejected safely and a Court of Inquiry had been ordered as per protocol.
As the IAF has begun with its search operations, the whole Nation has come together to pray for the safe return of the two missing pilots in this unfortunate incident. But right now, it is time for us to assess the Modi Government’s accountability in ensuring the safety of its brave men and women serving from Defense Forces.
— Major Gaurav Arya (@majorgauravarya) May 25, 2017
In January 2017, the then Raksha Mantri Shri Manohar Parrikar said “The biggest problem I faced was after sales service. Defence PSUs considered after sales service as an expense and not an investment. Virtually convincing them in setting up after-sales-service units at various Army locations took us almost a year.”
While the International standards of serviceability rate for fighter aircraft stood somewhere at 75-80%, the Su-30MKI fleet which was maintained by India stood at a dismal 46%. With a merge investment of Rs 400 Crore for after sales-service units, Manohar Parrikar had raised the serviceability rate of Su-30MKI fleet to 60% during his tenure.
In March 2017, the Indian Government signed two key agreements for long-term maintenance and technical support for Russian-made Su-30MKI fighter jets of the Indian Air Force. The IAF operates around 230 Su-30MKI fighter jets and as per the agreements, Russian Defense majors United Aircraft Corporation and the United Engine Corporation will render technical support and provide maintenance services and spares for the fleet for a period of five years.
Apart from this, the direct involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in clinching the ‘Rafale Deal’ with the French Government was visible to the entire world. This deal which was India’s first Jet deal in the past 36 years was pending from the year 2007. It finally materialized in December 2016 with the Indian Government inking a deal of Rs 58,000 crores for 36 fighter jets from the French Government, with a technology transfer clause.
But a question which arises in the common man’s mind is, “How does one quantify the loss of life or limb suffered by a soldier or a pilot due to supply of poor quality equipment?”
TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION, ONE MUST TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE STORY OF WING COMMANDER SANJEET SINGH KAILA AND MIKOYAN-GUREVICH MIG-21 FLEET.
Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila is an extraordinary pilot with one of the finest track records in the IAF. In 2005, Sanjeet Singh Kaila was posted in Rajasthan as a squadron leader. On January 4th of the same year he made a fateful journey that changed his life forever.
The regular flight exercise, along with three other pilots, began with a normal take off which lasted for probably 20-30 seconds. Post take off, his MiG-21 jet automatically drifted to the left and the pilot from the second aircraft warned Wing Commander Kaila of fire from his right engine.
In a daring manoeuvre to prevent the jet from crashing in a densely populated region, Wg. Cdr. Kaila put his life at a catastrophic risk. He managed to eject just 300 meters above ground level (ABL) with merely 1.5-2 seconds before the jet collided with the ground.
In the process of his ejection from MiG-21 aircraft, Kaila injured his spinal cord. Although Kaila tried to continue as a fighter pilot for a brief period of 9 months, the excruciating pain forced him to sign up for a medical check-up. The doctors diagnosed him with Cervicalgia, a condition which renders the patient with severe pain in the neck, shoulders or upper back, and diagnosed he was unfit to continue his flying duties. He was later transferred to a non-flying position in late 2007.
Although Wing Commander Kaila was confident of his flying capabilities, he did not possess any evidence which affirmed any malfunction in the MiG-21 he flew. Extensive investigations by the IAF through a Court of Inquiry revealed that the incident was caused due to the development of a fatigue crack in the welded portion of the After-Burner manifold leading to a fire in the aircraft.
Armed with the above reply obtained by the Right to Information (RTI) filed on 14.08.2012 and 06.03.2013, Sanjeet Singh Kaila decided to approach the High Court of Delhi under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.
For those who do not possess much information on the MiG-21, it is a supersonic jet fighter/interceptor aircraft, designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is an Indian state-owned Defense company that undertakes manufacturing and assembly of aircraft, navigation and related communication equipment and airports operation. While HAL had undertaken the manufacturing of the MiG-21 jet flown by Wing Commander Kaila, many of the MiGs owned by IAF were procured from foreign makers.
In 2012, the government informed the Parliament that more than half of the 872 MiGs it had purchased from Russia had been lost in accidents and cost us over 200 lives. The jet came to be known as the “flying coffin” or the “widow maker“.
Kaila approached the High Court on the basis of violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, specifically his right to work in a safe environment as part of his right to life. What ensued was a long and excruciating fight between Kaila, the Ministry Of Defense (MoD) and HAL.
Unfortunately the MoD pointed fingers at Wing Commander Kaila, “For his implicit understanding of the risk involved in such a job, which is the risk of an accident, a risk that was voluntarily taken up by the pilot”. The argument from HAL was as follows, “There was no intimation by the Indian Air Force that there were any noticeable cracks in the afterburner manifold that could be attributed to the poor workmanship of HAL”
Finally in an unprecedented judgement, justice prevailed for Wing Commander Kaila who was awarded a compensation of Rs 55 Lakhs (Rs 50 Lakhs by HAL and Rs 5 Lakhs by Government of India). Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice Deepa Sharma of the Delhi High Court, not only directed HAL and GOI to provide the much required compensation to Kaila, but also upheld an officer’s honour and dignity as much as part of his right to life.
Although this judgement of the Delhi High Court has been stayed by the Supreme Court of India, there are many positives that we can take away from this verdict.
- Sai Deepak, an engineer-turned-lawyer was part of the team which represented the pilot before the High Court. According to Sai:-
- The decision is unprecedented and is landmark for recognising the right of members of the Armed Forces to receive safe equipment to discharge their duties. The awarding of a compensation by the High Court is a step in the right direction since it creates a deterrent to future negligence.
- The bold decision of Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila to initiate a principled legal action to hold to account those who expose the lives of soldiers to greater risk than they signed up for, is unprecedented in itself.
- The decision should hopefully bring about a larger shift in the manner in which we hold defence manufacturers to account and respect the lives of our soldiers.
Sai Deepak credited the High Court for taking a clear position on the issue.
In conclusion, we can say that although the Modi Government has ensured that corruption at Ministerial levels have been eliminated, there are still many a miles to go in eradicating flaws in the system. More than building War Memorials, which too is important, the Government should ensure that the lives or deaths of our soldiers are not taken for granted.
Our Armed forces, be it the Navy, Army or Air-Force are living a life which threatens their very existence, dignity to life and safe work environment. We must ensure that the Government willingly comes forward to restore their honor unlike the case of Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila, who still is fighting a hard battle.