Saturday, May 29, 2010

Politicians, IAS cannot fly planes

Details of the Mangalore airport catastrophe make heart-rending reading. A split-second error – then horror. But one factor has received only passing attention, yet it is a central factor: In the civil aviation sector the south of India is grossly discriminated against. Equipment is inadequate, regulatory mechanisms virtually absent and services exploitative.

Not that local politicians can be absolved of responsibility. The present location in Mangalore was chosen because of the political pressure exerted by the local MP in the 1940-50s. The site technical experts preferred was a flat land nearer Udupi, two kilometers from the sea. Politicians discarded this and chose Bajpe where the runway area on top of the cliff plunges at the edges to valleys upto 300 feet below. Kozhikode also has a table-top, wirepulled by politicians and their land mafia cronies. In Bangalore itself Devanahalli was not the best choice available. It was very fertile land and a source of water for Bangalore. Whitefield or Bidadi would have made better sense. But political-real estate interests prevailed.

Once these sites were selected, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had its mandatory functions to perform. This is where lapses crept in. Among top priorities is a regulatory system that keeps an eye on safety-related problems. The DGCA’s South Zone has “no proper regulatory system in place”, as an unnamed senior official told Deccan Herald. He mentioned in particular “poor monitoring of airlines, improper and inadequate training, below-par aerodrome surveillance and lack of manpower” as the consequence of DGCA’s “stepmotherly treatment” of the South Zone’s air safety division.

Mangalore airport does not have a Precision Approach Radar, essential to alert the pilot if he is not properly aligned to the glide path. In 2006 the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s safety audit confirmed that the South Zone had lagged behind on air safety.

The neglect on the technical front is multiplied on the service front where the carrier comes in direct contact with the passengers. Air-India/Indian Airlines is a habitual offender in this area. Typical was the callous way in which they made relatives of the Mangalore crash victims wait at Dubai airport for more than a day before ferrying them to the accident site. This attitude of arrogance and disinterestedness routinely faced passengers from our West Coast to the Gulf and back. The bulk of these passengers are from the “working class”. Although they are a mainstay of the coastal community’s as well as the airline’s economy, our national carriers treat them as less than economy class.

There are also well-founded arguments that private airlines bribe government airlines (never the other way round) to make the latter’s aircraft and flight timings unattractive to passengers. Aircraft serving Mangalore-Kerala sectors from the Gulf usually has economy class capacity for 125 or less. These fly full. But aircraft serving Mumbai and Delhi have more than 150 economy seats and usually go from 30% to 40% empty. Our national carriers also have the most inconvenient departure and arrival timings which directly drive passengers into the waiting laps of Jet, Kingfisher and various Arab carriers.

This happens because AI-IA is run like a government department. Typical bureaucratic lack of accountability covers the airline from top to bottom. The minister’s daughter could simply pull her weight, cancel a scheduled passenger flight and divert it as a charter for the IPL where she was a paid employee. And what was the Minister’s response? “She is a little girl,” said Praful Patel. IAS managing directors have been equally irresponsible. One of them, after retirement, is said to have started a private recruitment company supplying foreign pilots to Indian airlines. He is not concerned with foreign pilots’ language problems with airtransport controllers, a major safety hazard. What concerns him is the profit he can make. Our national carriers will have no future unless they are saved from the clutches of politicians and bureaucrats.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Karnataka: Will Congress survive?

In politics as in human affairs tragedies get noticed only after they reach an advanced stage. The tragedy of the Congress Party in Karnataka has advanced quite far, but apparently it is yet to catch the attention of the High Command which, in the Congress dispensation, must get involved for anything to happen in the party.

In the 2009 election it was clear to every citizen that the Congress would get nowhere. It got nowhere. In this year’s Bangalore municipal elections, too, it was clear to all that the Congress would come a cropper. It came a cropper. The public in Karnataka is hardly aware of the Congress being around. The only sign of life in the party is when Working President Shiv Kumar reaches his birthday and posters appear in Bangalore wishing him many happy returns. For every sycophant who puts up a flexboard, the neta and his party will be driving away a hundred disgusted voters. The first thing the Congress should do if it ever wants to revive itself is to ban birthday posters.

Even non-Congress people would welcome a revival because the absence of an opposition has given the ruling BJP delusions of grandeur. Pramod Mutalik runs a rent-a-riot business and Government does nothing. Sitting ministers carry on with their commercial business openly and brazenly. And theirs is a business selling the state’s natural resources. Never was a conflict of interest so defiantly sustained in any state. Yet the Chief Minister and the BJP are unable to restrain the Bellary ministers because it’s their money that keeps them in power. This is money politics at its crudest and there is no meaningful opposition to check it.

The Congress of course has no one to blame but itself for its fall. Its basic problem is that it promotes leaders with small minds who spend their lifetime manoeuvring for positions they are not equipped for. They may succeed here and there, but they are always empty victories. There were leading Congressmen who upstaged S.M.Krishna when he made himself available for the party in the last elections. It didn’t hurt Krishna. It hurt the Congress.

Today the Congress has a state leadership which has virtually zero credibility. Election after election, this has been proved, but neither they nor their High Command learn any lesson. The aforesaid Shiv Kumar called a press conference to say he failed. He failed more than once, and he will fail again because his image is against him. So why doesn’t he do a favour to his party by calling it a day? The other President, Deshpande, can also likewise oblige his party, having done nothing so far to earn people’s trust. The Congress cannot even begin to make a comeback unless it finds the courage to think out of the box and restructure itself.

The High Command, spearheaded by the energetic Rahul Gandhi, has been making a case for young leaders to come forward. Some young leaders came forward in Karnataka in the last elections and they commanded attention. Why doesn’t the High Command hand responsibility to credible young people like Krishna Byregowda? Why doesn’t it give leadership to the few senior leaders still left with some believability – Siddaramaiah, Dr. Parameswhar, B.L.Shankar? If something bold is not done, the Congress in Karnataka will become like the Congress in Tamil Nadu.

The famous Churchill speech is relevant here. Recalling his visit to the Barnum Circus as a child, he said: “ The exhibit I most desired to see was described as the Boneless Wonder. My parents judged that the spectacle would be too revolting for my youthful eye, and I have waited 50 years to see the Boneless Wonder – sitting on the Treasury Bench”.

Churchill was referring to Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald’s treasury bench, not the hallowed benches in the Congress headquarters in Bangalore. For that relief, much thanks.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Caligula cripples cricket

It will be a pity if Lalit Modi gets off the hook on legalistic technicalities. That’s what he is trying to do. And our country has a long history of dubious characters getting off the hook on one technicality or another. Take your pick from a host of “VIPs” ranging from Ottavio Quattrochi to Dawood Ibrahim.

No technicality can hide facts that stare everyone in the face – that IPL was a money game, not a cricket game, that obscenely huge amounts characterised all its billings, from hundreds of millions of dollars for a team ownership to 40,000 plus rupees for a match ticket, that betting and insider trading flourished in the culture singlehandedly promoted by Modi, that moneys were invested by arms dealers and smugglers and offshore black-money barons through shell companies.

Much of this took place under the nose of a brazen, defiant Modi and a brazenly unseeing, unhearing establishment. Which is another aspect of this scandal that needs to be looked into. Yes, this man was an over-wrought, badly brought-up, spoiled character who, because he was born with a jewel-encrusted golden spoon in his mouth, thought that he was his own law and his own universe. But even such a one-man Caligula could not have done all that he did without his immediate “colleagues” knowing what was going on.

What indeed was going on among these colleagues, especially the BCCI and the so-called Governing Council consisting of some of cricket’s most celebrated stars? The first and foremost crime of these bodies was their secrecy. Playing with public money and public emotions, there should have been a system that enforced at least a modicum of transparency on them. But their only system was mounavrit. Was this because they were scared of Caligula, or was it because Caligula was generous with his loot?

The income tax and enforcement authorities have already unearthed some of the answers to such questions. If their inquiries are allowed to proceed unhindered, we will get all the answers and our cricket stables can at last been cleared of the muck they have gathered over the years. But, again, our record does not give us much hope. Inquiries get slowed down, forgotten or even sidetracked to suit the political convenience of the moment. Cricket is the most political game in the country, with ranking politicians like Sharad Pawar and Arun Jaitley at the helm. (What is a card-carrying BJP leader doing here? Was there Vedic Cricket on the banks of the Saraswathi?) The earlier politicians are banished from sports organisations, the better for sports and for the country.

The irony is that, even as BCCI played the game of the three wise monkeys, IPL’s corrupt ways had attracted attention abroad. The International Cricket Council’s ACSU (anti-corruption and security unit) told the ICC Board on the eve of IPL 2 in South Africa: “IPL brings with it the biggest threat in terms of corruption in the game since the days of cricket in Sharjah”.

What was BCCI’s response? Mounavrit. What was the Governing Council’s response? Mounavrit. What was Lalit Modi’s response? Ban ACSU from IPL in South Africa. Under pressure, he later allowed some ACSU officials to be present at the matches but subject to various conditions he imposed.

Two things are obvious about the man with the jewel-encrusted golden spoon. One, he will do things his way from adopting the dubious business model of speculative valuation to changing bid rules arbitrarily to help his buddies and relatives. If anybody cries foul, he will simply excommunicate them, simple.

Lalit Modi is not a man. He is an idea. He is a pernicious idea that has already destroyed cricket as well as India’s fair name in the global arena of sport. To let this man and his idea off the hook will be to keep India permanently swinging on the hook.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why we won’t learn from New York

The world will applaud the way America defeated the New York bombing attempt. Luck of course plays a part in such matters. But in this case no one can deny the skill and the professionalism with which the investigators proceeded until they got their man in dramatic style.

Luck came in the form of a footpath vendor who noticed smoke inside a parked van. It was lucky, too, that he was a Vietnam war veteran who had a fair idea of smokes and fires. It also happened that a mounted police officer was close by. The officer called the bomb squad which arrived within half an hour and defused the bomb with a robot.

Times Square is the busiest urban spot in the world. In such a location the police managed to clear the area of people. Broadway, the famous theatre district, is in this spot. Police detectives stopped the performances that were going on in two theatres, went on to the stage and asked the audience whether anyone had seen a man moving away form the van. Such thoroughness paid off and they finally tracked the previous owner of the van and the man who had driven it to Times Square with the smoking stuff inside.

The man had removed the vehicle’s identification number from the dashboard. But the number was also on the engine and a cop went under the van to find it. FBI is said to keep a vast database. One of the categories in the database is US residents who spend longish periods in Pakistan. In all probability Faisal Shahzad’s name was on that list, as he had spent about five months in Waziristan.

Once their checking and cross-checking had identified the suspect, the FBI’s interest was to catch him. At this point they lost track of him and it must have been another thorough, high-speed cross-checking that led them to the Emirates flight at the JFK airport. The aircraft had closed its doors for departure. In the nick of time, the FBI boarded the aircraft and took charge of their man.

There is a great deal for a terror-threatened country like India to learn from this episode in New York. Almost certainly, we won’t learn anything. Our political culture is different with individual and group interests taking precedence over the national interest.

As we know today, the 26/11 attack in Mumbai could have been prevented. On 18/11 our intelligence community received information from the US that a suspicious craft had left Pakistani waters and was heading towards the Maharashtra coast. They even provided the exact coordinates of the vessel to pinpoint its location. The agencies that received this information did not share it with the Maharashtra police or the Western Naval Command. Why?

Even more clinchingly, 35 mobile phone numbers were passed on to the Intelligence Bureau five days before the attack. These were phones in possession of the terrorists and their handlers. By tracking them, we could have got real-time information. But the intelligence bosses did nothing. Why?

These are questions the National Security Advisor of the time should have addressed. But M. K. Narayanan was a political person. When political calculations prevail, professionalism of the kind we saw in New York is too much to expect.

Circumstantial evidence gives some credence to the sensational theories former Maharashtra Inspector General of Police S.M. Mushrif spelt out in his book Who Killed Karkare? His answer is that the Pakistani terrorists carried out only the Taj-Oberoi-Trident attacks. The train terminus-Cama hospital attack was organised by India’s own sleuths in order to eliminate Hemant Karkare, the anti-terrorism squad chief who had unearthed uncomfortable facts about “Hindu terrorism”. Mushrif betrays an Islamic bias and thereby weakens his case. But the many questions he has raised call for answers. And no answers have come.