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The Flying Coffins of the Northeast

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree; Aleph; Rs 599; 244 pages
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With Pawan Hans resuming helicopter services in the Northeast, it’s time to ask how its tragically frequent crashes evoke no outrage or remedy

Pawan Hans is quite a beautiful name, one that combines the elegance of the swan with the mythology of Pawan, the Hindu God of wind. And yet it is the knell-like ring of the name that came to mind when I heard of the aviation company’s recent resumption of services in the Northeast. I might have heard it in GK class in school, but the first time I really became aware of the existence of Pawan Hans was in October last year when an editor, who’d commissioned me for a story on Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, mentioned it to me. Travel by road from Guwahati to Tawang would take me a minimum of two and a half days, and so she had been trying to arrange for air travel by helicopter. “No one’s picking up the phone at the Pawan Hans office,” she complained to me.

I was excited about the prospect of helicopter-travel. Budget airlines had taken away the excitement of plane travel but a chopper ride still retained an element of comic-book exotic for me. When we reached Guwahati, Sanjoy, the photographer travelling with me, found that all Pawan Hans helicopters were booked for the next three weeks. Travel agencies, we found out, offered this as part of their holiday package: a chopper ride was adventure tourism, the tourist’s “reality show”, as an attendant at the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati pointed out.

On 19 November last year, a month after our return from Tawang, I get a call from Sanjoy. Caught in the middle of a rare afternoon nap, his words seem otherworldly: “We could have  been dead, you know, a month ago, and our bodies would now be protein for jungle wolves.” At first I think it’s one of his stock jokes, and I’m about to retort with who-wants-to-die-with-you, when he adds, “The Pawan Hans helicopter we would have been on last month just crashed.”

In Shillong, just a month earlier, I’d been unnerved by the matter-of-fact way in which a sister had described her brother’s death to me: “The helicopter crashed.” Those three words, shorter and more powerful than Ernest Heming- way’s shortest six-word story, would haunt me every time I’d look at the sky in Meghalaya. The woman speaking to me was the 45-year-old Sumita Chaudhuri, talking about her brother, Ardhendu Chaudhuri. They were my friend’s uncle and aunt. Aparajita Endow, always uncomfortable when we talk about helicopters, her voice angry and sad and intolerant of destiny, recounts that day: “Chhorda-mamu used to be the Director of Printing and Stationery, Government of Meghalaya, until he gave up his job to join the NCP led by PN Sangma, and was elected MLA. September 22 was like any other day until that phone call. ‘Have you heard the news?’ asked my uncle from Silchar. A Pawan Hans helicopter, carrying 12 passengers, many of whom were MLAs, had crashed near Barapani (Umiam), some 20 km from Shillong. Chhorda-mamu had been reduced to a ‘body’ that needed to be ‘identified’ by his wife. My mother, spent evenings asking us, ‘How can a helicopter go missing?’ It’s been seven years, and every time I hear about yet another Pawan Hans crash, I am filled with rage and grief.” It is perhaps telling that it is the Meghalaya government alone, among the North-eastern states, that has rejected Pawan Hans’ proposal to resume services. Only Sikkim and Tripura have allowed the company to resume operations again after the 30 April crash in Tawang.

So much remains unchanged. Amit Chaudhuri, reminiscing about his journey, made more than three decades ago from mainland India to Shillong, writes: ‘… the noisy, toy-like aeroplane, probably a Fokker Friendship, to Guwahati, with its shattering roar before take-off’. That expression ‘toy-like’ is telling, and it never fails to come back to me when I think of a friend who, having lost a brother to a Pawan Hans helicopter crash, has not been able to get herself to buy a toy helicopter for her son.

What is surprising is not just mainstream media’s stubbing out of such news, but also its near-absence in private media. Facebook being the www-consumer’s alternative medium, I turn to its search engine. Only one mention on 30 April 2011: ‘Pawan Hans has done more to eradicate corruption than CVC, CBI, ED and IT departments put together.’ While that desperate joke, steeped in irony and repressed anger, is troubling in its lack of sympathy, it is symptomatic of the obligatory two-sentence reportage on helicopter crashes in the country. It’s a matter of fact statement of death: people in the Northeast, or those travelling in that part of the country die like that, just as people once died of cholera.

We have all grieved, at some point in our lives, for doctors who died of the disease they were trying to cure. The Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister, Dorjee Khandu’s condolence message, and his declaration of a day’s holiday in Tawang because of the death of 17 people in an Mi17 Pawan Hans helicopter crash on 19 April this year, assume that kind of irony, one that only history can give to deaths. Ten days later, Khandu himself, with three others, was discovered dead in an area between Kyela and Lugudhang, days after the Pawan Hans helicopter ferrying him from Tawang to Itanagar went ‘missing’. These deaths are not new in the Northeast. In November last year, on Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, 12 military personnel died when an IAF Mi17 chopper crashed almost immediately after takeoff. I mention only the accidents of the past half year. The roster would also include: the death of Andhra Chief Minister YSR Reddy in September 2009; the death of the Pawan Hans crew members who fell to their death from 10,000 feet in August 2010; the Pawan Hans chopper crash at Chandigarh airport in December 2010… the list is long.

Apart from the Pawan Hans helicopter crashes, there are also the many ‘routine’ helicopter crashes that go unreported in the media.

My brother-in-law, a colonel in the Indian Army posted in Bengdubi, a strategic outpost, has been witness to many such accidents. He dismisses my queries with the nonchalance characteristic of an institution that equates death with martyrdom. It’s common, he says, to fall when you are learning to ride a cycle. In this case, the pilot just falls from the sky. That is the armyman speaking.  In April this year, just to take one of those rare instances when it was mentioned in the media, four Indian Army personnel were killed in a Dhruv helicopter crash in north Sikkim near the Sino-Indian border. It was an ALH (Advanced Light Helicopter) and was flying at about 15,000 feet near north Sikkim. Dhruv, unlike the Pawan Hans fleet, is an indigenously developed helicopter that the Indian Army and Air Force have been using for nearly a decade. Five accidents in the past six years, three of them while performing or rehearsing aerobatic displays at the Vayu Shakti performances—these are only the ones ‘reported’ by the Army. One can only wonder how many of our men in uniform become martyrs to ‘technical snags’ in flying machines, lost in the logbooks of helicopter history.

Determined to dare the near blackout of these incidents in media and to find every scrap of available information, I google ‘helicopters Assam’. What appears, instantly, is not information on the loss of lives but an article with the title ‘Helicopter campaign kicks off in Assam’. This is not, as I’m first led to believe, a campaign for better air transport facilities in the Northeast but the use of helicopters for the recent Assam election campaign. It is telling that the news report appears at almost the same time as the spate of crashes, but no one seems interested enough to notice, or care. It’s also curious, given that the present Nehru-Gandhi family has gone overboard taking up Rajiv Gandhi’s two-decade-old blueprint for the nation, that token visits to ‘Dalit’ households seem more important than the overhaul of air services in this strategically important part of the country. As a friend said, “Surely, this could be expected from the wife of a pilot!” Not to forget, of course, the death of Sanjay Gandhi in an aircrash.

The chain of events that follows a Pawan Hans crash is fairly routine. First speculation, combined with finger-pointing at the machine: “It must have been the Russian-made Mi172 helicopter.” Then that pithy one-liner: it “turned into a ball of fire before crashing near the helipad, located at an altitude of 11,000 feet, and then rolled into a 15-metre gorge”. Or, if one of the passengers happens to be a VIP, “About 3,000 personnel from the Army, SSB, ITBP, National Disaster Response Force, along with the state police and local people, had been conducting ground searches in five probable locations… Isro and the Air Force were also roped in.” All postmortem depression. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation orders a probe and suspends further helicopter operations on the route. Conspiracy theories fly for a day or half. And, of course, it is easier to blame it on the machine.

Pawan Hans began operating under the Helicopter Corporation of India from 15 October 1985, soon after pilot-PM Rajiv Gandhi took charge of the country. Its primary objectives were to help the oil sector and promote tourism in remote areas. Though it began as a government enterprise where the State held 78.5 per cent, the rest being owned by ONGC, the latter has recently upped that to 49 per cent, a move that has unfortunately not brought any change to the uncertain destinies of those who choose to avail of its services. Its ISO 9001 certification, the first for a certified Indian aviation company, too seems like a practical joke. Its fleet of helicopters include Dauphins, ‘Mi’s and Bells, but none of this seems to have prevented the frequency of its crashes in the Northeast, a part of the country that continues to be landlocked and is thus most in need of its operations.

Pawan Hans also offers, in what must be a new coinage, ‘heli-pilgrimage tourism’ to Kedarnath, Amarnath and Vaishnodevi. Pilgrims thrill at the God’s-eye-view, as do tourists on the ‘sea plane’ in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Must be God’s grace that has prevented any accidents on this route. After all, it’s a bit difficult to hop on to a chopper run by a company whose website, quite frequently, has a running link on ‘Informa- tion on Missing Helicopter’ in its Press Release. Emails to all accounts listed on the Pawan Hans website bounced. And no one answered the phone in any of their offices, except the corporate office in Noida—where chairman cum managing director RK Tyagi works—where someone took the call but did not respond. The ‘Delivery Failed’ notice that accompanies ‘bounced’ mail perhaps says something about the company’s inability to reliably deliver man or mail.

Aviation experts blame most of these accidents on helicopter-unfriendly weather. Wind speeds can often be fatally high, and added to that is the unpredictability of the weather in these areas. Would an airplane do better? Yes, says an aviation expert from the defence services on condition of anonymity, but airports and associated infrastructure would cost, and the Centre, despite all the noises to ‘Look NorthEast’, will not go down that road. Also, the airline sector might not be able to earn sufficient revenues—given the low population density and per capita income in these parts—to keep up services. 

What I also gather from sources in the Indian Army are hushed rumours that “many of these accidents could be China’s doing”. An officer suggests that the recent crash in which the Arunachal Chief Minister was killed was initially thought to be a case of air hijacking by China (and hence the early search operations in Bhutan) given that Khandu had vowed closer ties with “India”, a gesture whose reciprocal acknowledgement was visible in the presence of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram at his funeral.

In a television report on recent helicopter crashes in the Northeast, anchor Rajdeep Sardesai asked: “Are Pawan Hans choppers flying coffins?” The question was rhetorical, clearly, and it stopped short of asking why Death by Air should continue to be a way of life in India’s Northeast.

Sumana Roy’s first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. She is working on a collection of stories about clothes, tentatively titled SML