HUMANITY NEEDS MUCH MORE THAN JUST THUNBERGING…

According to several indicators such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels, reduction of forest cover, depletion of the ozone layer, overconsumption of ground water, unprecedentedly high air and water pollution, oceans choked by plastic, global warming and climate change, we seem to be on a high-speed roller-coaster ride towards an environmental holocaust, that could occur sooner than later. However laudable the “How Dare You?” rhetoric of Greta Thunberg at the UNGA meet may have been, sloganeering and talk have their limitations in shaking the conscience of those who can make a difference at the global level. At that level, it is a faceoff between the insatiable greed of nations and enlightened world governance. There are no prizes for guessing which of the two is winning hands down at this moment in history. Can the tables turn? Yes. Will the tables turn? Not until you and I want it to happen.

We are an emotional species. We get carried away by catchy phrases like “we have borrowed this Earth from our children” and “How Dare You?” We feel satisfied organising essay competitions, walks and runs to ‘Save the Planet’. The photographs look good in glossy reports generated to drug some bigwig into an artificial sense of achievement, force a misplaced belief that lots of good work is happening and that ‘All is Well’. Precious little is happening and Sir, ‘All is Certainly Not Well.” We need to alter our understanding about ‘Saving the Planet’ and for a moment, take a look at Humanity from the Planet’s perspective. The Earth has been around for approximately 4.5 billion years and may continue to exist for another 4.5 billion, maybe more. Species have come and gone and Humanity as we know it, has been around for barely 10000 years. So much for resilience of the Planet vis-a-vis Humanity. It may be more sobering to view the future through the prism of ‘Saving Humanity from Itself’ rather than ‘Saving the Planet’. The Planet will surely outlive humans. It is Humanity that is in the self-destruct mode. We have a choice – make a U-turn or continue hurtling towards an assured wipeout.

This is a call to Action. Do not depend on world or national leaders – politics has no sentiment and political statements are more often than not, for optics and short-term gains. Who cares about what happens to the world in 50 years when political uncertainty recurs every 5 years or even less? Global statements, national aims and local objectives are impossible to align and therefore a top-down approach is destined to fail. In the rarified atmosphere of global or even national leadership, there is too much political stake for the global or national good to prevail over narrower vested interests. The answer to my mind lies in shaking our conscience at the individual and local levels and act in every possible way to reclaim our environment in the manner that Nature had designed. Lesser individuals and organisations have little to lose politically or economically and will only gain incrementally with every small action to preserve or restore environmental normals. The collective gains could be substantial. Hopefully, this bottom-up approach would help galvanise public opinion in increasing concentric circles for better sense to eventually prevail and proliferate. Let us therefore reduce consumption, save water, food and resources, recycle waste, shun plastics, turn to Nature for advice on what to correct and very importantly, choose our public representatives carefully – pick those who share our belief that Humanity must be saved from itself.

Prophetic were the words of the Mahatma when he famously said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed”. This greed has brought us to where we stand today – looking at a disaster of unimaginable proportions in the face. If our individual and collective consciences do not awaken from their deep slumber and we continue to act in such hopeless greed, nothing can stop the extinction of Homo Sapiens from Planet Earth.

THINK PURPLE…TALK PURPLE…ACT PURPLE

The ‘big bang’ announcement has finally been made from the ramparts of the Red Fort by none other than the Indian Prime Minister on the Republic’s 73rd Independence Day. The need for a CDS and greater synergy among the armed forces has been brought out by several high-level committees in the past. The findings of these committees, in the words of the Prime Minister, had “unnees bees ka farak” or were hardly any different from each other. In other words, all said the same thing – get real about improving synergy. Finally, the Indian Armed Forces will have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Not surprisingly, tongues have started wagging. These wagging tongues have spilled over to social media and various reactions are pouring in. Not only are many of these reactions ill-informed, some are outrightly vicious and divisive.

A brief lesson for the uninitiated will be in order. The armed forces exist, not to fight war but to preserve peace. If you have strong armed forces, the deterrence they provide is likely to avoid conflict. Should deterrence fail, the armed forces must fight and win convincingly. The three armed forces, namely, the Army, Navy and Air Force have their core strengths and capabilities. They also have their limitations. Whatever these may be, together they are required to deliver results for the people of India across the spectrum of conflict – from humanitarian relief at one end to high-end armed conflict at the other. Individually, each service may not be able to achieve this but jointly, they most definitely can. The synergy to achieve this is what one means by ‘jointness’, a term that is not very clearly comprehended across much of civil society.

The colour of jointness is ‘Purple’. Not by any wild stretch of imagination but created out of a combination of red (Army), navy blue (Navy) and sky blue (Air Force) that come together to reveal an unique shade of purple. Therefore, the credo of an effectively joint force should be ‘Think Purple, Talk Purple, Act Purple’. Converted to layman terms, this would mean joint planning, a joint lexicon (and hence a joint understanding) and joint execution of operations. Would this be achieved by appointing a CDS? Not just yet. It may be just the first big step to usher in an organisational transformation that will enable its achievement within a reasonable time-frame. The CDS, from whichever service he may be, will be a ‘Purpleman’ and hopefully will have the vision and focus to drive this transformation in a transparent and non-partisan manner. We have no reason to think otherwise.

Synergy of effort in equipment procurement and core warfare areas that easily lend themselves to ‘jointness’ have already been set into motion with the Integrated Defence Staff coordinating all capital procurements and the setting up of three separate agencies dealing with Space, Cyber and Special Operations. There are also positive moves towards joint logistics and training. The CDS will now oversee all these aspects and that itself will provide more muscle in taking these initiatives forward. The Andaman and Nicobar Command is already joint and the CDS will have his task cut out to obtain assets from all three services to augment force levels there in order to enhance its effectiveness as our eastern-most Command, at the mouth of the Malacca Strait. Being the first among equals, he will also have adequate authority to move and shake all other matters from a ‘joint perspective’. The opportunities for jointness are enormous, ranging from operations, capability planning, acquisitions, technology development, testing and so much more, with the potential of significant savings in effort and cost. As the transformation unfolds, it remains to be seen how the roles of the CDS and the individual Service Chiefs change in execution of India’s military strategy.

Several opinions that paint the issue in an adversarial light between the armed forces and the bureaucracy may be read in this backdrop. I am sure that we have the maturity and foresight not to allow petty considerations derail the larger vision. That said, there is also the need for sanity to prevail while effecting this transformation. It will require among other things, downsizing in some areas, giving up turfs in others, thinking through the concept of Integrated Theatre Commands and how best these can be organised in the Indian context. There are several examples available world-wide but developing an India-centric model that will serve our national interests best will be a fine balance of several components to create an integrated whole. It will be akin to conducting a symphonic orchestra ensemble, which we hope will play in perfect harmony.

The conductor has raised his baton – let the music begin…

SHOCK AND AWE IN PARADISE…

Social media is abuzz about the developments in Jammu and Kashmir. From serious political comment to flippant jokes, the news breaking over the future of the once geographical entity called the State of Jammu and Kashmir has created ‘shock and awe’ – I daresay, more awe than shock. Shocked as everyone is, people across the national and international spectrum cannot but admire the guts of the political executive of the Republic of India for taking steps which were till today, the equivalent of assured political hara-kiri. The timing has also been perfect. Riding the wave of pro-incumbency, this big-bang decision has been a responsible gamble. I say this because the government has a full five-year term to stabilise the situation and claim its fame in the annals of Indian history for addressing a vexed problem that defied resolution for over seven decades.

Without crystal-gazing or going into historical, political or legal discourse, I propose to outline a few striking features of this bold move from the perspective of a citizen. The polity of India returned a government to power with a thumping majority. Of what use is a thumping majority if big decisions are not taken? There is no need for any majority if we are happy to cruise along with toothless coalitions, mindless consensus and frustrating status quo. Not this time. Firstly, the status quo, the alteration of which was even a taboo in discussion has not just been disturbed but completely re-engineered. If this was a crying need for national cohesion, then the popular mandate has been forcefully utilised. We, the people, have given our representatives this mandate.

Secondly, the timing has been responsible. If there has been any miscalculation, the government has a full five years to press the ‘reset’ button. If there has not been any, it still has a full five years to consolidate and bring normalcy back to the troubled region – people who swear by the ideals of their beloved, lost Kashmiriyat will rejoice at the chance that this provides to restore the Paradise on Earth. The homeless will hope to return. The jobless will aspire to earn a living without resorting to the gun. Children will perhaps outlive their mothers if peace returns. We, the people, must expect no less.

Thirdly, the preparation has been worthy of unqualified commendation. Not only has security of citizens been ensured, the surprise element has been stunning. Despite warnings from several quarters about the disastrous fallout of drastic political changes in Jammu and Kashmir, not a drop of blood has been shed – this by itself is a superlative achievement. It is not a miracle by any stretch of imagination. It was a result outstanding preparation to deal with any blow-back, no matter what. This included deft political signalling and excellent strategic communication – adequate clarity that something serious was afoot but ambiguous of what exactly was brewing. Definitely sound strategy. We, the people, must believe in those we have entrusted the responsibility of governance.

Fourthly, there has been a demonstrated will and ability to find a solution to such a vexed problem. So far, open source discussion revolved around abrogation of Article 370 but not much of what was the alternative in its place. The current formulation has pulled the carpet from beneath the feet of those who never envisioned anything beyond the status quo. What after abrogation of Article 370? The proposed solution is not a shot in the dark. It is proof that adequate thought and strategising has gone into this move. It is a solution – only time will tell whether it is the best solution. That a plan has been thought out beforehand is by itself reassuring. We, the people, must hope that a lasting solution is found for peace to return to the region.

Finally, we will do well to remember that nobody will solve our problems. No United Nations, no superpower, no divine intervention. We have to be the architects of our own destiny. In the words of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, “Jodi tor dak shune keu naa ashey, tobey ekla cholo re” – If nobody heeds your call, walk alone. We, the people, have the power and confidence to walk alone.

May the apples blossom, may the birds chirp in the Chinars, may tourist-filled shikaras glide silently through the serene waters of the Dal Lake and may holidaying in Paradise become a reality once again. We, the people, must harbour this hope in our hearts.   

OF WARSHIPS AND MUSEUMS…

Of late, there have been writings in the social media expressing dismay and anguish over the decision to scrap INS Viraat, the aircraft carrier that was decommissioned in 2016 after 29 years in service in the Indian Navy. Prior to her flying the Indian Naval Ensign, she had served the Royal Navy for 25 years, her last operational mission as the Royal Navy’s Flagship during the historic 1982 Falklands War. At the time of her decommissioning, she was the oldest operational aircraft carrier in the world, having been commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1959. She was rested at the ripe old age of 57, well beyond average mortality of any grey hull around the world. The life of any warship is typically 25 to 30 years, aircraft carriers a little more – but 57 is long by any standard.

The intention of recounting this brief history of Viraat is anything but historical. The older a warship gets, the resources spent on its maintenance increase exponentially. The chances of failure including breaches in hull integrity become more frequent and unpredictable. There comes a time when it is no longer prudent to keep her going and she is then paid off with all ceremony. It is therefore no surprise that most ships are scrapped as they ought to be. Some warships are retained as targets and eventually sunk far out at sea as a result of practice weapon firings. Worldwide, only four aircraft carriers have become museums. Three of these are in the United States. They are the USS Intrepid in New York City, the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant and the USS Midway in San Diego. One former Soviet (later Russian) carrier, Minsk, was redesigned by China as a tourist attraction. There are several warship museums around the world but almost all of them are in the USA, UK, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea. Any guesses why? You got it – money!!!

While it is perfectly okay to get emotional, decry our supposedly appalling sense of heritage and bash governments and officials for allowing a piece of glorious history to be consigned to ship-breakers at Alang, the basic question is ‘where is the money?’ A project to convert Viraat into a museum would, according to conservative estimates, cost in excess of Rs 1000 crores. Besides, its running costs would be exorbitantly high depending on the scale and scope of the project. Recovery of such costs through revenue generation, if at all feasible, could take decades. Not surprisingly, there are no takers despite the decommissioned ship being offered to prospective state governments free of cost. Our national priorities could well be different – we need to choose between directing resources towards other important socio-economic imperatives and creating an aircraft carrier museum at an astronomical cost.

Sharing of expenditure between the Centre and the State that bids to take on the project is another vexed issue. Each wants the other to provide maximum financial assistance as nobody wishes to commit substantial resources due to competing demands. Private entities do not see business sense in such a large investment where the returns could be low and slow. There was also a suggestion of sinking the carrier in relatively shallow waters, perhaps in the Andamans, to create a tourism-oriented dive site. However, no further details are available in the open domain in pursuance of such a proposal. This, however, runs the risk of running into a wall with regard to environmental clearances. The amount of toxic material within an aircraft carrier hull is considerable and getting that removed for her to be fit for use as an underwater diving habitat would be a challenge – but perhaps doable.

Whether we do have a sense of history or not, we certainly don’t seem to learn from history. INS Vikrant held up premium berthing space at Naval Dockyard, Mumbai, depriving other front line warships of berths and at much cost to the exchequer just to keep her afloat, while museum deliberations continued without any finality. The ship was eventually scrapped in 2014 with the intervention of the Supreme Court, seventeen long years after her decommissioning in 1997 amid cries of ‘Vikrant Bachao’ from an impassioned veteran naval community. A small portion of the ship was converted into artwork and now stands ‘in memoriam’ outside the Lion Gate at Colaba in Mumbai. Part of the steel was nominally used to produce a limited edition of a Bajaj motorcycle. This is a fairly good solution. Preserve a manageable small portion of the ship at a suitable location as a token of remembrance. This would assuage emotions while accepting economic realities of the day.

And for those of us who wish to see warships transformed into museums, shouting from rooftops will not help. Let us find a way to realise this through dialogue with interested parties, influence groups and governments. Otherwise, let us respect informed decision-making and bid the old ladies a fond adieu.

THE FAWNING FAUJI, SELECTIVE AMNESIA AND THE VIOLATED ‘NORMAL’

The much discussed message of the new Navy Chief outlining norms of behaviour and conduct expected from his force is just that – a message of expectation and intent from a Service Chief on assuming charge. Besides being a vehicle of communication, the message is a mentoring guide to serve as a reminder of what has always been the ‘normal’ and still continues to be, for the large majority of people in white.

          Readers are quick to draw interesting conclusions and make judgements on the way people in uniform are ‘behaving these days’. These tend to make sweeping generalisations of behaviour and by extension, of character. Regrettably, there have been instances of ‘deviant’ behaviour that may have come to be regarded by some others as ‘acceptable’ and therefore, this timely message from the Chief red-flags certain deviations. This, however, should not be interpreted to infer that such deviations are rampant and to use a new-age cliché, they are certainly not the ‘new normal’.

          “Stop Fawning, Needless Ceremony…” The media really knows how to point people in a direction that shapes opinion even before the unsuspecting reader has had a chance to read the first sentence. But a discussion is welcome. There cannot be smoke without fire. The question that begs answering is ‘Why do such deviations happen?’ ‘And what happens when they do happen?’ Honest answers to these questions will place the debate in perspective and reduce chances of ‘branding’ faujis as a ‘fawning set of people’, eager to please the brass.

          That the rank and file has been reminded of the proper social and ceremonial practices to be followed in the force is not new. Reminders are necessary as people change and times change; whereas defence forces are judged against more idealistic standards of behaviour and conduct than what is common practice in the civilian world. What is new is that this message has ‘leaked’ to the media in today’s age of pervasive media and the ease with which information flows at the tap of a screen. Any morsel of information today can become ‘breaking news’ and if such news can be given a controversial spin, the more its ‘newsworthiness’. Therefore, here we have a section of people concluding that the norms of Naval conduct have gone to such dismal depths that requires the Navy Chief to ask officers and men to behave or else…

          A reality check does indicate infrequent instances of personal conduct of individuals deviating from the normal. The majority of such instances are ‘seen through’ by discerning juniors and perceptive seniors. But if a person in a senior leadership position does not walk his talk, the junior often is left with just two options – bear it in frustrated silence or raise a fuss and kiss his prospects goodbye. It is easy to preach that unethical or incorrect conduct must not be tolerated but faced with this rather unpleasant choice, there are no prizes for guessing what a junior would do.

          The responsibility of ensuring correct practices lies squarely on the senior leadership. They have to walk the talk and create mechanisms to institutionalise these practices. Poor examples in the past have been the result of a feeling of ‘entitlement’ just by virtue of attaining a rank or position, heavily inflated egos, playing favourites or encouraging coteries, exercising undue interference over staff processes, a sense of self-aggrandisement where special treatment is demanded, senior officers’ wives often wielding a lot more influence over matters that should not even concern them and similar reasons – mostly to do with the exercise of power, influence and authority.       

  The fact that the majority of juniors are either not directly concerned with any misdemeanour at senior ranks, as well their preferred choice of silence and compliance also makes them complicit in deviation from norms. It is also entirely possible that grooming and mentoring of juniors on appropriate conduct needs improvement so that they can discern deviations and represent to their immediate senior. A system of ethical fearlessness and transparency is the call of the times. The onus is clearly on the top brass to set examples of propriety and demand the same from every individual down the line. Senior officers cannot afford to suffer selective amnesia and forget norms of conduct that they expect their subordinates to follow. They have to walk the talk and motivate subordinates to follow them through personal example. This is the only way that violated normals will be restored.

INK YOUR INDEX FINGER, SOLDIER…

The Right to Vote, though not a Fundamental Right, is a Constitutional Right of every citizen guaranteed under Article 326 of the Indian Constitution. This right ought to be exercised by every responsible Indian citizen above the age of 18 as it provides the opportunity to choose representatives who will govern us as a nation and a state – we can therefore enjoy the benefits of good choices and suffer the consequences of bad ones. Sometimes, of course, none of the alternatives available may meet our aspirations or approval in which case one can exercise the ‘None of the above’ or NOTA option. The efficacy of such a choice is however, debatable but we will leave that discussion for another day.

My focus today is to urge every soldier to make his or her vote count. The right to vote is fortunately one of the rights a soldier still enjoys despite several other curbs on rights and freedoms. The Government on its part has made tremendous efforts to ensure that every citizen including all our soldiers, sailors and air warriors are able to exercise their franchise. However, one is not sure how seriously the soldiers are taking themselves on this count. There is a commonly held notion within and outside the uniformed establishment that the functioning of the armed forces is ‘Government-independent’ – and hence, the general indifference towards voting among soldiers is understandable to a degree. However, it has also created a widely held impression that the armed forces do not matter in electoral politics. It is nobody’s fault. It has just been that way and nothing could be farther from the truth. 

Some basic statistics will place the matter in perspective. It is estimated that India’s General Elections 2019 will have about 900 million Indians in the electoral rolls. The Indian armed forces are about 1.4 million strong. If approximately 50% of them are married, that takes the number to about 2.1 million. Add a few more dependents who are eligible to vote and we are looking at a number of about 2.5 million, give or take a few thousands. In overall terms, it is 0.0028 per cent of the entire electorate and that is why neither the political wannabes nor the soldiers themselves think that they are important in the electoral calculations. The voting populations of Lok Sabha constituencies vary from about 47000 to 31 lakhs across India. Vidhan Sabha constituencies are much smaller. For example, Pune has 4 Lok Sabha constituencies but 33 Vidhan Sabha constituencies. It is obvious that smaller numbers of votes can matter significantly in smaller constituencies whereas larger constituencies need larger numbers to influence outcomes.

However, numbers by themselves tell an incomplete story. The armed forces are located either in concentrated areas in fairly large numbers or in smaller towns and cities where their presence in comparison to the local population can easily make a dent on electoral outcomes. For example, in cantonment areas, the armed forces will have numbers that local MLA aspirants simply cannot ignore. Similarly, in large stations or in smaller constituencies of far flung areas, soldiers can play a significant role in determining poll verdicts. This potential has not been realised so far for several reasons, which are thankfully being addressed now. However, more can be done.

The very first thing is to tell soldiers to take themselves seriously and along with all eligible family members, exercise their franchise without fail in every election. Next, each and every soldier, sailor and air warrior must register as a General Voter at his or her place of posting. This is the only way of ensuring that votes are cast physically. Registering as a Service Voter entitles the individual to a postal ballot which is procedurally somewhat cumbersome where a paper physically needs to move to the Returning Officer after a series of checks and verifications. The effectiveness of such a procedure is low. With online processing of enrolments, registering every soldier as a General Voter must be ensured within a month of each posting as a mandatory routine. There is also a need to bring the voting booth to the soldier. If this is done for the Shompens in Great Nicobar, where hardly anybody votes, there is no reason why voting by each soldier, wherever he or she is posted, cannot be positively ensured. The armed forces on their part, must ensure adequate time off is given to all on polling days so that every soldier can exercise his or her franchise. It would greatly help the cause if military voters in a particular station as well as their families and dependents are allocated just one or two constituencies where their votes could be concentrated. This would raise the stakes of both the electorate as well as the MP/MLA aspirants in ensuring growth and prosperity of the constituency.

The modern soldier is educated, tech savvy and aware of his rights and deprivations much more than his lesser interested predecessors ever were. If the right conditions are facilitated, soldiers would make informed choices based on a multitude of factors that affect their lives. The fact that they did not have decent weapons, clothing, housing, rations or were not adequately compensated for risk and hardship may well influence their decisions. More informed soldiers could well base their decisions on how well we may be doing on military readiness, procurements, civil-military relations, erosion of status vis-à-vis other government services and similar issues apart from other considerations of civil society. The soldier must become relevant in electoral mathematics.

So step out soldier – and ink your index finger!

SENIORITY AND SUPERSESSION IN PERSPECTIVE…

We are witnessing a supersession debate in public, once again over the appointment of a Service Chief designate. This is not the first time a Service Chief will be superseded and it will not be the last. But whenever this happens, a spate of reactions follow – most of which are opinions and misinformed conjectures, leaving men and women both in uniform and out of it bewildered. So what is this about seniority and supersession in a Service Chief’s appointment that makes headlines and evokes such passionate responses?

In armed forces worldwide and certainly in the Indian armed forces, seniority is sacred. This unique and important characteristic is deeply ingrained in young military minds in the process of indoctrination at boot camp academies across the armed forces, both among officers and enlisted personnel – and for very good reason.

The essential difference between the rest of society and the armed forces is that while the former live and work to realise a future where wealth and prosperity will be assured for them and their kin, the latter train to fight and lay down their lives if necessary, in the line of duty. In such a starkly contrasting life-ethos, concepts like seniority have hugely different meanings and intents. In the civil private sector, for example, life moves mostly in short spells. A typical work spell could be 3 to 5 years, when greener pastures beckon. Environments change, colleagues change and bosses change. Bottom-line finances are the only determinants of success. At the topmost echelon, the person with the highest potential to make money for the organisation being the boss is an accepted norm. In family run businesses, the owner and the inner family circle call the shots – age, sex, gender, qualification or suitability notwithstanding.

In the bureaucracy and public sector, there is a little more permanence and the organisational structure is much flatter compared to the steep pyramidal structure of the armed forces. There is assured career progression till fairly senior ranks and non-functional pay increases even if people are not promoted. There are cases where promotions are refused for other personal considerations. A government job of any description is seen as an instrument of getting through life with minimum work and maximum benefits. There is some respect for seniority but it is mostly deft writing of recruitment rules that lands people plum posts as they climb the ladder. Movement out to low visibility jobs are not uncommon when individuals fall out of favour. It is an evolved game of ‘snakes and ladders’.

In sharp contrast, the armed forces can never deliver in conflict without the utmost respect for seniority and the highest standards of professionalism. Leading men in war or conflict is not an easy task. This is not possible without unquestioning loyalty and belief of soldiers, sailors and air warriors in their superiors and an unflinching adherence to seniority as well as the command and control hierarchy. So critical is this aspect, that insubordination or mutinous behaviour in conflict or war is one of the gravest of offences attracting the severest of all punishments. It is for this reason that the armed forces hold seniority sacred.

Now comes the interesting part – the relationship between seniority and supersession. Simply put, one is senior till superseded by a junior. Every officer in the armed forces other than Service Chiefs and Commanders-in-Chief is superseded at some stage or the other. Most other three-star ranking officers superannuate at or before reaching the level of Commanders-in-Chief. At lower rungs of the pyramid, selection or supersession is based purely on demonstrated performance and here the number of officers sidelined are extraordinarily high. Rejections continue at every level till one lucky person, by some quirk of fate (his date of birth), ends up with the top job. There is hardly any fuss raised at lower levels for loss of promotions. A few officers do represent their grievance but internal mechanisms deal with them effectively and those superseded move on in life gracefully. So what is the big deal about a Service Chief contender being superseded?

There is this argument of competence or merit. The Service Chiefs are selected from a panel of the senior-most Commanders-in-Chief who have gone past stringent and intensely competitive milestones of commands, promotions, courses and challenging assignments. There should be no doubt about their individual capabilities, professional credentials or other attributes without which it is rather unlikely that they would have merited selection to head operational Commands in the first place. However, the authority of the Union Government in selecting a Service Chief is also absolute and must be respected. Having exercised this authority, the Government could consider a graceful way of informing superseded Service Chief contenders of the reasons for their supersession. Hopefully, grace would beget grace and courts would be spared the agony of intervening in the matter. More importantly, it would reaffirm faith in the rank and file as also among the public at large that offices of Service Chiefs are above politics, as they have always been. May grace prevail – now and in the future.

‘CHEAP AVIATION’ IS DANGEROUS…

As a consumer and a citizen of India, one cannot but be completely stupefied by the state of the civil aviation in the country. The ‘open skies’ policy that envisaged a vibrant growth of the industry while at the same time promising air travel to the common man has been an unqualified failure, as is clearly apparent from the sorry state of once high-flying operators. The owner of Kingfisher Airlines is a fugitive economic offender and now, Jet Airways is flying on a similar trajectory of fold-up – the reasons may well be different. Less said about the national carrier, the better – it would have been long dead and buried without the periodic CPR and oxygen administered by the Union Government.

Affordable flying is a noble intent but apparently, the business models adopted by our carriers do not seem to render operations profitable – quite the opposite. The airlines are not generating revenue to even pay the crew for months together. Trying to sustain such models will obviously push all the remaining carriers to bankruptcy, sooner than later. India is a country where the GDP per capita is in the region of $ 2000 in comparison to the richest nation in the world where it stands at $ 175000. Therefore, all these ‘Udaan’ kind of initiatives are obviously detrimental to the health of the aviation industry. Aviation is a ‘high fixed-cost’ industry and costs of aviation fuel, maintenance, lease payments, parking costs and crew remunerations are going North while at the same time, cut-throat competition is not allowing a commensurate increase in fares, resulting in a clearly unsustainable situation where air fares are often lower than premium train AC fares. Alas, realism has fallen victim to populist measures. It is well past the time when we should have increased air fares, lowered the astronomical crew salaries, curtailed overheads and strengthened other forms of transportation. Better late than never – but let us start for heaven’s sake.

Safety is intrinsic to flying and all carriers must ensure adequate assurance on this critical aspect. Though there are basic minimum standards ensured by the regulator, operators rarely if at all, invest in advanced concepts and tools that accrue cost savings in the long term. The biggest losses in any organisation do not happen due to major accidents as these are rare. Substantial losses occur due to the cumulative impact of minor incidents and ignored risks. Operational risk management may help in averting major disasters or aid in speedy recovery with minimal impact, in addition to saving costs on repairs, maintenance and compensation. Having such robustness needs concerted effort and additional funding; and aviation industry business models must factor this as an essential feature of their operational strategy. Our national regulator, DGCA, also needs to rethink its own functioning and get contemporary with a larger infusion of domain experts who can deliver on stringent aviation safety commitments.

Funding and corporate governance also seem to have their own dynamics. The Kingfisher and Jet stories appear to suggest that stakes of the promoter at the time of borrowing investment capital may be insufficient to ensure efficient operations in the long term and fails to generate profits essential for repayment of debt. With just 10% stake, it is possible to obtain 90% funding from banks. Banks lend money on projections. Who makes these projections? And what happens when such projections fail? Anyway, once the money is released, it seems like a good strategy to park this borrowed money from Indian banks abroad and buy asylum in advance as the promoter knows beforehand that default is either deliberate or inevitable. Otherwise, is it so easy to seek shelter in a foreign country? Perhaps, it is a strategy that the rich, famous and connected can pull off with ease. Further, financial matters of such proportions are rarely decided by one individual. Surely, there are Boards of Directors and Auditors without whose approval or knowledge, no major financial decisions are normally taken – and this points to their total complicity in crime. Very few business houses of stature with the capability and financial muscle to steer the growth trajectory of our country can boast of a corporate culture that is clean and transparent. Sad but true!

Coming back to the humble flyer – please do not be enamoured with cheap fares. An air ticket that costs Rs 20000 cannot be sold for Rs 2000 without compromises being made or shortcuts being taken. And evidently, that cannot be offset by selling a sandwich costing Rs 20 for Rs 200. As a general principle, if anything is too good to be true, it is either short-lived or designed for short-term gains of a handful of unscrupulous individuals. Quality and safety come at a price which airline operators and consumers ought to pay. ‘Cheap Aviation’ is dangerous – we will never know when or where the next corner will be cut. The results could be catastrophic.